From one filmmaker to another—Peier “Tracy” Shen talks about the complex relationship between a filmmaker and her films

Peier “Tracy” Shen is a young writer and director from Wuxi, China, who has been studying, living, and creating films in the United States for a number of years now. As a child she wanted to become a pianist, but this slowly evolved into a passion for writing. During college she realized that film combined many artistic mediums, including music and writing, so over a summer break in Shanghai, she picked up a camera and decided to direct for the first time. Now, she is a graduate from American Film Institute and currently resides in Los Angeles with a number of completed short films under her belt.

Out of Place

This is a story about two neighbors who fear disappointment, feel detached from their distant families, and experience an overwhelming sense of being alone.

“Hui” (Sarah Lynn Furman) is a young Chinese pianist preparing for an important performance assessment. Her story begins with a phone call with her mother in China, and tense piano practice. “Chamo” (Victor Boneva) is a house painter who moved to the States from Mexico to prepare for his family back home to come join him. His day begins with a friend reminding him to call home. Underneath the guise of playing the piano and painting houses, both Hui and Chamo have layers of complexities to their relationships with the people back home. 

Drawing a unique parallel between these two immigrant outsiders, Shen’s characters are able to express how they feel through their actions. Shen explains that this piece came from a place of being somewhere culturally “in between”—when you are unable to fully identify with the culture you’re living in, but also don’t feel the original connection you had with the culture you came from. Furman and Boneva’s performances tug at our shared fear of loneliness, and will elicit empathy from anyone who has left their homes in chase of bigger dreams.

Out of Place has won the award for Best Director at DC Asian Pacific American Film Festival, and has been shortlisted at a number of festivals including the GSA BAFTA Student Film Awards.

Like Flying

Shen directs and writes a lot of pieces that involve different languages and cultures. By involving more than one language or culture in a film, it helps bridge the gap between them. Shen particularly likes it when stories are set amidst another language and culture as in Lost in Translation (a film we both love). 

Chedi Chang stars as “Ming,” a young Chinese girl who wears butterfly wings that light up. She dances as though no one is watching, she imitates the adults around her, and she tries to find her way as a child sandwiched between broken adult relations. Shot on 16mm, the cinematography gives off a very old and nostalgic effect. With her natural and mesmerizing performance, there’s no question that Chedi Chang is the driving force of this piece.

One of Chang’s scenes is a solo dance scene where she lights up in front of the camera. The performance and filming was so organic, but Shen said it was the scene she dreaded filming because of how many things could go wrong. There were many rehearsals where she danced together with Chang to hip-hop music to loosen up the scene. The trust between the director and actor is vital here, and Chang’s performance shows it.

Another Satisfied Customer

This three-minute short filmed on 35mm is as funny as it is dark; it is highly stylistic and feels quite different to Shen’s other pieces. Her experimentation with this style gives an absurd, but fun experience.

Madeleine Falk and Kurt Carley star as a ballerina and a salesman whose paths cross at the moment when the dancer is about to commit suicide. With all the preparations including a letter, a glass of wine, music playing from a record player, and a perfectly tied noose, the ballerina stands on the dining table as she poses one last time.

“This was originally supposed to be very dramatic,” explains Shen. It was written after consecutive bad relationships that came one after another. But the creative process is never so streamlined. As the story developed, and other influences appeared, the framing of the ballerina’s suicidal actions became more comedic than dramatic.

Shen explains that when given a general topic to write about, you have a direction to go in. When there is no outline and you’re told to write about anything, it becomes very difficult to narrow down because there’s simply too much to write about. It’s easy to fall into the trap of writing something and then abandoning it for another idea that seems better. 

Shen is now working on a number of upcoming features, which can be found on her website here. She really wants to make her first feature and is currently applying for labs and funding. Although Shen doesn’t like everything that she’s made, she says it’s an important part of the process of growing as a filmmaker. Upon joining AFI for their Masters in Directing, a lot of things on the production side of film were new to her. For one, she didn’t expect that the director would have to repeat her take on a scene so many times. After a certain point, you start to question whether that “take” or “understanding” is genuine, and Shen is right—it’s very difficult to keep perspective, and being able to maintain it takes a lot of practice. Things don’t always work out and it’s hard to predict exactly how the end product will turn out; the art “needs to like you back,” but it isn’t always a two-way relationship.

Unfortunately, we’re not given as many opportunities as we’d like because of various limitations, especially when it comes to financing. A question that floats around the minds of many young independent filmmakers is “What could I make with as little money as possible?” Shen is no different. When chatting, she lists the same concerns of needing to create stories that use as few locations as possible and are as financially possible.

Shen hopes that women and women of color will be given more opportunities to try and fail and try more. “When we make one bad film, people don’t like us anymore,” but so many great artists create pieces that aren’t as well received. “We need to practice to make one that’s good.”

Featured Photo: Chedi Chang stars as “Ming” in Like Flying

Top Photo: Sarah Lynn Furman and Victor Boneva in Out of Place

Middle Photo: Chedi Chang stars as “Ming” in Like Flying

Bottom Photo: Madeleine Falk and Kurt Carley in Another Satisfied Customer

Photo Credit: Peier “Tracy” Shen

© Katusha Jin (07/24/2020) FF2 Media

Tags: ff2media, katusha jin, Short Films

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Katusha Jin
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As part of the FF2 Media team, Katusha Jin interviews filmmakers, write features and reviews, and coaches other associates. She grew up in the UK and studied briefly in Russia and China before moving to New York for college. Graduating magna cum laude from New York University, Katusha majored in Film and Television at Tisch School of the Arts with minors in Business and Philosophy. She has worked as a producer, director, writer, and composer for various award-winning projects including short films, branded content, independent features, and music videos.
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