The Two Lives of Li Ermao (2019) – Lucy James

For my first solo interview it was fair to say that I was extraordinarily nervous, not wanting to create an awkward atmosphere or say the wrong thing, but the second Kiki Yu popped up on my zoom screen, those nerves flushed away. Her kind presence instantly put me at ease, and to know how deeply she cared for the film we were discussing, The Two Lives of Li Ermao, was enough for me to begin discussing such a beautifully told documentary about the life of Ermao.

Content Warning: mentions of drugs, alcohol and death

Spoilers ahead!!

L: So, the first thing I want to discuss was the personal aspects of the film and Ermao’s life, specifically do you think using the fly on the wall perspective and investigative approach was the best way you could convey that kind of story? Or do you think there was other routes you could’ve gone down?

K: Well, I think there’s definitely a fly on the wall approach but given this is very personal, there are a lot of moments you see directors direct engagement, conversation with Ermao and also, we use a first-person narration. So, it is a kind of participant observation or reflexive, combined with pure observational, so it’s not really just an observation or documentary. there is a lot of flexibility in the film especially through the voice or word, when the director found it difficult to help. you know you want to help so much but just can’t, you just feel powerless, even as someone so close to her.

L: Yeah, I think that the techniques used in the film were necessary, I guess, to portray the story that you needed to portray. Do you think that it was difficult for her with the camera constantly there, did she have any moments where she got overwhelmed with filming? Or is that something she needed up embracing?

K: Well in the beginning when the director started filming, there’s an element of performativity there because Ermao herself is a performer and somehow, she wanted the film to help her to build her career as a performer. And the celebrity she wanted to be in the beginning, the first half an hour, 20 minutes of the film. But gradually you see she takes us more as friends, as someone who actually follows her for so long. So maybe in the beginning there was someone she talked to but gradually you know we follow her for so long and when she had problems shed come to us, shed call the director you know and it’s become a friendship and this friendship also makes it difficult for us to make any kind of judgement and, there’s a lot of sympathy there through the voice over as you can tell, but we also have to see her repeating life, she abused some really nice, that stable life with her boyfriend, then everything kind of went crazy. Again, you know, where they feeling very powerless in a way.

L: Did you know her personally or were you behind the scenes?

K: I knew her but not as closely as the director, If you look at the footage on its own, just the story of how he constructed, there’s a lot of moments you will question the ethics, if you’re close and you will think whether I would’ve wanted it to be filmed this way, because the moments she’s drunk, she’s on drugs, all of those things that we don’t want you to know, give a feeling that we’re exploiting her, therefore we think this first person narration is a really good way to show because we are part and become part of her life in a way. The director definitely became part of her life. You know as friends, as really good friends and we want to construct that friendship in the film as well, to show if someone is so close to her how would you feel? That’s why we added that layer of reflexivity. You can hear the directors voice from behind the camera many times.

L: Yeah, I thought that was quite a beautiful part of the film, was the connection that she had made to the director. I think it was quite wonderful I loved that. Did you feel there were some areas that were too personal or upsetting to put into the final cut of the film with the ethics of it all?

K: Evidently, you know there are very private moments.  I think we put enough in the film but we didn’t want to make it too much.

L: I agree, was Ermao quite liberal with what she would have wanted in the film, obviously with her passing she never got to see the final cut. But was there things she had set from the beginning that she wouldn’t want featured? Or was she quite open to anything?

K: Yes, she’s very open, she’s very performative in a way and even in the rough cut we actually had to turn down the performance, we don’t want a film about the performance of her, even when she’s talking about her life, she got so used to talking to people as someone who works on stage. We kind of wanted to turn down that and have more observations, because in the first 10 minutes there’s a lot of her just talking and we didn’t want that, we wanted more observations and we have a lot of footage of that.

L: So, did it take a while for her to snap out of the performative front?

K: She got used to the camera, not trying to show her fancy persona but actually showing her personal feelings, I think when we visit her at her hometown that’s a turning point, because she really just thought, working and trying to build a life and get along with the neighbours and with her family.

L: Did you find that there were some moments that you struggled to sit back and just watch happen, or did you at some aspects, you know, what to intervene and stop production?

K: Well, there was a lot of moments in the footage even, we didn’t put that many in the final cut, but where the director wants to help and interfere, even talk to the police or the landlord, talk to her boyfriend when they’d have a big fight and try to intervene. But we wanted to make it reflexive without intervening too much, yeah that’s the balance we found, in the editing?

