Spotlight: An Interview with Molin Liu ("The First Sieve is the Truth")
Molin, first of all, we'd like to congratulate you for your wonderful work on The First Sieve is the Truth - which won the Honorable Mention: Narrative Film at LAFA. Before we chat about the making of the film, please tell us a bit about yourself. You started out as an Assistant Photographer, while you were still living in China. What sparked your interest in filmmaking?
When I started as a photography assistant at Studio One Plus in Shanghai during a summer vacation, I had already lived in the U.S. for five years. From my perspective, I have always treated cinema and photography as parallel—tools designed intrinsically for documenting, with cinema being more interventional and motivational. Cinema is not a passive art form. It can reshape our mindset and foster new feelings by showing us natural, raw, and not artificial content. Nevertheless, my pursuit of realism film should be distinct from pure documentation. Realism film is neither a mere objective documentation in the material universal nor a mere symbolic abstraction. It's something between them. Therefore, that sense of reality that exists psychologically and sociologically caught my eye—It doesn't have to be real, but it is real.
We'd love to hear about your source of inspiration and artistic influences. Which writer/director has had the greatest impact on your life as a filmmaker?
I have always been captivated by the "mono-no-aware," a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence or transcience of things that eventually propelled me to start watching and studying Ozu Yasujirō's works. I fell asleep in a film history class, as did many others when watching Ozu's Tokyo Story. Part of the bored was caused by Ozu's representative nondramatic style. However, my eyes teared up when I watched the film again a few years later. Ozu's restraint on cinematography and acting can all ascribe to his preference for weakening the "designer's" subjective intents while intensifying the truest mundane life—an ordinary evening, a muggy and overcast afternoon, the impatient look on your lover's face—it is these very unvarnished moments constitute the aftertaste, which is what life really is. Only applying some distance between the film and the audience will achieve it.
My intention in writing The First Sieve is the Truth is to reveal how society can crush and distort human nature. This can surely explain my pursuit of George Orwell's works, which have significantly inspired my creative process and sculpted my direction. Like the pursuit of realism films, Orwell's works can evoke the blend of anxiety, fear, pain, insecurity, and naivete that can eventually push us to face the evilness in our souls honestly. Although some of Orwell's beliefs, such as feminism, vegetarianism, and some other "isms," might be outdated or inappropriate nowadays, there is no doubt that he never gave up exploring the truth of this world, even if it means more disappointment.
When did you shoot your first movie, and what was the first piece of filmmaking gear you owned?
I shot my first short film, Exit, during my sophomore year while still studying in the photography department for the final project of the video class at the School of Visual Arts. The story is about a hitman, and the crew only consists of four people: two as the actors, one as the sound mixer, and myself as the cameraman. The result was unsatisfactory, mainly due to my lack of experience and knowledge of film. Nevertheless, to get it done, we did things like sneaking into a vintage hotel to shoot footage in their hallway and donating to a church just to shoot an opening scene. It is only now, looking back, that I realize how enjoyable (or risky) it was. After I screened the film in the class, the teaching assistant jokingly suggesting me to transfer to the film department. He probably doesn't know I took it seriously and transferred out the following week. Many things would have been so different without such a swift but decisive decision.
You studied at the School of Visual Arts (BFA in Film Production), the UCLA Extension (Film Producing), and Emerson College (Media Arts Production). What were some of the highlights of your experiences there?
For having a systematic learning environment and abundant resources, but most importantly, for meeting friends and supporting each other.
Let's talk about the making of The First Sieve is the Truth, the award-winning short at LAFA that you wrote and directed. The story deals with a thief that ends up having to make what is probably the most difficult choice of his lifetime. What inspired you to write this story?
Long story short, my inspiration for The First Sieve is the Truth comes from encountering censorship in one of my student films on a Chinese media platform. Consequentially, the initial theme of my thesis project had nothing to do with social or even political satire. I started off working with another screenwriter on a different script but soon realized I had zero passion for it—it was not my story, and I couldn't relate to it. Such a conclusion set me on a self-inspection: my passion for realism may imply that two out of three films I would make would be labeled as "illegal" in China. But should I switch direction because of that norm? I all of sudden noticed how ridiculous and pathetic my hesitation was. Therefore, I simply transcribed such subconscious anxiety into a story, which turned out to be the best decision—it set out a personal style.
The thief's behavior at the end of the film is indeed inconsistent with his assumed position. Initially, our motivation in making him do the right thing was to shake off his evilness and create some hope, which would have enabled a stronger antithesis between the two characters. But then we realized that no bad guy would suddenly discover a force for good from a moral perspective. Therefore, to not make the character stiff or far-fetched, we added a scene where the secretary gives counterfeit money to the thief, which thus grants the thief a more realistic motivation when uploading the photos—simple-minded revenge. Likewise, some other characters in the film also can't be judged as merely good or evil, like righteous strangers chasing after the thief but soon changing their minds—they are just mapping the world and human beings without adding any sugar.
You worked on the screenplay alongside co-writer Mengyao Lin. What did the collaboration look like?
My experience of working with Mengyao was both challenging and surprising. The tough part is mainly because she always thinks logically, tells the truth, and has tons of ideas. This means that whenever I sent her a revised outline or a script, she would discover some fundamental logic errors, usually accompanied by her unsparing criticism, then provide me with some plans to solve them. Mostly, these were errors that I had already identified but didn't have a solution for while hoping no one would find out. On the other hand, her honesty also makes the creative process more fruitful. Gradually, she ended up starting to write with me. But it didn't mean less scolding. Opinion without embellishment is just what I need. It just requires thicker skin.
