After adopting a little girl from the orphanage, a Chinese lesbian couple is forced to search for the meaning of family under the pressure of their traditional and homophobic parents. When the Tide Rises is a short film, directed by Alex Jiang.
Currently a Bachelor of Fine Arts at University of Southern California, School of Cinematic Arts, majoring in Film & Television Production and minoring in Art History. During her 4 years in Los Angeles, she started to grow interest in a gendered narrative and have kept exploring diverse stories featuring Asian characters. In USC, she created multiple curriculum-based short projects, including Homeland and In Spring We Part. However, When the Tide Rises is her first independent film project outside of school. She is also currently producing an independent short film titled Anti-Venom for a Snake, which is currently in the post-production stage in Los Angeles. When the Tide Rises depicts the nuanced emotions between a lesbian couple and the child they adopt. Yet the film is much more than that. It also discusses what it takes to accept and embrace one’s own identity under a hostile societal environment and explores the desire for love and family in a private, intimate sphere. It is our pleasure to interview Alex Jiang.
How did you start making films and what was the first film project you worked on?
I started making films in high school, when I realized that film is the perfect combination of the mediums that have always illuminated my narrative passions – theater, photography, and writing. The first film I wrote and directed was a low-budget sci-fi film called Call Me a Racist, a project created during my summer school in New York Film Academy in 2015. The film explores a world in which people are divided into two classes based on how they are born – natural or cloned.
The sense of accomplishment brought by this crudely made project then led me into the Film & Television Production major at University of Southern California, School of Cinematic Arts. From there, I was finally able to seek my passions in writing, directing, and producing. Besides school projects, I also participated in a lot of independent short film productions, such as When the Tide Rises, Anti-Venom for a Snake, and The Story of This Life.
What genre of filmmaking are you looking to work on and why?
At this moment of time, as a writer and director, I am mostly working on the genre of drama. I want to focus on real people and real situations that are rooted in my everyday life and share my view of the world with my audience. However, I do want to also tap into genres like crime thriller and sci-fi, because they have a lot of visual-audio potentials that come with world-building and storytelling.
As a producer, I am interested in working on projects of all kinds of genres, of different cultural elements, and of different auteur styles. I am open to trail into realms I’ve never explored before, and constantly learn more about this world from my fellow filmmakers.
Ultimately, I want to discuss emotions and human experiences that transcend national, cultural, social, and gender boundaries.
What is the most challenging aspect of being an independent filmmaker?
Keep moving forward is always the most challenging part. As an independent filmmaker, you have to take on either office jobs in a studio or jobs in other fields to make a living when you first start off, and they may be draining out the time and space for creating your own, original content.
Once you are out of school, no one is around to set deadlines for you, and you have to constantly remind yourself to keep the passion burning. You have to also tell yourself that whatever you are holding onto is worthy of being created, that your voice deserves to be heard, and that all your effort and perseverance will not be in vain. Finding a direction is easy; marching down that road is the challenging part.
How challenging is it to fund indie films?
Indie films, especially indie short films, are always hard to fund. Feature scripts, if good enough, will have a higher chance of either entering a fellowship program or being picked up by production houses like A24 and receiving financing. And when they enter festivals and the subsequential distribution cycle, revenues will be generated.
But as an indie producer, I know that very few production companies or grants will actually slate indie short films because the market potential is relatively low. Generally speaking, a short film will have a budget ranging from $10,000 to $50,000, and even if it receives awards from screenwriting contests, the grant usually won’t be sufficient to cover the entire budget. Therefore, some short films will either seek partnerships with non-profit organizations or foundations that would sponsor based on the subject of the film, and others might do fundraising campaigns.
In my case, I crowdfunded When the Tide Rises, which later received an award and a few equipment grants from Fine Cut Festival of Films. I then used the equipment grants towards my next film The Story of This Life, and got additional funding from a Bay-area-based non-profit organization. Yet even with these funding, I still had to crowdfund again to meet the total budget of $35,000.
Please name three of your most favorite directors. How have they been influential in your work?
Pedro Almódovar is one of my favorite filmmakers of all times. How he features female and non-binary characters and does their story justice by weaving together intimate narratives has always been tremendously inspiring to me. He does not shy away from the brutal and even grotesque aspects of life, but instead, try to bring the beautiful and heart-felt elements out of them. All of his films, from Talk to Her to Parallel Mothers, follow this same construct and carry delicate fabrications of stories as well as stunning color palettes.