L: I wanted to ask, with the editing what was it like to muster down all of that footage into 90 minutes? Was it difficult to cut certain things out?

K: Yes, it was very difficult, the director did a cut of around three or four hours about five years ago, and then the story continued so he filmed a lot more. But that was when I officially got involved as producer in 2015. I found international editors to help structure the film, so we started with four, and cut to two hours. We had an assistant editor in china who helped with construction and making it shorter and a danish editor who cut it to 90 minutes. But yeah, watching those three hours constantly thinking of more footage because in the first cut there was a lot of performance and we wanted it to be more personal and you can tell when she’s not performing and having a normal conversation with you.

L: Do you think you’d want to produce something of a similar structure again? Or was it too personal to recreate with any other story?

K: Well in my last documentary, Chinas Van Gogh’s was also a long production with many, many hours of footage and we cannot take a similar approach to cutting down from 10 hours, to 5 hours yeah but the first-person narration for this film is my own research. So, I’ve watched a lot of films where the filmmaker presents themselves on camera to show the struggles and conflicts between the public and private. The struggles with family and society, so I found it a very useful approach especially to build a conversation, not only with the people you’re filming but also with an audience. And with this film we decided to add a layer of reflexive first-person narration, also because it’s a long-term production and there are some gaps within the years because sometimes, she would stop contacting us, and then usually when she’d have a problem she would come and call the director again. So, we tried to bridge those gaps with narration.

It’s an ethically challenging film to watch and we don’t want the audience to feel that we’re presenting something that’s too in their face. Nobody wants to show that much detail of their life

And nobody wants to watch it in that much detail either, and so we tried to make it more watchable for the audience, and also for Ermao too, because we’re are still in our minds, hoping to resent the rough cut to Ermao, before we finalise the whole film, but then she passed away, so she never go the chance to watch it.

L: Was it like a mutual agreement to watch the film together before she passed? Was it difficult for production to carry on after she passed?

K: Well, we only find out after we finished recording, because we finished editing in soho, London and wanted to show her the film before we finalised everything, and then we found out which was actually difficult to get in touch with her, we eventually got in touch with er family and they showed us the certificate confirming her death.

L: Did you feel any sort of guilt towards producing at the end with how quickly and drastically her life changed towards the end? Or do you think it was more of a celebration of her life, I personally see it as a celebration?

K: I found it very difficult when we edited the film, but I guess the reason I got involved was for the film to be a statement to the LGBTQ+ group in China and wanted to make some intervention to that community. But she died before the film was complete, so in a way every time I show the film, I feel like I can’t do anything for her and the director feels the exact same, and even worse you know because he was so close to her. As a filmmaker you want the film to be impactful, not only to the larger issue but to the specific character you’ve been filming for so long

L: I can imagine, I mean the larger issue itself, is a difficult subject to approach in china. So, I can imagine how horrible it must have been to watch her go through all of that and not come out the other side. What were the initial reactions towards the film?

K: Well, it got a really good response. It was first shown at Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival and we got a really good response from the audience. We did a few screenings in China as well, in Beijing, the British Embassy and at a queer festival in Beijing. The Chinese audience really felt engaged in this story because they were in that community, if you aren’t from the community, you’ll hear the story but you never really know how a transgender person feels, how do they feel that kind of rejection they constantly get from society? The film can really present personal moments and the personal life of someone like her. When I first got involved as producer, I also made the point that I didn’t want it to only be about a transgender character because, it’s a film in the end about love, about how to live on, how to be accepted and how to carry on. We want to make it more universal and for everyone to feel resonated rather than just an expose on transgender.

L: Yeah, it definitely came through as a film about love and acceptance and the aspect of transgender was just an area of her life, it wasn’t her full being which I think was very beautiful. Is that the kind of message you wanted to portray through the film? Do you think you achieved that message?

K: Yeah, I think we are very happy with this version, even though her goal was about having surgery and changing her name before turning back because of the HIV issues. We ultimately wanted the film to be for anyone who is hoping for love, hoping to be loved. So that’s the message, we didn’t just want to portray another transgender character, that’s not the point we wanted to raise, about transgender communities, because eventually, I think everyone is equal and everyone has their minority in themselves. We may not want to emphasise them as minorities but we all have something that we may not feel confident about or that makes us.