Whilst putting together her thesis film, US-based Chinese filmmaker Yanghuixiao Gao (Gaoyang) returned to her hometown in China and spent a considered amount of time with her mother and grandmother which in turn shaped and drew her to the natural denouement of her short What If. Although Gaoyang initially felt a pull to depict the struggles women experience with their reproductive health, over time that focus became part of a central narrative exploring motherhood and the beauty, pain and awkwardness that exists in mother-daughter relationships. Shot with an accomplished simplicity in the filmmaker’s hometown and harnessing natural light to bring home the almost mundane realism in the film, What If‘s apparent simplicity belies a richly layered and emotionally complicated story. With What If currently enjoying a successful festival run, we spoke to Gaoyang about honing the development of the film’s characters after examining her own relationship with her mother and grandmother, using high contrast to add to the emotional weight of the story and casting her aunt in the role of mother alongside actor Cuishan Liang.
That unique and incredibly challenging theme of motherhood is a central aspect of the film, how did you come to be looking at this from so many different angles?
I was initially inspired by a personal revelation: there always exists a hidden timeline dictating when the ‘right’ moment for a woman to become a mother is. It was during this period that I opted to study abroad in pursuit of my filmmaking dreams. However, when my grandpa passed away amid the pandemic, I found myself unable to be present for my mother and family, and it shattered my heart. The uncertainty surrounding my future coupled with overwhelming nostalgic emotions culminated in the creation of this film. On top of that, with an increasing number of films drawing attention to abortion, there are hardly any movies discussing women’s reproductive health and its impact on their physical and mental well-being. I aim to invite the audience to glimpse into how fertility shapes a woman’s life and influences those around her from a distinct perspective through my short film.
The central relationship between mother and daughter is so rich with tension and resentment but also such pure love. Can you tell us about the development of that relationship in your writing and their journey in the film?
The script initially centered around Yilin’s struggle to receive emotional support from her mother, who is both the closest and the most distant person in her world. This was intended to convey the profound sense of isolation experienced by the character. However, I felt that something crucial was missing in the story.
Initially, during the pandemic, I had set my story in the United States due to travel restrictions and easier access to crew and equipment. However, as I wrote, I found myself unable to picture the story unfolding in that setting. It was then that I realized I needed to return to China, to my hometown, to film this project. As the pandemic situation improved, I journeyed back to my hometown in China, where I stayed for about half a year. During this time, I completed the script and conducted location scouting. I revisited the familiar spaces, the neighborhood, the people, the sounds, and even the resting place of my grandfather. Everything felt perfectly right, and the film truly came to life in that environment.
Incorporating moments of genuine love between the mother and daughter added another layer to the narrative, making the dilemma and dynamic more vivid and intriguing.
While spending time at home, the theme of my film underwent a transformation. It shifted from portraying a young woman’s personal struggles to becoming a heartfelt love letter to my family. I further refined and aligned this theme during the editing process. The film evolved into a profound exploration of family dynamics and the love shared between a mother and a daughter. Despite potential differences in perspective, the underlying message is that they will always be there for each other. This was all further inspired by spending time with my mother and grandmother. Despite our deep love for each other, we often failed to express it in the ways that the other needed. It became clear that in the story, there was an abundance of resentment but a lack of emphasis on love. Incorporating moments of genuine love between the mother and daughter added another layer to the narrative, making the dilemma and dynamic more vivid and intriguing. Once these loving moments were woven into the story, it finally came together.
I feel like so much of the story unfolds between the lines and what is left unsaid which is truly commendable. Is that your usual approach to storytelling?
Yes, I believe in allowing the story to unfold naturally, inviting the audience to immerse themselves in the lives of the characters and I have trust in my storytelling and the ability of the audience to connect with it. For me, it’s not just about conveying information or delving into backstory; it’s about capturing the emotions and experiences of the present moment we share with the characters.
We relied on natural light or mimicked it to achieve a realistic and grounded daily life look.
Can you tell us more about the cinematography and achieving that very real, almost beautifully mundane look?
We wanted to convey a warm yet dark tone, particularly in the character’s hometown, which is meant to be a safe space for her. However, given the weight of the news and emotions weighing on both characters’ minds, we needed to infuse a darker undertone into the visuals. To achieve this, we used cooler green tones in the hospital scenes and warmer greens in her hometown. High contrast was maintained in both settings to create a sense of emotional weight. We relied on natural light or mimicked it to achieve a realistic and grounded daily life look, designed to capture the essence of realism in our imagery and add to the authenticity of the film, and shot on an Arri Alexa Mini, paired with Arri Ultra Prime Lenses.
What If is slow but never feels ponderous, as an audience I feel like it could either cover a couple of days or a much longer period. How did you work on finding the right pace?
In the script, it was originally set over a weekend, but during the editing process, I realized that the specific timeframe was less important. What mattered most was creating an atmosphere where it felt like an ordinary day for both characters, with a lot happening beneath the surface of their minds. To achieve this, I focused on developing the characters and the moments they shared, making the passage of time less obvious to the audience.
While we did capture closer shots of both characters for flexibility in post-production, the wide shot ultimately worked best for the scene’s atmosphere.
A lot of the angles, particularly when they’re eating, don’t focus on their faces.
I opted for one wide shot during the eating scenes to create a strong sense of presence and allow the audience to immerse themselves in the space without interrupting the tension between the characters with frequent close-ups. While we did capture closer shots of both characters for flexibility in post-production, the wide shot ultimately worked best for the scene’s atmosphere. Additionally, I deliberately had the characters sit close to each other rather than opposite. This decision was made to reflect Yilin’s perspective, where her mother’s reactions and thoughts remain unknown to her. By positioning the mother with her back to the camera, I aimed to convey the same sense of the unknown to the audience.
As the film has so many personal elements for you, including where it was shot, how did you find the right actors for the mother and daughter who so boldly embody their roles?
The actress who portrayed the mother in the film is actually my aunt, my mother’s sister. My aim was to find someone who could speak the local dialect of my hometown, as it was crucial for setting the tone of the film and making it feel more authentic and personally meaningful. However, it proved challenging to find actresses around the age of 50 who could speak the dialect of a small town. Fortunately, my aunt, who enjoys making videos as a hobby, was not only comfortable in front of the camera but also shared a natural connection with the project. My assistant director recommended the young actress Cuishan Liang to me. I was drawn to her performance in a previous feature film, even though she wasn’t from my hometown. During our video call, we discovered many commonalities. Her interpretation of the character and her willingness to learn the local dialect made her a perfect fit for the role, and we immediately connected.
What is next for you as a filmmaker?
I’m writing another short film and developing my first feature around that. It focuses on a first-generation Chinese young woman’s life in a foreign country. Meanwhile, I’m also working as producer, assistant director, and cinematographer for projects by other talented fellow filmmakers. So I’m excited to bring both my own projects and those of my colleagues to life while continuing to expand my skills and experience as a filmmaker.