Like countless people before him, Shi-Ming Deng came to Canada with the dream of a new life. But for Deng, things unravelled in Vancouver. Trouble at work, at home. There was a bar fight and a conviction for aggravated assault. Upon returning to British Columbia from a visit back home to Beijing in 2005, he was pulled aside at the airport. There were admissibility proceedings and ultimately a deportation order. Hours after receiving the order, Deng was found dead of a drug overdose by his roommate in the apartment they shared.
It took a month for his parents in Beijing, Qian Hui Deng and Xue Mei Li, to be informed. And when they were finally contacted – by Interpol – they were told that their son had been killed and that police were investigating. They later learned he had already been buried, and that his death was a suicide. They were told about mental-health issues he had been suffering from in Canada – something they said they had never witnessed during his life in China.
What could possibly have happened? After a long wait for the death certificate – allowing them to apply for visas – the elderly couple came to Canada and found an immigration lawyer who would help them navigate the legal system pro bono. They didn’t care what it would take; they wanted answers about their son.
Shi means “world” and ming means “bright.”
In her documentary The World Is Bright, filmmaker Ying Wang follows the couple’s quest for justice and illumination for more than a decade. She obtains intimate access to their grief. The film, which also includes re-enactments, will have its world premiere this weekend at the Vancouver International Film Festival, which opens Thursday. Prepare to fall in love with the Dengs – and for your heart to be broken.
Wang, who lives in Richmond, B.C., became interested in the story after a journalist friend attended a news conference about the case in the fall of 2007, about 10 months after Deng’s parents arrived in Canada.
“I learned that the parents came from Beijing, which is also my hometown,” Wang explained this week. “And then this young man was an international student first and then became a landed immigrant. That was also my experience in Canada.”
Mental illness was another parallel for Wang, whose first feature, Sisters, was inspired by her sister, who developed a severe eating disorder after she immigrated to the United States from China.
Wang, who was born five years earlier than her absent film subject in The World Is Bright, feels they had similar life experiences. “We grew up basically in the same culture and historical moment. We grew up in China just at the start of the transformation from poverty to the beginning of modernization. And then we got a chance to be exposed to the Western culture – Western music, movies, literature, ideas. And then also lived through the Tiananmen Square movement, the longing for freedom and democracy,” she said. “I think, in a number of ways, to tell Shi-Ming’s story and to tell the family’s story is almost to tell the story of our generation.”
When she travelled back to China in 2010 and went through Deng’s childhood books and journals, Wang felt even more of a connection.
“The homework was the kind of textbook I read when I was at the same age, and the kind of words he wrote in the diary – it was exactly the same kind of words I would write in my diary, in my homework. All the self-doubts, self-criticism, such as ‘Oh I should have studied harder for my parents. I’m not good enough. I should work harder for my country,’” she said. “That brought me close to him right away and that made me understand him more deeply.”
Wang also researched a great deal about the connections between mental illness – in particular psychosis – and global migration.
Wang and the Dengs became close. In Vancouver, they spent holidays together – Christmas, Chinese New Year. “On a personal level indeed we are very close, but making the film there was a professional boundary,” she said.
She has spent two years editing the film, with photos of Deng family members posted at the desk – a reminder, a guide and an inspiration.
The Dengs are no longer well enough to travel. After the film’s premiere in Vancouver, Wang will travel to Beijing to show it to them and other family members. She feels she was able to provide the couple with something they had originally sought through the court system. She has helped them tell their story.
“All these discoveries through the case and also the family’s story itself, we strongly feel it deserves to be told, deserves to be heard.”
The World Is Bright screens at VIFF Sept. 29, Oct. 3 and Oct 9. VIFF runs Sept. 26 through Oct. 11. Viff.org
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