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An interview with the director of Mermaid in the Garden of Escapism

Born in China and raised in Canada, Mao Yu Lynn Yuan is seen as a woman of multiple hats. Lynn wears her seemingly contradictory gifts in both business and the arts, having been an entrepreneur, an investor, and a creative director for over ten years before turning to a director role in the film industry. Taking films as her journeys to explore the world and the existence of individuals, Lynn's film topics revolve around gender equality, classism, and Eastern and Western cultures. Her first award-winning short, Mermaid in the Garden of Escapism (2023), pioneers the use of merging new technologies in film production by using AI (artificial intelligence) in voiceover throughout the film.

Mermaid in the Garden of Escapism (2023) is an award-winning experimental short film about a mermaid woman who experiences struggles between values in reality and finds herself in the garden of escapism away from reality. The film is humbled by its two wins and nine nominations in international film festivals, winning Best First Time Director (Short) in the Vancouver Independent Film Festival and Best Canadian Film in the Canadian Cinematography Awards.

Toronto Film Magazine: How did you start making films and what was the first film you directed?

MAO Yu Lynn Yuan: Mermaid in the Garden of Escapism (2023) is my very first film. All my technical skills in film were grounded in my past ten years as the creative director and producer of commercials and fashion films ranging from small to medium-scale projects. As well as being an entrepreneur and investor, I cross a variety of industries, including fashion, arts, lifestyle, venture capital, and more, which builds a foundation of leadership in my role as a film director. Film is like a natural happening in my life journey to explore people, nature, values, and the world around us through a female director’s vision. Making films is also like exploring and taking an in-depth look at the world we live in. The people. The values. The natures. The tangible and the intangible things. Gender equality, classism, and the Eastern and Western cultures are the topics centering around my film work.

Toronto Film Magazine: What was the inspiration behind the making of your latest short film project?

MAO Yu Lynn Yuan: The pandemic lockdown is a trigger. I’m a China-born and Canada-raised grownup. Canada is my second homeland. I’ve been living in Toronto for most of my life, since my teenage years. Moving back to China in the pandemic year 2020 and living in my motherland for almost three years was a sight-refreshing journey of a lifetime for me. I experienced some conflicts in Eastern and Western cultures, then started to reconstruct my perspectives on values. Mermaid in the Garden of Escapism (2023) is my first attempt to reevaluate the values of women.

Toronto Film Magazine: How did your short film go into production and how did you finalize the cast and the crew?

MAO Yu Lynn Yuan: This film is a monodrama. The production process is an enjoyable breeze for me when handling multiple roles to direct a film with one actress. The actress Gloria Gao is an experienced Toronto-based theatre performer and has been a close friend for years. So, the film is more like a natural creation based on my past ten-year experiences on both the technical and artistic sides. Selecting female AI as voiceover artists in the film is an innovative and artistic choice, initially for time-saving considerations. For common productions, we host open casting calls for the public at the studio or in the office to select talents and finalise crew members within the network. Sometimes, I personally handpick talents and professionals from their portfolios posted on social media.

Toronto Film Magazine: What was the most challenging aspect of producing and directing the film?

MAO Yu Lynn Yuan: Balancing my artistic expressions with a film storyline could be a challenge. The footage was shot in different places in Toronto under natural lights. Picking the best time to shoot is also key. All the costumes and set design, including props like the white tablecloth, wine glass, lemon, and cutting board, were intentionally chosen to be metaphors in this film. Choosing ‘The Mermaid’ (1830), written by Lord Alfred Tennyson, is a subtle indicator of the circumstances of women in ancient times. Adding my artistic choice of using female AI voices to read the background script is the last decision. Six female AI are selected as the voice artists from a variety of ages and cultural backgrounds with accents. In contrast to the mermaid woman, who is not speaking at all in the film.

Being a female film director can also be a challenge. If one were to name the greatest film directors, you would barely get a female director’s name. There is a gap in the film industry around gender equality as well. Females are commonly seen in actress roles as the subject of sexual fantasy in films. In my film, Mermaid in the Garden of Escapism (2023), attention is drawn to such male gazes around women’s values in gender equality. It’s not about how women look as sexual fantasy subjects or function in roles like daughter, wife, mother, or grandmother, but rather about how a woman thinks, speaks, and does as an individual. A lack of women’s voices in our society is widely seen. Either in the east or in the west, rich or poor, It’s like a recurring negative cycle in a patriarchal social system for a long time. The use of female AI voices is also an ironic reflection of that in my film.

Toronto Film Magazine: Please name three of your most favorite directors. How have they been influential in your work?

MAO Yu Lynn Yuan: Lee Ang, Wong Kar Wai, and Hayao Miyazaki. A perfect balance of aesthetic art and storytelling power is seen in their film work. You are not just touched by the stories but also by their unique aesthetics. It also seems like they have created their own identical patterns in all the films, and the audience recognises that. So, we call it masterpiece level. I see Wong Kar Wai’s film works are also inspiring contemporary artists in art exhibitions for his film characters in postmodernism, which is a rare salute to film directors from contemporary artists.

Toronto Film Magazine: Which genre of filmmaking fascinates you as a director and why?

MAO Yu Lynn Yuan: I watch documentaries, animation, drama, and adventure on a regular basis. Experimental film is like a mind-opening window to invent innovative film creations, though.

Toronto Film Magazine: What is your next film project and what are you currently working on?

MAO Yu Lynn Yuan: My next film as a writer-director also canters around gender equality. A perspective to reevaluate the values of males from the social gaze through a female director’s lens. I plan to complete the production and introduce it in 2024. And then, hopefully, I could be working on my very first feature film as the third piece before 2025.


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