Denis Villeneuve has also been one of my biggest inspirations in the ways he constructs his storytelling techniques. He can always break his way through the conventions of genres and unveil genuine, authentic emotions in his stories. From sci-fi works like Arrival and Blade Runner 2046, to war-related dramas like Incendies, he always succeeds in indulging the audience in the stunning visual elements and unraveling the raw and nuanced emotions behind the grandeur.
Another filmmaker I admire is Hirokazu Koreeda. His story is always about ordinary people, the here and the now. My biggest motifs in film are family, alienation, and grief, and those are precisely what Koreeda is also exploring in his films with a great sense of tenderness and subtlety. Compared to Almódovar and Villeneuve, Koreeda’s visual is more rooted in reality, with a softness prevalent in Japanese cinema.
What is your next film project and what are you currently working on?
I am currently in the post-production stage for my new narrative short project titled The Story of This Life, for which I am the writer, director, and producer. The story is about a father who lost his child due to the pandemic and has to fly over to America to retrieve the ash and the remnants. However, he does not speak English, and so hires a Chinese college girl in Los Angeles to be his translator. The story focuses on the bond they form over this brief journey and the mutual understanding that comes after the grief.
I am also looking to produce my friend’s short narrative project this coming June, and am working on a feature script in the meantime.
What was the inspiration behind your latest film project?
When the Tide Rises depicts the nuanced emotions between a lesbian couple and the child they adopt. Yet the film is much more than that. It also discusses what it takes to accept and embrace one’s own identity under a hostile societal environment and explores the desire for love and family in a private, intimate sphere.
The story began to take shape during my research of the 1999 Adoption Law of mainland China. It stated that the adopter must be over 30 years old, and that a homosexual couple could not legally conduct the act of adoption as a family unit. And the millennium marked a turning point for the homosexual community in China, as homosexuality was decriminalized in 1997 and depathologized in 2001.
And so I started to conceive a story about a lesbian couple who are entering their 30s in the 2000s. In China, this was the moment when the first light of dawn for the sexual minorities had yet to come. Family, marriage, and motherhood were the constant subjects in their lives, and how to maintain a sense of self-autonomy and self-respect is the ultimate doubt these subjects are pointing towards.
Hence, I eventually chose adoption as an entry point to this story, and present to the audience the everyday struggle a lesbian family was facing during that time, and the experiences of each individual in this newly born family.
Chinese films have always suffered from the absence of lesbian representations, and in an age where more and more women are longing to be seen and heard, I want to dedicate this film to all the females in my life. It was the vigor, wisdom, and adamancy that they represent that truly shaped who I am today.
How did you find the cast and the crew of the film?
Because When the Tide Rises was made during the pandemic back in China, and most of my filmmaker friends are based in Los Angeles, finding the crew and cast of the film was fairly difficult. My co-producer is a fellow USC student, and we found the rest of the crew together through recommendations or filmmaker networks in China. We ended up assembling a crew of international and domestic film students from University of Southern California, New York University, Boston University, Rhode Island School of Design, Dongguk University, Wuhan College of Media and Communication, etc.
As for the cast, we posted the casting notice online and received submissions from a lot of outstanding actresses from all over the country. We conducted zoom auditions and watched all of their reels, and finally decided to cast two actresses from Beijing as the lesbian couple. The role for the little girl was a difficult choice because we were very particular about the character’s age. Eventually, we cast a 6-year-old girl from Hangzhou who had some background in commercials.
What is the distribution plan of the film and did the film receive any screenings or was it featured in festivals?
When the Tide Rises was featured in multiple international and domestic film festivals, including Fine Cut Festivals of Films for Best Narrative Awards, Indie Shorts Awards for Best First-Time Filmmaker, Seoul International Short Film Festival for Best Director, as well as official selections for Rhode Island International Film Festival, Taiwan International Queer Film Festival, Beijing International Queer Film Festival, Rome Independent Prisma Awards, etc.
Through Fine Cut Festivals of Films, When the Tide Rises was distributed on the KCET network, and through Beijing Queer Film Festival, the film was distributed on CathayPlay.
Why do you make films and what kind of impact would your work have on the world?
I make films because I have an everlasting urge to tell stories, whether it’s my own story or a story of others. And I want to tell them to an audience. I want to create something beautiful, and I want people to see it. It’s simple as that.
And as a female growing up in a world that is patriarchal and hostile, as a human inhabiting in a time when ideologies prevail individuals, I want my work to tell the stories of those who struggle, who experience isolation and alienation, who close the wound, and who defy the conventions and take ownership of their lives. Can a film change the world? I don’t know. But if it changes the life of one, then it would mean the world to me.