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Award-winning director Mayumi Yoshida embeds integrity into filmmaking process

Mayumi Yoshida
Vancouver director Mayumi Yoshida is preparing to make a feature based on her first short film, "Akashi".

It’s been a whirlwind year for Vancouver film director, screenwriter, and actor Mayumi Yoshida. In January, she and Vancouver singer-songwriter and actor Amanda Sum earned a Juno nomination for their “Different Than Before” music video.

The emotionally charged production shone a spotlight on a family’s response to anti-Asian racism. Then shortly after the Junos in March, “Different Than Before” won the SXSW Music Video Jury Award in Austin, Texas.

“I can’t wait to actually celebrate with folks in Vancouver because I just haven’t been home enough to let that sink in,” Yoshida tells Pancouver over Zoom from Tokyo.

She first worked with Sum on the musician’s initial music video, “Groupthink”.

“When we did that, we had such a blast,” Yoshida says. “That was a very small indie project.”

On Tuesday (May 16), the filmmaker will return to Vancouver for less than 24 hours. That’s because she has to fly to France for the Cannes Film Market to raise more money for her upcoming feature, Akashi. It’s based on her award-winning short film of the same name.

“It’s going to be shot in Vancouver and Tokyo,” Yoshida reveals.

She will be back in Vancouver on May 24, giving her a few days to prepare or a YVR Screen Scene Masterclass. Yoshida will offer this along with the “Different Than Before” creative team (Amanda Sum, Lynne Lee, and Sebastien Galina), at 3 p.m. on May 28 at Boldly (143 West 3rd Avenue).

Sabrina Rani Furminger, executive producer and host of YVR Screen Scene Podcast, will host the masterclass. It will raise funds for the Ukrainian Canadian Advocacy Group’s Rehabilitation Program for the Children of Fallen Heroes.

Tzi Ma
Tzi Ma delivered a memorable performance in the “Different Than Before” music video.

Yoshida pitches Tzi Ma on project

In the summer of 2020, Yoshida heard Sum sing “Different than Before” in an online concert. This occurred just as a wave of anti-Asian hatred was building. Around this time, Yoshida was thinking about doing something to empower the Asian community—and especially, the elders.

“So, when she played the song, I just thought, ‘Oh, that’s perfect. The thought behind the song was perfect.’ And also, the music was just so beautiful,” the filmmaker recalls.

She contacted Sum, declaring that she would love to make a video for that song. After Sum agreed, Yoshida was determined to do this with sufficient funding and the right people.

One of those people was veteran Hong Kong-born film and TV actor Tzi Ma, whom Yoshida wanted to cast as the father. Coincidentally, Yoshida and Ma had both acted in The Man in the High Castle in different seasons.

After lining up financing and assembling the team—including Vancouver actor Olivia Cheng—Yoshida felt ready to pitch the project to Ma.

“It took several phone calls because he’s in such big demand,” she says. “Finally, he was, like, ‘Yeah, I really like your treatment; I get it; I understand exactly what you want to do. I see it all together.’ ”

Prior to filming, Yoshida and the crew converted a banquet hall into a Chinese restaurant with a cabaret stage. She came up with the idea of transforming Ma’s character into an Elvis-like performer.

“You never see him in that kind of role,” Yoshida states. “You always see him as a villain or yakuza or a stern Asian dad. And we wanted to put him in this extravagant costume.”

Ma loved the outfit so much that he wanted to take it home as a keepsake.

“We had it delivered to him,” Yoshida says with a laugh.

Tzi Ma
Mayumi Yoshida came up with the idea of Tzi Ma dressing like a Vegas star.

Building authentic tension

Another challenge was writing a plausible scenario for the four bullying white-trash characters. In the script, they mock the Chinese family in the restaurant.

Yoshida emphasizes that all four (Matthew Kevin Anderson, Morgan Brayton, Trevor Lerner, and Cole Howard) are nothing like their roles in the music video.

“Obviously, they’re brilliant actors who could play really awful human beings,” she says.

Yoshida notes that she had to calibrate the racism so that the white characters thought they were just joking around.

“They feel like they can get away with it, but they don’t understand how that affects other people,” she says. “I didn’t want it to be just racist comments and just being violent.”

Moreover, Ma’s character couldn’t just be a two-dimensional figure who marches out like a hero and punches someone in the face. Rather, the goal was to create the authentic fear and tension around a father becoming strong enough to stand up for his family in a crowded room.

“We really wanted that growth to happen because of love rather than him being enraged,” Yoshida emphasizes.

In addition to directing and writing her upcoming feature Akashi, Mayumi Yoshida will also act in the film.

As a director, Yoshida pays a great deal of attention to processes, which she plans to address in the masterclass.

For her and Sum, it was critical to share the treatment with the cast and crew beforehand. That way, everyone would come on-set knowing what the video was about.

“There was a lot of people involved and it had a very touchy subject,” Yoshida says. “I really wanted to make sure everybody felt safe so that everybody coming onboard knew both my and Amanda’s intention behind the music video.”

In addition, this was conveyed on a board placed on-set for everyone to see.

“If you don’t take time and make sure your values—your integrity—is there in the process, then it’s going to show up in the final result,” Yoshida insists.

Watch the poignant short film “Akashi”, which was released in 2016.

Akashi initially released as a short film

Last year, Telefilm funded Akashi, which revolves around  a Japanese woman, Kana, who has moved to North America. After her beloved grandmother dies, she returns to Japan and reflects deeply on a secret that the elder had revealed.

“We’re going to the Cannes Film Market to finish our financing,” Yoshida says. “We just want a little bit more money to feel…a lot more comfortable shooting in both countries.

Akashi was first released as a 10-minute short film, which Yoshida wrote, directed, and starred in. It won the outstanding writer award at the NBCUniversal Short Film Festival. And it captured the Telus Storyhive 2016 Digital Shorts Grand Prize and the Matrix Award at the Vancouver International Women in Film Festival.

Fortunately, Telefilm did not impose restrictions on the amount of Japanese dialogue that she can include in her feature. This resulted from a new policy that no longer requires filmmakers to include at least 50 percent English, French, or an Indigenous language to qualify. (That former policy forced Vancouver filmmaker Anthony Shim to increase the amount of English in his award-winning Riceboy Sleeps.)

Giving herself permission

Yoshida is the daughter of a Japanese journalist and she grew up on three continents. It explains why she can effortlessly switch from unaccented English to fluent Japanese.

As the interview draws to a close, Pancouver asks the down-to-earth filmmaker if she has advice for women aspiring to become directors.

“Don’t say ‘no’ to yourself before others do,” Yoshida replies. “Give yourself that promotion—that permission to go for it.”

She has given herself this permission repeatedly. As a result, Yoshida will act in, direct, and write the Akashi feature. With shooting planned for this fall in two countries, she’s incredibly busy.

“Maybe I gave myself too much permission,” Yoshida quips.

Watch the award-winning “Different Than Before” music video.

YVR Screen Scene and BOLDLY will present a YVR Screen Scene Masterclass with Mayumi Yoshida and the “Different Than Before” creative team at 3 p.m. on May 28. Tickets ($10 to $50) are available through Eventbrite or at YVRScreenScene.com. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.

 

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.