Stream team

Stream team

By Michael Pickard
July 5, 2023


DQ hears how director Christopher Yip and cinematographer Allen Liu partnered to make Canadian shortform drama Streams Flow From a River, which examines the struggles and conflicts facing an intergenerational immigrant family.

In Canadian shortform drama Streams Flow From a River, director Christopher Yip draws on his own background to tell a story of a dysfunctional Chinese-Canadian family struggling to reconnect after a decade of estrangement.

Produced by Fae Pictures for Canada’s Super Channel, the series centres on a multi-generational family of immigrants led by Gordon and Diana Chow, who made the West their home. They placed their bets on a liquor store and a laundromat in the small Canadian town of Frank, Alberta, but when their marriage disintegrated, their children Loretta and Henry felt the effects.

Ten years later, the children are pulled back home when their father falls ill – and they then become trapped under the same roof by a freak snowstorm. If they are to survive, they must confront the events that tore them apart.

Christopher Yip

Yip, who created the series, also wrote the scripts with Marushka Jessica Almeida, Leonard Chan and Lelinh Du, while the cast is headed by Jane Luk as Diana and Simon Sinn as Gordon, with Liam Ma as Henry and Danielle Ayow as Loretta.

“I grew up in a place like this. It was a small town; snowy, wintry, typically Canadian,” Yip tells DQ. “I moved away from home for a few years and while I was away, my grandpa had a stroke. I came back home after three years to see him. There was a sense of loss for me – my grandpa couldn’t speak any more, he was bedridden – but my dad was a typical Asian immigrant dad. He was like, ‘Look at Grandpa, he’s so healthy and has a good appetite.’ That intergenerational gap in how we approach grief stuck with me and I wanted to explore that.”

The gap would reveal itself again when Yip’s grandfather sadly passed away from Covid during the pandemic, a time when anti-Asian violence flared in North America after then-president Donald Trump claimed Covid was a “Chinese virus.”

“Only after seeing me cry did my dad start to cry,” Yip remembers of his grandfather’s passing. “Our generation, children of Asian immigrants, we sometimes feel the responsibility of holding our parents’ hands through accessing emotions and talking about mental health.

“The Asian diaspora community came together in such a beautiful way during the pandemic. We all came together to stop violence against Asian women and elderly Asians, particularly with the shooting in Atlanta of the Korean spa workers in March 2021. Everyone was protesting. I’d never seen that before, but I felt that for us to be truly together as a community, there’s a lot of dirty laundry we have to air out.”

After the rise in anti-Asian racism, Yip wanted to create a safe space for Asian people of all ages to come together and start conversations about homophobia, domestic violence, alcoholism and parenting, while the show’s title – Streams Flow From a River – signifies how ideas and beliefs are passed down from one generation to the next.

Streams Flow From a River centres on Gordon and Diana Chow and their children

For the series, “we wanted to go for a very real, naturalistic tone,” Yip says. “They don’t really tell each other anything. They’re stuck trapped in their house together for the first time in so long, but they’re not communicating with each other. They’re just holding so much in, as Asian people do. And then we see at the end, do they build bridges, do they connect a little bit? Maybe they do, but it’s very indirect. It’s very much like they come to their own understanding and then reach across the table.”

With episode runtimes ranging between 10 and 16 minutes, the six-part series seeks to shine a spotlight on different characters in each episode. In the present, there’s a lot of tension between the family members, but as the drama progresses, we see how each of them arrived at this moment in time and the decisions and choices that shaped their path.

In episode four, for example, the story travels back to the 1970s, where we learn more about Gordon’s experience coming to Canada, while in episode three, we are with Diana.

“It’s a lot about building empathy and understanding, and that was nice with the shortform structure. We were able to change perspective,” Yip says.

Allen Liu

Working alongside Yip was director of photography Allen Liu, who says Asian cinema, particularly the Taiwanese New Wave and Hong Kong cinema, were big influences on the visual style of the series, which blends characterful moments with stunning shots of the Canadian landscape that seem to stretch for miles. Taiwanese director Edward Yang’s Yi Yi and Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai were notable influences.

“Yi Yi is all about family and there are very static frames for a long periods of time, where seemingly not much is happening. But in the nothingness, there’s so much under that surface. That was a big influence,” Liu explains. “It’s the Hong Kong experience, which is Christopher’s background, and the Taiwanese experience, which is my family’s background, and we’re bashing together our own histories in a way.

“In the 70s, it’s about the limitless potential of going to Canada, so the camera’s very free-flowing and it’s colourful. It’s very vibrant because there’s so much opportunity.”

That approach is contrasted by episode three, Diana’s episode, where the aspect ratio changes to 4:3. The boxy presentation enhances the feeling that she is trapped and being suffocated.

“There are frames within frames. She’s trapped in doorways, she’s trapped in windows,” Liu notes. “It was meant to really portray that this character’s experience.”

Yip picks up: “In the first three episodes, the frames are static and it’s very still. In episode four in particular, and then also in five and six, it gets more frenetic. Allen did a lot of handheld but we want it to match the internal feelings again. There’s one scene where Diana and Gordon get married and then they have a traditional wedding at a Chinese restaurant. We’re just following Gordon fighting with the restaurant owner about not having enough money – he thought he was going to get a discount because he’s washing dishes there, but no. Then he and Diana decide to use their own gift money to pay it off. The whole thing is shot in one take. It’s great.”

Yip and Liu first met to film a teaser for the show that was then used to secure financing. The partnership proved so successful that they carried on working together on the full series, which is also available on Apple TV+ and Prime Video in Canada. It had its international premiere at French television festival Canneseries, where it was in competition in the shortform category.

The shortform show’s episodes range from 10 to 16 minutes in length

They also created a series bible, detailing the characters and tone, which was subsequently used to inform the first all-Asian writers room for a Canadian series. Three-quarters of the crew also had an East Asian background.

“It was really great to see that they could bring their experiences to it,” Liu says of the team working on Streams Flow From a River. “Multiple people came back after the shoot and mentioned this was the most meaningful project they had done, on a crew level. And that’s a very rare thing because it’s a paycheck or it’s a day job for a lot of people. But they were seeing moments they had experienced themselves on the set and felt that they were being depicted and portrayed.”

“We wanted to create a space where everyone felt heard and seen,” Liu adds. “This is a dream. There aren’t a lot of people like us doing it at this level. We didn’t grow up seeing anybody like us, so we’re already beyond our expectations. That enthusiasm seeped into how we led. Talking to others, from the gaffer to the grip, everyone read the script and they got into the story. Sometimes in between scenes, they’d be like, ‘This was my life. This is how I grew up.’ It was great. It was so lovely.”

That praise speaks to Yip as a storyteller and his ability to commit his perspective of the Asian-Canadian experience to the screen. Liu agrees.

“Streams is a dream project for me too, because I was able not only to work on a story that I felt like I totally understood, but I also got to try so many different ideas, camera techniques and lighting styles,” he says. “Things that I’ve been thinking about for years, I was able to just get it all out of my system in one project, in one story. It was very cool to be part of that.”

Following the success of shows such as Kim’s Convenience, Pachinko and Oscar-winning feature film Everything Everywhere All at Once, Yip says he is thrilled at the increasing representation of Asian culture on screen. “But we need more,” he adds, “and I don’t think we’re greedy for asking for more and better representation. [Netflix drama] Beef is fantastic. We need more. If I’m up to bat, I’m going to try to put a pin in history about our community.”

tagged in: , , , , , ,