The general effects of China’s long-standing one-child policy, which ran from 1980-2016, included a rise in abortion rates and undocumented births and led to a gender disparity, where men outnumber women in the millions. While it feels like it would be extremely difficult to portray the complexity of problems this law caused a nation and its inhabitant in a 19-minute film, Olivia Hang Zhou focuses on the impact it had on one family, in her deeply personal short Apart, Together.
The story of a confused Chinese teenager called Yiru and how she travels, with her mother, to America to meet her biological sister, by focusing on the minutiae of this one family’s situation, Zhou draws attention to her homeland’s problems in a subtle but powerful way. However, it wasn’t just the issues of the one-child policy that was the director’s inspiration for Apart, Together, as her own family life proved a motivational factor in wanting to bring this story to screen.
Discussing her film with S/W, Zhou reveals that the death of her sister left “a hole that can never be filled” for her family, adding that she knows she wouldn’t have been born if her sibling was still alive under the One-child-policy. Describing her sister as “this weird intimate stranger figure for me”, the director explains that “no matter how much I tried to be a good daughter, I can never compete with the guilt that my parents had towards her”. Watching Apart, Together it’s easy to see how Zhou’s own experiences are reflected in her storyline (which she wrote along with Jess Kohs), as the narrative radiates an honest and immersive quality that draws its viewers in and makes them connect with its characters. The authenticity of the piece is also key, if you don’t believe in the scenario and the relationships the film won’t work, but Zhou handles both like a pro, ensuring her audience totally buys into her on-screen world, never doubting the emotions and situations of the short.
It isn’t just the writing here that amplifies the intimate nature of Zhou’s film though, with Apart, Together obviously such a personal story for its creator, the filmmaker approached all elements of her production with a delicate hand. Lucia Zavarcikova’s flowing cinematography is beautifully shot, orbiting the film’s two central characters and allowing us a glimpse into their fragile relationship. The colour palette emits a warmth that’s unexpected given the premise, while Alex Scarfe’s patient edit keeps the narrative moving, without ever letting things feel rushed. For a student production, there’s a great deal of confidence on show here, which should help its talented cast and crew build a strong foundation for their future in filmmaking.
Created as her thesis film while studying directing at the American Film Institute Conservatory, Zhou took Film & TV production courses in China and Sweden, before moving to the renowned LA film school. Now graduated, the director and her team are looking for work opportunities.