Montreal filmmaker Xiaodan He brings rare perspective to the big screen

A Touch of Spring, the first feature film by Xiaodan He, tells the story of a Montreal woman seeking a new beginning by reconnecting with family in China.

A Touch of Spring or Un Printemps d’Ailleurs is playing in select theatres in Montreal

A Touch of Spring is the first feature film by director Xiaodan He. (Radio-Canada)

It's a story that begins at the end —​ in the bleakest part of a Montreal winter and in the mess and the suffering of a broken marriage.

But Xiaodan He's film A Touch of Spring is really about new beginnings, both for the main character and for the filmmaker herself, whose first feature film has launched her career to new heights.

He, whose previous work includes the short film Cairo Calling and the documentary The Fall of Womenland, earned an award for best emerging director at this summer's Asian American International Film Festival.

A Touch of Spring received funding from the Quebec Arts Council (CALQ), the cultural development body SODEC as well as Telefilm Canada.

It tells the story of Li Fang, a Montrealer who decides to return to China to visit family after her marriage to Québecois husband Éric (played by Émile Proulx-Cloutier) turns violent.

The relationship between Li Fang (played by Wensi Yang) and her husband deteriorates following the couple's struggles with infertility and Éric's infidelity.

The writer-director sat down with Ainslie MacLellan on CBC Radio's All in a Weekend to talk about how her own experiences shaped the story.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On the film's theme of suffering:

Xiaodan He: This is from Buddhist thinking that I read many years ago. It says to live is to suffer, for human life, and happiness will leave us sooner or later. The first time I heard this, I was very shocked and even sad. That made me feel, "What is the purpose to live, as a human being?" But with age and with life experience, I should say that I agree with that. Because everyone in our lives faces so many problems, like the characters in the movie. So after 15 years of living in Montreal as an immigrant, and knowing the story of many immigrants, and as a woman especially, as my first feature, I said, I really would like to treat this subject of the [suffering] that we cannot avoid.

On basing Li Fang's story on her own:

XH: I would say, for sure some of [the parts] come from my own experience. I am an immigrant. I come from China. I'm a woman and I also had a marriage with a local, a Québecois. So all this life experience gave me more inspiration to [tell] a story about a woman like that.

I should also say that I have a big family in China and I visit them every year. And every time I visit them, I always get a feeling like they treat me like a stranger in some way. And me, I treat them with a distance, with some new vision that I didn't know before when I was in China.

Li Fang (played by Wensi Yang), is reeling from the violent end of her marriage, her husband's infidelity and her struggles with infertility in "A Touch of Spring." (Filmoption International)

On going back to her hometown in China to shoot the film:

XH: Dazu is a city that I really love. It's not only because it's the place I was born, but also [because] it's so beautiful. The Buddhist mountain with so many ancient Buddha sculptures and statues. So beautiful. I went to see them when I was a little girl with my grandfather. All these memories are always there. Many years ago, I said, if I have a chance, I'd like to do a movie here. And finally this dream came true. What is funny, I thought, is I was the first director to bring a crew to this small city to shoot a feature film. Not even a Chinese crew [had done] this yet. And now it's a Canadian crew and Chinese crew together, so this made big news.

On presenting minority voices in the film industry:

XH: I always found that the openness for minority filmmakers and creators was always there. But I know it's quite tough to get grants from SODEC, Telefilm or CALQ. You have to pass a sort of competition. I'm always aware of that. But this funding for my feature film is not the first time. I got, for my previous documentary, funding from SODEC and the Canada Council for the Arts. And I shot that movie entirely in China, in my hometown. And that gave me a lot of confidence to approach the feature film funding.

But I know, they would always like to support good stories, no matter which nationality [the director is]. For me, this is quite positive. Without their support, it's not possible to have this film done.

Li Fang's step-grandmother (Cheng Yan) gives her advice on rolling with life's ups and downs. The film is set in Dazu, China, where filmmaker Xiaodan He was born. (Filmoption Canada)

On Crazy Rich Asians making waves in Hollywood:

XH: I've heard of that movie. I'm very happy for the whole Asian casting and Asian director. In Hollywood, that's a big thing, since 25 years. This is quite positive, but to be honest, I cannot see how long this can maintain, or if this can really [remain] mainstream. I'm not really sure of that.

As a filmmaker, I always believe it's the story that is the most important. If your story is good, that can be produced, in the end.

A Touch of Spring or Un Printemps d'Ailleurs will screen until Tuesday, August 28, in French and Mandarin with French subtitles at Cinema Beaubien and with English subtitles at the Cineplex Forum in Montreal.