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Richmond filmmakers portray complexity of immigrant life at VIFF

Richmond filmmakers will premiere a documentary about a Chinese couple's search for the truth behind their son's suicide in Canada, touching on issues of immigration and mental health.

In a cramped studio near Vancouver’s Chinatown, black and white family photos hang on a whiteboard above two computers.

The images inspire documentary filmmaker Ying Wang and film editor Lawrence Le Lam as they work almost around the clock bringing to life the heart-wrenching story of the Chinese family in those photos.

Not only are the Richmond filmmakers’ intent on doing justice to a difficult and complex narrative about immigration, mental health and family isolation, they’re also up against a tight deadline.

Their documentary will premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) on Sept. 29.

The World is Brightwill also be part of VIFF’s BC Spotlight program, which focuses on content created and produced by B.C.-based filmmakers.

The World is Brightfollows the story of an elderly Chinese couple who moved to Richmond in 2007 in search of the truth behind their son’s death in Canada in 2005. 

The Dengs, father Qian Hui and mother Li Xue Mei, arrived in Canada from Beijing to launch what became a seven-year investigation into the “mysterious” circumstances surrounding the death of their son Shi  Ming — whose name literally translates into English as The World is Bright.

In 2005, the Dengs had received the devastating news from the Chinese Consulate in Vancouver that their son had committed suicide and was burried on Canadian soil.

The parents struggled to accept that their only son would have taken his own life, and the fact they were not able to see the body before it was buried created suspicion. The long delay before the parents were informed of the death and retrieved their son’s belongings and death certificate, also made them wonder if, in fact, their son had been murdered.

Soon after the couple arrived in Richmond, they contacted then-Richmond MP Raymond Chan and a local lawyer, who together took up their cause. Their first step was to get a court order to gain access to the police file pertaining to their son’s death in Burnaby.

Through the police file, as well as the coroner’s report which revealed that Shi Ming had committed suicide by taking an overdose of antihistamine on Nov. 22, 2005 just hours after receiving a deportation order, the parents got a clearer picture of their son’s life in this country they thought held so much promise but became a site of so much grief.

The World is Brightsheds light on the invisible, yet devastating, impact of mental illness amongst immigrant populations, and what filmmaker Wang describes as the “disproportionately harsh treatment of the mentally ill within the Canadian immigration system.”

Shi Ming came to Canada as a student in 1999 and was later granted permanent resident status.

According to court reports, in 2004 he pulled a knife on someone in a bar fight and spent several months in a psychiatric ward where it was determined he had schizophrenia. 

Shi Ming went back to China for a visit twice between November 2004 and October 2005, but when he attempted to re-enter for the second time on Oct. 26, 2005, his passport was seized, and he was deemed inadmissible due to his conviction. However, he was still allowed in, temporarily, to challenge the decision.

On Nov. 22, 2005, he was ordered deported at a Citizenship and Immigration hearing. Within a few hours of that decision, Deng was found dead in his apartment. He was 33.

“Shi Ming’s tragedy brings his parents to face the reality of his life in Canada, and his mental illness, a diagnosis that they had dismissed when Shi Ming needed their support, because this topic is considered taboo in the Chinese immigrant community,” said Lam, adding that “hopefully the film can help more immigrants understand mental illness.”

The film talks about how the family navigates their relationship, family expectations, their grief, regret, culture shock and the every lives of immigrants, Wang said.

“(The documentary also) explores key motifs such as dreams, home, land, family, parent-child relationships, the meaning of love and life; The World is Bright is a compelling modern tale of our humanity.”

Challenging immigrant stereotypes

Filmmaker Wang’s own life is not unlike her subject’s. Wang moved to Canada as an international student in 1997.

Wang was a graduate student in UBC’s Asian Studies program, however, her first love was filmmaking, and she would skip class to catch films when the festival was on. But while she loved the medium, she was frustrated with the content when it came to the potrayal of the lives of new immigrants.

“As a newcomer living in this era of global migration, I want to capture the complexity of the new immigrant’s life and tackle new issues we are all facing as global citizens.”

It was with this passion for an honest exploration of migration that Wang embraced The World is Bright, which became a 12-year project.

Wang followed the Dengs when they went back to China in 2014 and travelled across Canada interviewing more than 20 experts working on the frontlines of the mental health and immigration law sectors.

Despite limited resources, Wang and her crew also created the first-ever bilingual (Mandarin and English) cover of the song  Creep, by the English alternative rock band Radiohead.

Wang’s cover version will be used at the end of the movie.

Lam joined the project in the summer of 2017. Ever since then, they have immersed themselves in the studio, editing footage captured over a decade in both Canada and China down to a 115-minute film.

Wang and Lam haven’t taken a full weekend off for the past two years, and their studio lights are usually on past midnight.

“It’s a tough process, filled with self-doubt and frustration. There are many moments that we thought we would never be able to finish it,” said Wang.

Asked if they feel confident in receiving any award at the 2019 VIFF, they replied,  “The fact this film has been accepted into VIFF is already a big surprise for us. To be able to share this powerful family story through the film is the most rewarding experience for us.”