The couple spent almost two years producing the film, investing almost $60,000 of their own savings. In July 2007, Chang quit her job at a graphic design company to work full-time on the film. Tow, a Stanford graduate and former Palo Alto Weekly photo intern, kept his job in digital-media consulting but also made time to work on the film.
The first six months of pre-production involved extensive research, script writing and story-board drawing. In the next six months of production, the duo grabbed their video camera and traveled to China to film on location. The third step, post-production, took eight months of editing, fixing, organizing and publicizing. Finally, Chang and Tow took the film on a cross-country tour that spanned from San Diego to Wisconsin to New England and dozens of locales in between.
"We are slowly recouping the costs of the film," Chang said. "It is not a profitable venture."
But, Tow said, "I wouldn't trade it for anything," saying he had the privilege of working alongside his wife on a longtime dream.
Neither Tow nor Chang went to film school. Tow studied symbolic systems at Stanford and Chang got a degree in art and anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley. Both call the project a "learning experience," especially on the legal end — filming permits and releases had to be obtained. With the help of Chang's parents in China in persistent appeals, permits were granted relatively easily, the couple said.
"Qiu Jin is not a controversial figure," Chang said. She speculated that had they chosen to profile a more divisive personality, permits might not have been granted.
During her own lifetime, however, Qiu Jin was mired in controversy. She fought to end a millennium-old tradition of binding women's feet, and sought societal equality for women. She joined an uprising against the Qing Dynasty that ultimately failed: Qiu Jin was captured and executed. Yet her struggle was an important step in the struggle for human rights, echoing the now popular (thanks to the Disney animation) legend of Hua Mulan.
Qiu Jin was also a prolific writer. In one poem quoted on Wikipedia in a translation by Zachary Jean Chartkoff, she wrote:
Don't tell me women
are not the stuff of heroes,
I alone rode over the East Sea's
winds for ten thousand leagues.
My poetic thoughts ever expand,
like a sail between ocean and heaven.
I dreamed of your three islands,
all gems, all dazzling with moonlight.
Tow says of Qiu Jin's tale, "We felt it a story worth telling."
Chang added, "Qiu Jin is famous in China but no one knows of her here."
"China remains an enigma to many in the U.S. There is little knowledge of the country's history, and even less regarding the history of its women. As China emerges as a prominent player on the global stage, it becomes crucial to understand its recent past and the often-neglected role of its women," their film's website states.
As they take the film from city to city, Tow and Chang have learned from their audiences as well. "We've had people come up to us after the screening and say that their grandmother or other relative worked with Qiu Jin or participated in the same revolutionary activities. It was inspiring to meet these people who had a personal connection with her story," Tow said.
"Autumn Gem" (the title is an English translation of the heroine's name) tells Qiu Jin's story with a balanced use of dramatic reenactment and academic research. Martial-arts sequences are juxtaposed with historical narrative; poetry selections are read alongside interviews with scholars on the era. The part of Qiu Jin is acted by Li Jing, a former member of the China National wushu team. She carries the part with few words yet conveys Jin's determined resolve with a powerful gaze and elegant sword choreography.
Chang and Tow's passion for martial arts is evident — Chang practices wushu and Tow does t'ai chi. They went back to their respective alma maters, Stanford and Berkeley, sending out casting calls at Asian martial-arts clubs for some of the larger scenes. Throughout the production process Tow and Chang recruited friends and acquaintances for roles in the film. Friends also recorded the music on the gu zheng, a Chinese stringed instrument, as well as on ethnic flute and drums.
A portion of the film was filmed in Qiu Jin's home province of Hunan in China, but many scenes were also filmed locally. Viewers might recognize a vista point off Interstate 280, Saratoga's Hakone Gardens and Tilden Park in Berkeley. Tow and Chang also built a set in their garage.
The two have high aspirations for their new film company, "Adam and Rae Productions." Their goal is to have their film shown on KQED or PBS, and they call themselves "serial filmmakers." Their next project, "Abacus to iPhone," will explore the history and future of handheld computers.
What: Adam Tow and Rae Chang screen their new film, "Autumn Gem," with an introduction by Thomas Mullaney, a Stanford assistant professor of history.
Where: Cubberley Auditorium, 485 Lasuen Mall, Stanford University
When: 7 p.m. Nov. 30
Info: Go to www.autumn-gem.com.
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