October 28, 2020

Yucong Chen wins Student Academy Award for Unfinished Lives

By Maria Warith-Wade and Taylor Yarber-Smith

Unfinished Lives follows 24-year-old USC graduate student, Xinran Ji, who was beaten to death by four teens when returning home from a study session in 2014. A lawyer, Rose Tsai, took it upon herself to tirelessly advocate on his behalf and represent his parents, as they attempt to understand the senseless tragedy together. Here is what award-winning director Yucong Chen had to share about being one of the 2020 Student Academy Awards recipients. 

Unfinished Lives is a very painful story, especially for the family of Xinran Ji. Why did you want to revisit it?

Initially, we were trying to do a documentary about the international student experience. Then I found out about Xinran’s case. I was shocked by the unexpectedly long legal procedure involved and there were a lot of misunderstandings about the case. So, we wanted to bring the untold story to the forefront. As I stated at the end of the film, there was another murder that happened right after the last court hearing of Xinran’s case. One of the messages we want to convey via this film is that tragedy will be repeated until people really learn from it. People need to care, to remember so that we can bring change to the world. I believe that making this documentary is one of the ways to make that happen.

Was it a difficult film to make, technically and emotionally?

Emotionally, I would say it was. It is impossible to stay 100% objective while directing a documentary because as a filmmaker, you come so close to the story. In the case of Unfinished Lives, it was even harder because the story felt so relatable. We shared the same experience with Xinran, and I was literally living in an apartment that was just one block away from where the crime happened. Instead of remaining objective, we were, in fact, trying our best to stay rational. I still remember when we were visiting the DA’s office, we watched those surveillance video clips for the first time. Some of my crew members were crying in that quiet conference room. It was heartbreaking. We wanted to convey the same feeling to the audience. We wanted the viewers to understand that this is not a case of one race confronted with another. This is a story about crime confronted with justice.

Who were your collaborators?

We only had 6 key crew members (perhaps the tiniest thesis crew in the SCA history), but this is the best team I could ever ask for. All of my key crew members are from SCA and we are all international students. One of my producers, Kay Niuyue Zhang ‘21, has strong communication skills and research experience, which made her a great candidate for producing this film. The other producer, Shange Zhang ‘19, is a talented and experienced filmmaker, who has been supervising the whole procedure and keeping everything on track. My DP, Quincy Huanxi Li ‘20, started making documentaries in college. We have cooperated on several documentary projects and she always managed to capture the images I needed.  And we would never get this film made without my patient co-editor Mozhu Yan ‘19 and amazing sound designer Cabba Jiaxuan Cai ‘20. Getting them onboard definitely brought more possibilities to this film. But moreover, all of them joined this team because they were intrigued by the story. We felt the pain and sorrow of the ruined family, and our goal was clear: to bring this story to light. It has been almost 2 years since we started this project, and I feel so blessed to have this perfect team around me during this unforgettable journey.

You came to the School of Cinematic Arts for graduate school from China. Why did you choose USC?

When I received my offer from USC, my parents were worried because Xinran’s case shook the Chinese community to its core. They never wanted the same thing to happen to me, but I still chose to come here because I always loved the opportunities at the university had to offer. I’m passionate about both narratives and documentaries, and here I can pursue both tracks together. That’s the most fascinating part that attracted me and help me make a decision. 

What are you working on now and what are your career goals?

I’m working as a writer. I needed to take a long break after finishing a documentary like this. Making docs is challenging because you are dealing with real people’s lives. You invariably build a very strong emotional connection with the subjects, but sometimes your job is also to uncover their scars. So, it’s very cruel and traumatizing for me. I’m still recovering from this story mentally.

How did it feel to win the Student Academy Award?

I was surprised and felt so grateful when I heard the news. I really appreciate all the trust and support along the way. It made me feel so lucky to have so many supportive people around. And I’m glad that people do care about this case and this film. We made this film to honor Xinran’s life, and I always believe that we are winning this award because of Xinran’s blessing.

What advice would you have for Chinese students who are interested in following in your footsteps and coming to SCA?

Do the research and find your own journey. Don’t follow in anyone’s footsteps.

Unfinished Lives (click for trailer).