Layla Ji has always been an ambitious individual. At the age of 18, she decided to move from China to the US to study a double major in Business Management and Radio/TV/Film Production. After four years, she proudly graduated with honours and later went on to study at Columbia University where she finished the MFA Film Programme. Articulate, intelligent and fluent in three languages, Layla Ji already showed her talent when her work was awarded and selected by international film festivals, including those in South Korea, Canada, the US and Italy. Layla Ji admits that she communicates through her work and hopes that it could bring some sort of answers to the audience, if there are any to be found. 

Layla Ji’s latest work, Victim(s), is a beautiful piece of writing. It is a film that tackles social issues such as bullying on a high school’s campus. The filmmaker shows maturity and, without taking sides, she cleverly draws a portrait of those involved. She also focuses on the fact that abusers and abused ‘incubate’ in different parts of society and “what we see may be the facts, but not necessarily the truths”. 

Victim(s) had its world premiere at this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival. We had the pleasure of speaking to Layla Ji about her newest project, the casting process and the challenges she faced while making the film. 

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Photo © Victim(s)

There are countless filmmakers out there who have their own story to tell about why they became one. What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved?

I initially wanted to work in the entertainment industry because I realized how influential this industry can be. I think I tried Radio, TV and Film, and even thought about being a K-pop star agent, because I believed idol stars could influence young people. Then, after several attempts of internships, I just couldn’t enjoy some of the jobs. The only thing I was passionate about and had fun doing was filmmaking. I watched a lot of well-known films from different countries that often raised important issues, e.g. The Cove or Silenced. I was really impressed with how films could reach a large number of audiences at once, and how it could change my views on things. That was my biggest drive to make films. 

I think I’ve always seen filmmaking as a language, rather than an art. I try to communicate through my films. Sometimes I don’t have answers, but through the writing process I try to find the voice. I also hope that through filmmaking we search for answers together; I think that’s the best and most attractive part of being a filmmaker. I don’t get hold of the idea of trying to be a master in the art of filmmaking. I didn’t grow up with poems or arts, so I don’t see myself as an artist. I want to make films that can be understandable, films that represent my thoughts. When words fail to explain, I hope films can explain. 

Your latest production, Victim(s), had its world premiere at this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival. What prompted you to write the script and make the film itself? 

I have always been interested in socially relevant issues. My favourite company in college was Participant Media, and I always wanted an internship there (never did). When I first wrote the script, there was a time when campus violence videos were often visible online. I began to think about those moments in our lives, and realized that that violence was much closer and more common than we thought, it was everywhere. Then, throughout the development years, I saw several cases of celebrity suicides because of cyberbullying and personal attacks and I began to see a connection between the two — cyberbullying is an extension of campus violence. Even recently, I was deeply saddened by several cases in Asia. I feel the anger every time I see tragedies like that, I felt very depressed when there was literally nothing I could do to help. I guess writing a script became the only thing I could do as a way of fighting that violence. I usually write quite fast when I’m angry or feel deep sympathy.

The point of view of the mothers was inspired by TedTalk, where there was an episode of the victim’s mother and the terrorist’s mother standing on the same stage. The victim’s mother said “When people heard how my son died, I got immediate sympathy. But when they heard what her son (the terrorist’s mother, the terrorist was sentenced to death) was accused of, she didn’t get that sympathy, but the pain is the same.” I remember I cried when I heard them speaking, and immediately thought “this is the angle I want to tell my story from”. 

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Photo © Victim(s)

In terms of production, what sort of challenges did you have to face while making the film? 

I think the topic and issues we were trying to discuss are quite sensitive in every country. I heard from the location manager that in Kuala Lumpur alone we were rejected by more than 70 schools to use their location because no one wanted to be associated with a campus violence topic film. And that was just a piece of the rejections we got along the way of making this film. It’s quite ironic. We were trying to make an educational piece, but no education institution would help us. Except the school we finally shot in, it was a beautiful international school who is very, very serious about anti-bullying. With their permission, we were able to do some of the school scenes there, the rest/more violent scenes were shot in colleges or sets. So, locations were definitely the toughest. We also couldn’t afford any overtime or some locations were just too expensive. We nearly got kicked out of the hospital in the middle of the filming. 

You managed to gather an incredible assemble of actors, Lu Huang is very well-known for Blind Mountain, Wilson Hsu, Kahoe Hon, Xianjun Fu and many others, how was the casting process like for you?

I am very satisfied with my cast; they are amazing actors. A lot of them are fairly new to the big screen, but they did an amazing job. I went to Malaysia and did auditions there, and that is where I met most of the Malaysian cast. Remon Lim is well-known locally and she came in for an audition. Kahoe was recommended by my Malaysian producer and we called him in for an audition. We found Wilson and Xianjun from casting director and agent recommendations, and later video auditioned them. One of my producers introduced me to Lu Huang, she read the script and agreed to take the part. It took about 3 months on and off to audition in Malaysia and Mainland China. But at the end, it was worth it. 

How much artistic freedom did you give the actors during the filming? How much did they improvise and how much did they follow the script?

I tried to give them as much freedom as I could. They each have different creative processes. So, it was important to know them personally before working together. We have actors assembled from three places, and although they all speak Chinese, the accents were different. They all had to make efforts to unify it. I would give them directions if I thought it was too much. For the most part, I wanted them to be the characters, but also to be themselves. It was important they portray the roles with their colours. For dialogue, they did follow around 95% of the script. Some lines were strictly followed so we did stick to the script. The boys, especially Jianwen (Wei), improvised relatively more. He was just very good at it. 

