Norm Li leads audiences ‘Under the Viaduct’
Never Steady, Never Still was a beacon of light in the Canadian film scene in 2017. It marked the feature film directorial debut of Vancouver filmmaker Kathleen Hepburn, and starred Scottish actress Shirley Henderson as a woman navigating widowhood and the advancing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease in a remote waterfront cabin in Northern BC.
The film was nominated for eight Canadian Screen Awards, and won the Sea to Sky Award at the 2017 Vancouver International Film Festival.
Critics loved Never Steady, Never Still, and Norm Li’s cinematography was routinely lauded in reviews. His work was described as dreamlike, brilliant, and “like looking at a series of beautiful paintings.”
We’ll contribute our own descriptions for Li’s work in Never Steady, Never Still: stirring; mesmerizing; meditative.
Li evokes similar feelings in Under the Viaduct, a short that premieres this week at the 2018 Vancouver International Film Festival.
The five-minute film is a single shot that moves from a lavish circus tent to a very different kind of tent – born of poverty and gripped by inferno – under a local viaduct.
Although without a narrative journey, Under the Viaduct – which Li directed and shot – presents a singular journey for its audiences: a meditative cinematic piece that places them in a simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar space.
It’s an experience that Li himself had under that same downtown Vancouver viaduct one chilly winter morning.
Li had dropped his girlfriend off at a film set and was driving home by the viaduct when he was compelled to pull over and survey the grouping of tents in the pouring rain while cars drove by, seemingly unaware. "I stepped into this area and I absorbed what I felt and saw,” he recalls. “I was cold despite having hopped out of my warm car, and I was trying to imagine what it would be like for the people who lived there.” He noticed how cars “would zoom by, or just drive by, and that traffic represents all of us, because as soon as you hop out of the vehicle, you see a different world.”
Li was deeply affected by what he experienced under the viaduct, and “wanted to do a piece that was a metaphor of how luxury developments and consumerism can displace or destroy homeless communities.”
Two weeks later, Li and his team shot Under the Viaduct over the course of one similarly rainy night. “I think it’s something that I had to make,” he says. “I had to make it happen quick to make it happen at all.”
Under the Viaduct is non-narrative by design. “It’s continuous, slow, audible, and almost experiential, and represents how slow change happens in society,” says Li.
Li hopes that Under the Viaduct will inspire empathy and reflection in its audiences.
“No single person is going to save the world, but a communal effort to help others is the effect I want,” says Li. “I want people to feel something and see beyond themselves.”
Li describes his aesthetic as a product of his childhood, which was spent in Newfoundland and included annual trips to Hong Kong.
“Growing up on the East Coast – where there are jagged cliffs and wind and fish towns and boats and glaciers and small, coloured houses speckled across the coastline – mixed with going to Hong Kong almost every year growing up, and the sights and sounds of a busy Asian country, and the gritty alleys and neon lights and yelling, absolutely inform how I see the world,” he says.
Li also credits the years he spent playing piano as having shaped his approach to cinematography. “One thousand per cent, piano informed how I see the world and how I approach cinematography and directing,” he says. “You play each note, not just technically, but with feeling, but not fake feeling. I feel like playing music has definitely allowed me to learn ways to approach rhythm and pacing and swelling.”
Li’s cinematography credits include Hollow in the Land, Beyond the Black Rainbow, Air, and the upcoming The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, the highly anticipated collaboration from Never Steady, Never Still director Hepburn and filmmaker Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (Rebel (Bihttoš); C'ƏSNAʔƏM).
Under the Viaduct screens October 3 and 10 as part of the 2018 Vancouver International Film Festival’s Various Positions shorts program. Tickets at VIFF.org.