Shop of Eternal Life is the passion project of director/writer/producer Yizhou Xu. In the film, he uses an almost literal metaphor to show the dangers we humans can make in times of desperation. It’s an evergreen tale that applies to all peoples of this planet. It just so happens that Xu’s film takes place in two by gone eras of his homeland, 1920’s and 1950’s China. Not only is there an other-worldly occult thread in the film but the obstacle of transforming downtown Los Angeles into an almost hundred-year-old China. While giving great credit to his crew and cast, Xu admits that his secret weapon for this transformation appearing so convincingly on screen was Shop of Eternal Life’s cinematographer Simu Feng. The award-winning Yizhou Xu declares, ““Simu is the most professional cinematographer I have ever worked with. Simu is such a vital part of this project because he is the metronome of the production. The most time consuming part of any film production is the lighting and camera positioning. We had a lot of shots in the film and it was paramount to have a cinematographer with the confidence to finish those shots with the highest quality and to do so very quickly. Simu finished the task without wasting a single second; and his efficiency didn’t harm the result of the image at all. Simu knows how to take limitations and challenges and transfer them into creativity.” The filmmaker’s peers and public definitely agreed with the finished product as it was an official selection at: the 36th Hawaii International Film Festival, the 20th Los Angeles International Short Film Festival, the 10th Bali International Film Festival, and the 8th San Jose International Short Film Festival. The look which Feng bestowed upon Shop of Eternal Life belies the budgetary confines which Xu relates. A story which spans the struggles of its main character, his transformation, and the cautionary tale it communicates deserves a beautiful and elegant aesthetic; one which it richly possesses thanks to Simu Feng.
Shop of Eternal Life is a film full of fantasy and terror, relating the choices we sometimes make and the unexpected results they have on us as well as others. Even the best of intentions can result in malevolent outcomes for all involved parties. The film is the story of a poor man in 1920’s China who ventures to a pawnshop, hoping to sell his wedding ring to save his sick wife. The shop owner offers only a pittance…or a deal. Rather than money, the pawn shop owner suggests that the husband sell his heart for a great deal of money to him. The man feels he has no choice but to take the offer in hopes of saving his spouse’s life. Many years later, the husband returns to the shop to redeem his heart, but his time without a heart has transformed him into a monster. He discovers that his heart is no longer at the shop. Doomed to a heartless life (literally), he kills the pawnshop owner and assumes duties as its proprietor.
The storyline itself immediately conjures mental images of fright and fantasy infused characters and their surroundings. It was Simu’s task to make the images visible on screen to match the reality of China in the 20’ and 50’s as well as the mystic ideas presented by the subject matter. Feng relates, “The film’s visual dark tone is the key element for the story. We did this through lighting and camera work. I did thorough tech scouting with my long time gaffer Toshi Kizu and planned out the whole low key lighting scheme. I wanted the pawnshop owner character to be part of this darkness; I wanted him to feel inseparable from the shop itself. We hid several single tube kinoflos to give some small pools of light in the room and to add to the depth of the set. Camera movement was also very carefully planned out so the move was always motivated. We didn’t want the audience to feel the existence of the camera. Combined with the blocking of actors, we were able to create tension and a sense of the mystery at the same time. I’ve always felt that, by planning things out appropriately, you can help the audience forget about the technical aspects of a film and thereby lose themselves in the story…which is what we want as filmmakers and what the audience wants as well.” Yizhou Xu confirms, “Simu achieved a very strong visual style in Shop of Eternal Life; a mystery and a sense of darkness. I think this stylish look is the most important part of the film and it’s the first thing people talk about concerning this film. Because of the fascinating visual style, people have the patience to dig deeper on the subject and theme of the film. As a filmmaker, that helps me to tell the story.” Feng continues to explain the look of the film in commenting, “Because the film consists of two different time periods (the 1920’s and the 1950’s.), we wanted them to be really different, making sure the audience gets the idea that the poor man has changed into a monster. The production designer (Dara Zhao) did a great job building the set to be authentic to the time periods yet retaining our own dark and mysterious style. When we discussed the practical lights in the shop, we decided that for the 1920’s we would dress the shop with candle lanterns, and for the 1950s we went with tungsten bulbs. The practical lights are always important for me because all my lighting is motivated from these practical lights. The warm color given off by the lanterns, combined with the black pro-mist filter I put in front of the lenses, gave the 1920’s a softer and warmer tone. I shot the 1950’s with no filter and the tungsten bulbs flaring directly into the lens, making the look harsher and brighter. With more desaturation in color correction, the 1950’s looked pale and cold, fitting the change of the character.”
Both the look of Shop of Eternal Life and the lesson of the film itself are entertaining and gripping. Yizhou Xu uses his film to communicate the idea that in our sacrificial attempts to help those we love; we risk the danger of turning into monsters. Making a deal with the devil may be very literal in this film but it has great relevance to many everyday choices. The film production itself conceals the challenges that the cast and crew overcame to create such a polished film. Simu Feng is thankful for the creative and unique approaches the production was forced to invent as he states, “Working on a small budget film is always difficult but it can be a truly fun experience if the filmmakers try to make a difference. Every filmmaker will face the situation in which they don’t have enough resources to achieve what they imagined and planned. I always believe certain limitations help yield better result by forcing creative people to come up with ‘poor man’ solutions. The luxury of a big budget does make a lot of things easier, but working on small-scale project helps me to keep the spirit of being flexible and the ability to adapt myself to changing circumstances.”