Interview: Student Film Award winner Eui Yong Zong

January 7, 2015

This year’s winner of the Manulife Financial Student Film Award is Eui Yong Zong, a York University student whose 18-minute short Leftover is formally assured and thematically complex in a way that belies its modest production. Adam Nayman spoke with Yong about his film and the award:

Centering on a family of North Korean refugees living hand-to-mouth in Etobicoke – the father works at a construction site but is constantly looking out for a second job – Leftover examines issues of cultural assimilation and alienation without sacrificing drama and pathos. The title refers to the home-cooked Korean meals that 7-year old Michael refuses to eat at school, a subtle but potent marker of shame and difference that adopts a further symbolic meaning as the film progresses. Leftover’s uncanny authenticity derives from its status as a hybrid work: Zong’s cast members are not actors, and the film was built out of their real-life experiences. It’s a dynamic that’s referred to in a crucial centerpiece sequence where the characters are interviewed by a film crew – documentary enfolded within fiction – and yet where many student-age filmmakers would make a fetish of this self-reflexivity, Yong wisely underplays his own gamesmanship. One of the hopes that the TFCA has in annually rewarding student filmmakers is that the attention will guide audiences (and producers and financiers) towards worthy new talents; consider yourselves on notice and seek out Leftover if you can.

Eui Yong Zong.

Can you talk about your own background and how you ended up at York University? What motivated you to join that particular programme? Did you have a mentor there? 

I did my undergrad at University of Toronto in Middle Eastern Studies. While studying in the Middle East, I stumbled upon a documentary job for a few months. After working for a year or two after graduation, I decided to go back to film school. I’ve had phenomenal faculties who guided me throughout my time at York. For this film in particular, professor Laurence Green and Manfred Becker were instrumental in their guidance and support.

If Leftover was your final year film, how long had you been thinking of making it beforehand? Did you workshop it in class as a script, or was there an even shorter version that you expanded?

I originally thought of making it into a documentary, as my previous works were all mainly docs. Because the initial conception started from a documentary, I developed a fictional narrative around the memories and context of the family that I followed, and eventually blending the two: a hybrid of docu-fiction. From the initial conception to post-production, it took me about 7 months to complete the film.

Who were your major technical collaborators? If they were classmates, how did you come to work together?

Rodrigo Michelangeli was a cinematographer and Julian Papas was an editor in this film. I’ve just completed another short with both of them, so I guess I could officially call them my ‘collaborators’ now.  Rodrigo had already worked professionally before and out of school in Venezuela, and I was very impressed by his body of work. Julian and I are both fanatical fans of a legendary Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, and that was that was the beginning point of our friendship which then led to a collaboration as we have similar sensibilities.

 You told our member Marc Glassman that the film stars a real family that you met a few years earlier — can you talk about that initial encounter? It strikes me that Leftover is rather self-reflexive, since the characters are being interviewed within the film about their lives — it’s a documentary contained within the fiction…

I actually met them at my work few years ago, and I helped them get their status when they first settled. There was something about the emotional presence that the father character had that I was drawn into. He had a very stoic presence yet seemed to have layers of hidden emotions that were not visible on the surface. Knowing their story already, I carefully approached them with an idea of making a film together, with their real lives being central to the narrative structure.

I wonder if you know the fine Canadian children’s book The Sandwich, by Ian Wallace and Angela Wood. It’s about an Italian boy whose lunch upsets his classmates and makes him feel stigmatized… I was reminded of that idea while watching your film.

I don’t know about the book, but it sounds very similar to the kid in my film!

If Leftover has a theme, it seems to be the idea that trauma can be escaped but not necessarily ever put aside. The boy in the film hasn’t experienced it, only traces of it, and his father seems determined to protect him as best he can. The scene at the construction site where the father loses control of his bladder is powerful because for a moment, he’s like his own school-aged son – it places them on this same continuum of awkwardness and fear.

 I’ve interviewed many refugee families, and many people carried remnants of their traumatic experiences. I didn’t want to focus too much on the historical or political context explicitly, but rather these remnants of the past and memories that are found in what is deemed to be the most trivial thing in our day-to-day life, in the case of this family, it was the food- the very reason why they had to escape their country.

What was it like to direct non-professional actors?

I was initially very terrified if I would be able to pull it off. But luckily it was very easy. Because I picked the family for their natural emotional presence, they really had to just be themselves in the film, so surprisingly there wasn’t much acting direction aside from simple blockings and pacing. So I think casting is so crucial when it comes to working with non-actors. In my case, luckily, the characters just had to be themselves.

How long did it take to make the film? Where in Toronto exactly was it shot? 

The pre-production took about 6 months. That includes gaining the trust with the family and script writing. We had 5 days of shooting. And two more months of editing and sound design. A lot of the locations were shot in Etobicoke. The construction scene was shot in Milton.

Are there filmmakers whose work has been particularly important to you, Canadian or otherwise? Or if not directors, are there any particular genres or national cinemas that you gravitate towards?

I follow Kore-eda and the Dardenne Brothers. Both of whom, later I found out, came from a documentary background and later moved onto fiction. Not only do I like the themes they tackle – themes that revolves around a family – but also the emotional realness that their films seem to carry.

When he was much younger, Bruce McDonald once said he was going to use the cash prize he won at TIFF to buy a giant chunk of hash. Care to make any equally bold pronouncements?

Hash no, not now. The cash prize will help me make my next film. Maybe I’ll get a new iPhone.