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Photo © Victim(s)

What message were you trying to get across to the audience with the story of Victim(s)?

I didn’t really have a specific message I wanted the audience to take away. I rather raise a question so we can search for answers together. It’s hard to have a 100% right or wrong answer in life because everything has multiple sides. So, I don’t want to “educate” anyone, I just hope the audience can see the issues we were trying to present, so they could walk out of the film with more caution regarding the bullying issue, and maybe next time if they see things like that happen, they would do something about it, or they would try to be more objective and wouldn’t jump to conclusion too fast. I’m more interested in the action of starting a discussion about campus violence and cyberbullying issues. And as long as the film begins that discussion within the audience, my job is done.

I hope people realize that with technological development, it’s not only freedom we’re getting, but also more surveillance, more misunderstanding, and more ways to ruin another person’s life at no cost. Damages caused cannot be reversed, but it wouldn’t hurt to keep a little kindness to look at things objectively. But if I have to pick a message, I guess I would pick the one off the film’s poster: “What we see are the facts, but not necessarily the truth. “

Some people say that films evolve through a creative process – at times, also through the tough process of editing. Have you encountered this while making Victim(s)?

Yes, many times. Filmmaking has always been about group efforts. Every department brought in their expertise and helped me realize my vision. My producers, DP, Production Designer, Costume, Hair & Makeup, Sound, Editor, Colourist, Music Composer, etc…. They all invested their energy and creativity into this film. I think my job as a director was to bring the best out of these people and make sure we all see the same film. Due to budget limitations, everyone in my team gave up their personal interests at a certain level to jump on board and help me to bring my vision alive; they all believed that the topic of the film needed to be seen by the world. They didn’t work on this for money, they simply wanted it to be made. I was very, very lucky in that sense. And I appreciate my investors and producers for their generous help. I believe the passion we all had for the script actually showed in the production quality; it’s a film made with love and social responsibility. I hope the audience could tell we were serious about making a meaningful film. We are truly grateful for their time given to our film.

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Photo © Victim(s)

Recently, more and more people are inspired to get out there and make films themselves, no longer being restrained by the studios. What’s your view on today’s filmmaking? Do you think you would like to stay independent or would you consider joining hands with a studio?

I respect every way of filmmaking. I studied and worked in independent films in the US, I loved how much passion there was in each filmmaking process. These days, if you have a smartphone, you can make a film. This created the “Everyone is a filmmaker” era. I think that’s great. But I also have high respect for those who work in the studio system. With a big budget there’s more possibilities. I think it really depends on the content/story you’re trying to tell. Can you tell it well with limited lighting and budget? Does it need to be watched by a certain scale of audience or is the film releasable? It’s a give and take situation. For Victim(s), I did it the independent way simply because I wanted complete creative control over it. I wanted to tell the story exactly the way my script is. But the cons are distribution and budget limitations. We are not sure what to do with distribution, I had to do a lot of those things myself, so it’s a constant struggle. But if we wanted to make a film that’s designed to entertain, or is for a huge number of viewers, then joining a studio would make the most sense. It all depends on the goal. However, I do try to work with studios that I have a certain level of freedom in terms of creative control. And I would prefer materials that I can resonate with, then try to bring the best out of it. If the collaborations are based on mutual respect and trying to make a good story, I don’t see why not. Being able to simply focus on being a director without worrying about anything else might be sweet.

What do you feel is the best thing to keep in mind while making a film?

I remember Mr. Ang Lee used to say in one of his interviews: “Filmmaking is something if you have to do it, then do it. If it’s not really something you can’t live without, then don’t do it.” I think that’s very true, it’s hard to make a film, it’s like a miracle. Filmmaking requires your full energy and mind control; it is also stressful. You have to have that certainty in you that this is something you want to do, and if you don’t have passion for it, you’ll end up wasting time and giving up at some point.  

I would honestly pick another job, maybe sitting in an office and getting paid on a regular basis, if I didn’t feel that this was the only thing I wanted to do. Because anything would’ve been easier than making a film. I think I suffered very much mentally along the way with anxieties and uncertainties. After I made Victim(s), I was even thinking about retiring [laughs] because I had such full creative control for this one, I was very positive this level of creative control might never happen again if I pursue the director’s career. That’s why now I’m a bit picky about what projects to take on, even at this early stage of my career.  I would rather sit at a desk and get off at 6pm than be running on a set for 16 hours per day and making something I won’t even enjoy myself. You have to be 200% sure about making films!

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Photo © Victim(s)

What else are you currently working on and what do you hope to achieve over the next year? 

I am hired to make a studio film in China, not anything huge, but it’s based on a book – it’s a romance and coming-of-age story. We’re in development right now, I’m only directing, not writing. We have had a good writer attached way before I got on board. I resonated with the novel and I think there’s room for me to bring in my vision too. I think the scale of it is a good transition from an independent filmmaker into commercial film. I’m curious to see how I’ll like working with a much bigger crew. I hope we can shoot the film later this year or early next year in China. I’m excited to do only the director’s job this time [laughs].

I’m also writing myself. I have a few projects that I’ve been working on and off on. Some are for studios, but some are completely independent projects. If opportunity allows, I’ll want to get those made someday as well. I really hope that Victim(s) would get picked up by distribution companies around the world and have the exposure it deserves. After all, we wanted to bring awareness of bullying with this film. I really hope that it will have more exposure next year at other film events.

Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler

Edited by Julia Litwinowicz 

Featured photo © Layla Ji

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Asian Cinema, Film, Film events and festivals, Foreign Films, In Conversation with

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