How did you prepare to direct this film?
Simple scribbles of the new idea, finding a producer, establishing the outlines, constantly rewriting the outlines, writing the script's first draft, constantly rewriting the script, selecting talents, selecting locations, auditioning talents, location scouting, locking the cast, revising the script based on the locations and the cast, assembling the crew, rehearsing, shoot. These are the steps that I took, and I found them very universal.
Another fun preparation I took was to live at the shooting location, the city, for two weeks before the principal photography to better understand how that specific environment could affect the actors. For instance, the tone of the speech, the dialect, how people react to certain things, etc. But most importantly, It could temporarily erase my sense of alienation as a foreigner, eventually making the shoot more true-to-life.
Speaking of the location, I must mention how Chongqing's landscape significantly enhances the look of the film. The city has rolling hills, architectures with substantial height differences, the roaring waves from the Yangtze river, and those dark, contracted, many-angled alleys—it fits perfectly for a crime movie, and such high-and-low contrast enabled The First Sieve is the Truth to represent the class hostility.
What was the most challenging aspect of this production?
I can't remember who told me that making a film is like a war. But It's true when talking about writing the outline or creating a general structure based on the idea, whatever you want to call it. It is that zero-to-one process. This process requires absolutely honest opinions, rigorous logic, an imaginative mind, a log of courage, and firm determination.
Please take us through the editing process. You worked with editor Mengxiong Li. How did you communicate your directorial vision to him? Did you use any references to help achieve the right pace and style for the cut?
Cutting wasn't difficult, mainly because we arranged most footage according to the storyboard. While Mengxiong did a great job of establishing the framework and refining the timeline, we also adopted opinions from the producer, the DP, and the co-screenwriter about the overall rhythm of the film. The more opinions, the better.
I started the editing process nearly four months after the wrap of the principal photography. Though the prep of another short film caused part of the delay, the real reason was that my perspective toward the film became biased and less objective after seeing the content repeatedly over a long time. It turned out that ignoring the footage for the entire four months was very beneficial. With a sense of unfamiliarity, I started seeing the film as an audience instead of a creator, which enabled me to catch more errors. It allows a more dispassionate view.
There chase scene is very high on adrenaline, and the tones are captured perfectly by composer Yixin Huang. Can you share a bit about the scoring process, what was this collaboration like?
Communicating with the music composer was particularly challenging because there was no direct method or formula to accurately transcribe my thoughts into a speakable language except by using indirect adjectives. Fortunately, Yixi is very talented and understood the vague idea floating in my mind based on my simple description and then transcribed it into a delicate score. It was a back-and-forth idea-exchanging process that involved two languages. When looking for composers, just make sure to listen to their previous works. If you like it, it will make everything much easier.
In your opinion, what makes a crime film great like The First Sieve is the Truth?
There may be a defined set of criteria to determine the quality of a commercial feature film. However, a short film is all about representing the author's personal ideology. And an ideology is not measurable or comparable. Therefore, the film is great as long as it fully illustrates you as an individual.
What is your advice for young directors who would like to follow in your footsteps?
Be true to yourself.
What's next for The First Sieve Is The Truth and what's next for you?
Until now, The First Sieve is the Truth has received awards from festivals worldwide, such as Los Angeles Film Awards, New York International Film Awards, Toronto Film Magazine, and many more. The screening took place at different film festivals, like Around International Film Festival Berlin and Trinity Film Festival, and it will screen at Regal in downtown Los Angeles in May 2023. The distribution process is still in progress, in which I am submitting them to various online screening platforms, such as IndieFlix and ShortsTv. The short films' distribution process is usually more challenging than feature films as their audiences are limited. Nevertheless, making a short film is a great asset and a necessary stepping stone for me before creating features.
Besides that, I am working on the post-production of a one-shot short film, Come Another Day. The film tells a story about a Chinese woman who lives in New York City alone and struggling to pay off her husband's smuggling fee. Immigration is a very interesting and popular topic, especially among independent films. Most immigrants have experienced heartbreaking conflicts and potentially life-threatening risks from people around them. People might also ascribe such social withdrawal to their conservative lifestyle. But really, would their home countries seem any less exotic if they went back there again? In this case, I am taking alienation as a thread of the story to relate to the essence of human's paradoxical nature: sacrificing oneself for love is humanity's glory, yet striving for the benefit at the expense of others is merely an embedded human instinct. We need to accept our ugliness.
What kind of topics and subjects are you hoping to focus on in your career as a filmmaker?
To be honest, I have no idea what topics or subjects I plan to focus on in the future. Perhaps it will be another genre or even documentary. However, despite the potential subject change, I hope to continuously concentrate on the most human and authentic form of expression in film. Though it may bring out ugliness (or not), it has to be truthful.
Where can our readers follow more of your work?
I love connecting and collaborating! Check out my directing & cinematography reel at my website: www.molinliu.com. For connection, please contact me at liumolin82@Gmail.com or my Instagram, @molinliu929.
Would you like to add anything or wish to thank anyone from your team and/or family?
The First Sieve is the Truth is a challenging project partially because of its political ironies. However, after reading the script, no one (especially actors) dropped out due to such sensitivity but was determined to accomplish this project. I am so grateful to all those who helped me with the brainstorming, pre-production, principal photography, post-production, and distribution—especially to my family, who unconditionally supported me financially.
The First Sieve is the Truth - Trailer