by David Finkelstein
“Your Day is My Night” is a fascinating and innovative portrait of Chinese immigrant life in New York by Lynne Sachs. Sachs made the film through a lengthy series of workshops with Chinatown residents who became the film’s authors and performers. Most of the actors are retired people who have had some experience performing in amateur dance and theater productions, so they are comfortable as performers, without being overly polished. Only one makes his living as a performer: the wedding and nightclub singer Yun Xiu Huang, whose charismatic screen presence is an engaging part of the film. The film is framed around the common immigrant experience of living in “shift bed houses,” crowded apartments where the beds are shared in shifts between those with daytime and nighttime jobs.
The film employs a variety of story-telling modes to convey the immigrant experience: scripted monologues, improvised scenes, and verité footage. The actors have all either lived in shift bed houses, or are familiar with them, so the monologues combine autobiography with biography. There is also one completely fictional element in the film: the character of a Puerto Rican girl who comes to stay in the house, which is used to dramatize the characters’ relationship with non-Chinese. This untraditional approach to documentary filmmaking, freely mixing the spontaneous and the staged, proves to be an innovative way to use multiple strategies for telling a story about the subjective experiences of immigrants, which would be hard to convey through conventional documentary techniques. In a similarly hybrid way, Sachs deftly blends digital footage with sequences shot on film. The staged scenes have lush lighting and lovely cinematography by Sean Hanley and Ethan Mass, making “Your Day is My Night” a more visually sumptuous experience than most documentaries.
We see some of the pleasant parts of communal living, such as sharing cake on a holiday in the kitchen. The scenes of food preparation show that one of the great aspects of New York Chinese culture is that every meal is carefully prepared from fresh ingredients, as opposed to the fast food options eaten by many other immigrants as well as middle class New Yorkers. Some scenes depict frankly the friction that can develop when roommates not only share a tiny room, but a bed as well. One of the film’s most visually lavish and fun sequences is the elaborate Chinese wedding where Mr. Huang is singing, with its gaudy ballroom decorations, perfect groom and bride, and dancing girls who look like they popped out of a Chinese music video. But the film also depicts less glamorous occupations, such as working as a dishwasher in the crowded kitchen of a restaurant.
All of the monologues reference beds or sleeping in some way, and this theme organizes the material around the search for refuge from the hardships of life, whether it is grinding poverty in the US, or atrocities which the characters endured as young people during the Cultural Revolution in China, or the wrenching separations caused by war and by immigration itself. It is striking how beds become poetic metaphors with so much resonance, as in the anecdote a woman tells about sharing her bed with her grandmother until her grandmother dies when the girl is 14. Afterwards, she has the whole mattress to herself, but she still only sleeps on “her side,” as if to honor the importance that her grandmother still holds in her heart.
Between the monologues, a good part of the film is given over to montage sequences depicting the texture of Chinatown life. These beautifully shot and edited sequences combine exteriors which focus on arresting details of the street such as elevated subway tracks in the rain or old pamphlets affixed to lampposts, with interior shots of the characters in their restless attempts to sleep in crowded conditions, or their morning routines of Tai Chi. The soundtrack, too, is a carefully composed collage of ambient sounds. Stephen Vitiello’s haunting score of piano, guitar and electronica creates an atmosphere of suspended contemplation which greatly adds to the film’s power. These sequences are highly effective at conveying the flavor of everyday life for the characters.
The characters in this film are poor and endure multiple hardships, but their culture and their lives also provide them with many pleasures and a supportive community. The language barrier keeps many of them locked inside Chinatown, but they still interact with non Chinese New Yorkers at key points. The obvious difficulties of managing a crowded, small apartment where people sleep in shifts only highlight the social resourcefulness and sophistication of the Chinese culture which makes it a workable, if not ideal situation. “Your Day is My Night” invents a style of filmmaking in which the storytelling skills of the subjects are tapped to make them into effective collaborators in a sophisticated film which creates a vivid sense of the inner lives of immigrants.