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Breaking Barriers: Shiyue Xu's Journey from East to West in 'Zero to Hero'

Breaking Barriers: Shiyue Xu’s Journey from East to West in ‘Zero to Hero’

In a media landscape often dominated by Western perspectives, there emerges a filmmaker who brings a refreshing lens focused on Asian narratives and broader social issues. Shiyue Xu, a Chinese independent filmmaker, has quickly gained a reputation for being a voice for the Asian community in America.Her work spans a variety of genres and themes but is particularly resonant for its focus on social   issues affecting children, women, and special groups. With her films   having won international awards and screened in over 40 cinemas globally, Xu is undoubtedly making waves in the industry.

Today, we’re thrilled to delve into Shiyue Xu’s latest documentary, “Zero to Hero.” The film tells the compelling story of Chen Kang, a Chinese bodybuilder who breaks multiple barriers—from racial to geographical—in his quest for greatness. As Chen strives to succeed in a field largely dominated by Western athletes, Shiyue Xu captures not just the struggles and triumphs of one man but also the collective aspirations and challenges of the Asian community in America.

Shiyue, as the producer and director of this film, has done an outstanding job presenting this story to global audiences through the   documentary format. The film premiered at the Chinese American Film Festival in Los Angles in 2023 and has been selected for numerous international film festivals, including the prestigious 44-year-old Italian sports film festival, The Paladino d’Oro Sport Film Festival.

Breaking Barriers: Shiyue Xu's Journey from East to West in 'Zero to Hero'

Interviewer: It’s great to have you with us, Shiyue Xu, to discuss your  compelling new documentary, “Zero to Hero.” It seems like you’ve put  in a lot of thought and effort into this project. Could you give us a bit of background on how you first got involved in telling Chen Kang’s story?

Shiyue Xu: I became involved in this project around September 2022.  Chen Kang was planning to compete in the Olympia competition in the United States, which is the most prestigious event in bodybuilding.One of our co-producers had met Chen in China, and they connected us. He had finished fifth in the Olympia event in 2019, which is the highest ranking ever achieved by an Asian athlete and he’s also the only Chinese competitor to make it to the finals. Additionally, because he is from Wuhan, the pandemic hindered his ability to compete for three years. We believed that his comeback in 2022 could lead to an even better performance. Capturing this seemed like an opportunity to witness a historic moment, and that’s why we decided to initiate this project.

Interviewer: How does the story of Chen Kang fit into the larger cultural and sports contexts you’re interested in?

Shiyue Xu: Chen has significantly influenced the bodybuilding scene,  particularly in China and Asia. When he competed in 2019, he was the only Chinese participant. Last year, five Chinese competitors joined,and around 40 to 50 Asian athletes participated. His success and journey have inspired many, especially in a field traditionally dominated by White and Black athletes. I feel a strong connection to his story because breaking into top circles in areas traditionally dominated by White Americans has also been challenging for Asians, similar to the field of filmmaking.

Interviewer: What were some of the logistical challenges you faced during the making of “Zero to Hero”?

Shiyue Xu: The challenges primarily stem from the uncertainty inherent in documentary filmmaking. In narrative filmmaking, everything is generally planned and predictable, but documentaries, particularly the observational type we were making, involve numerous variables. We began filming just two days after meeting Chen in the U.S., which meant we had to assemble a team, rent equipment, and plan the entire shooting schedule in a very limited timeframe. During filming, we also   faced challenges related to permissions for shooting, especially since   Chen was participating in a competition.

Interviewer: It sounds like a fascinating and complex story to tell. Can you discuss the film’s thematic focuses and visual style?

Shiyue Xu: Initially, I thought the main themes would be positivity,sportsmanship, and inspiration. However, the themes evolved to explore how Chen handles failure, periods of personal lows, or turning points in his life. In terms of the visual style, we chose a handheld shooting style and a palette that evolves throughout the film. Cold and gray tones initially capture his disappointments, but the color scheme  gradually warms up, mirroring his emotional recovery.

Interviewer: That’s a remarkable attention to detail. Did your dual cultural background influence your understanding of Chen Kang’s journey?

Shiyue Xu: Indeed, I found some resonances, particularly regarding the experiences of Asians in domains predominantly ruled by Westerners. I  believe his story metaphorically reflects the struggles that Asian filmmakers, like me, face in establishing a foothold in a foreign land where our ethnicity is not the majority.

Interviewer: What’s next for you after “Zero to Hero”?

Shiyue Xu: Currently, I have two other long-form documentary projects underway. One film focuses on the lives of people with depression in China. Another new project I’ve just started is about a symphony orchestra composed of Chinese monks living in Madagascar. As for “Zero to Hero,” when Chen and I signed the exclusive documentary contract, I initially proposed a standard timeframe of three to five years. Surprisingly, he suggested no time constraints, expressing hope that the project would conclude when he achieved a milestone he’d be proud of. Both as a filmmaker and his friend, I believe he has the potential to become a champion, so I hope this project will continue until he reaches that pinnacle.

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