“Emptiness,” a movie making its North American debut at the 37th Chicago Latino Film Festival, tells the story of two Chinese immigrants who arrive in Guayaquil, Ecuador, with the help of a local conman with connections in places where they matter.
A film that captures the true diversity of Latin America, director Paúl Venegas’ “Vacío” (in English, “Emptiness”) is available for streaming on the festival website through Tuesday. It’s one of the few films in the festival’s history that is mostly in Mandarin instead of Spanish, Portuguese or English.
CHICAGO LATINO FILM FESTIVAL
When: Through April 18
Tickets: $12 per film stream
Simply put, the film is the story of a young woman looking to fill a void.
“Emptiness” conveys the universal experience of being an immigrant longing for opportunity and new experiences. Venegas’ film focuses on el Chinatown de Guayaquil, a place where Chinese immigrants have built a community of their own since the 19th century, when migrant workers began leaving China for South America and the Caribbean in response to the economic and political crisis that affected the Qing Dynasty.
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Filmed over the span of about a month (30 days in Ecuador and two in Uruguay), “Emptiness” aspires to take the viewer through the emotional journey of immigration — the yearning, the daydreaming, the excitement of arriving upon the shores of a new place. It’s also realistic.
It’s about the moment you realize you’ve been duped, conned, and played like a fool. You realize that life isn’t easy wherever you end up. You’re angry that you risked your life for what feels like a dream that’s out of reach.
Early on in the film, the conman gives one of the immigrants, Xiao Lei (Fu Jing), a job in a cyber cafe and asks if she has a “China Dream,” akin to an American Dream. For Xiao Lei, it’s opening up a hair salon of her own in New York City. She’s ambitious, hardworking, and a big city girl at heart, having held two jobs back home in Xi’an, China, capital of Shaanxi Province.
Wong (Zhu Lidan), on the other hand, has priorities that are much simpler. He’s a father who just wants his 12-year-old son at his side again.
Venegas originally wanted to shoot the film in China with Chinese actors, but the cost wasn’t worth it. That’s when he sought after the Chinese community of Guayaquil, where several locals were selected to be in the film, despite not having any acting experience.
The actors spent three months learning the script and lending authenticity by incorporating pieces of their personal lives.
Venegas spent almost six years living in Beijing before returning to Ecuador to found his company, Xanadu Films, in 2003. His work is influenced by Wong Kar Wai, a well-known Chinese director known for being extremely thoughtful about creating imagery and memorable characters.
Venegas created the script with Carlos Terán, an Ecuadorian of Chinese descent. Venegas, having spent time abroad, was fascinated by Chinese culture. Even more fascinating to him was Chinese migration around the world.
“[As I travel] I am looking at cinema and the world, and I see that really the Chinese community is not marginal,” Venegas said. “They settle down in mostly good conditions and they keep a low profile, they keep to themselves and move on in life. I thought that was something quite interesting that none of us pay attention to. Nowadays, in [Ecuador’s] case we only pay attention to Venezuelans.”
“Emptiness” has been extremely well received in Ecuador, where it won awards in last year’s Guayaquil Film Festival for best feature film. It snagged two more awards in the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema, one of the most prestigious festivals in South America.
Lead actress Fu Jing, who goes by Bella in Ecuador, arrived in 2014 as a volunteer in an overseas program with the Confucius Institute as a Mandarin teacher. Two years later, she was faced with another existential crisis, not unlike the one that first brought her to Guayaquil: “Should I still be here?” she asked herself. “What should I do in the future? Where am I going to be in the future?”
Not once did Bella think she’d star in a film selected to represent Ecuador for the Academy Awards’ best foreign-language film category when she’d arrived seven years ago.
“I hope I have more chances to [do more films],” Bella told the Sun-Times. “For me, it’s not important to be the main character. I just want to have a very interesting, attractive role.”