August 2, 2022

Producer-director Kay Zhang takes Mother in the Mist to Cannes

By Hugh Hart

En route to the Cannes Film Festival for a screening of her 2021 short Mother in the Mist, Chinese native Kay Niuyue Zhang met the man who unwittingly taught her how to speak English. Zhang explains, "Growing up in Wuhan, I learned English by watching random American TV shows like "Prison Break" when I was in the sixth grade. Even crazier, on my flight to Cannes, the guy who sat next to me was the actor John Abruzzi, who played the alpha gangster guy. I told him, "I learned English watching you on 'Prison Break.' He said, "You grew up watching the wrong show!"

Kay, who graduated in December with an MFA from the School of Cinematic Arts' Film & Television Production Division spoke from her downtown L.A. home office about making Mother in the Mist in the middle of the Pandemic and noted her most valuable takeaways from SCA.

Mother in the Mist tells the story of a woman struggling to visit her premature baby during China's COVID-19 lockdown. How did you get the idea for this piece? 
My cousin in Wuhan had a baby during Covid when there were literally no cars or people outside in the city. She told me about her suitemate at the hospital, who had to stay home while her baby was under observation. I reached out to the lady and had quite a few extensive phone calls. This woman had made her way from the countryside to the highway toll booth at dawn and waited a whole day until dusk, only to find out some kind of paperwork didn't go through and the baby wouldn't be delivered. It's a wet, cold January in Wuhan and here's this mother standing in the middle of a vast, empty 20-lane highway. That image gave me chills and it's the moment I got hooked. 

It must have been challenging to shoot on location in Wuhan during the middle of the Pandemic?
We did everything online, crew, casting all of that. I met the actresses in person for the first time a few days before we started, and then we shot the whole film in four and a half days. 

You arrived at SCA in 2018 with minimal experience in filmmaking and now your resume includes a documentary feature, a music video, two narrative shorts and a dance piece. Which classes did you find to be especially useful?
Intermediate Producing taught by Tim Marx. He was very down to earth in terms of breaking down a low-budget film, how to do a schedule, how to staff the crew. Tim gave me a certain confidence: "I'm not here to play games." The pitch class taught by Gail Katz and Eric Freiser was also very important to me. I learned how to present projects in an enticing way and show people I'm legit in, like, one minute. 

Since graduating from SCA, you've started your own production company. How's that going?
I'm developing a feature for myself. I can give you a logline.

Please do.
It's about a Chinese international student who carries her family's dream to make it in the U.S. but since graduation, she's been unemployed, living a lie and running out of money. She takes a random gig to be the translator slash receptionist for a Chinatown hooker who doesn't speak English at all. The two women come together for this unlawful journey that raises questions about legal boundaries for people who are just trying to survive. 

Sounds interesting! Do you have a title?
"Call me Annie."