Meet Xinying Lao, One of the 5 Winners of the 5th Annual Focus Features & JetBlue Student Short Film Showcase

A Q&A with the writer and director of Xiaohui and His Cows.

The Gotham Film & Media Institute announced that Xinying Lao’s short film Xiaohui and His Cows is one of five works chosen by a special jury of filmmakers, curators, and critics for the Focus Features & JetBlue Student Short Film Showcase. Created as her MFA thesis film for New York University, Xiaohui and His Cows was selected out of a pool of projects from 34 different graduate programs.

In Xiaohui and His Cows, Xiaohui (Jinhao Wei), a 9-year-old boy who lives in a mountain village with his grandfather, misses his parents who live and work in the city. His sadness at being separated from them prompts him to do everything he can to keep a cow and her calf stay together.

We asked Lao to tell us a little about the inspiration for her film, the artists who influenced her, and her plans for the future.

Follow her on Instagram: @laopaopao

Xinying Lao's Xiaohui and His Cows

Where did the idea for Xiaohui and His Cows come from?

In 2021, I visited my dad’s hometown, which is a village in Guangxi, a province in southwest China. People there raise two cows—a baby cow and a mother cow. They usually keep the mother cow for decades but sell the calf when it reaches seven months to one year old. My grandma told me that when people take the calf, even the tamest mother cow will become extremely aggressive and attack people. It must be heartbreaking for the mother cow to be forcibly separated from her child every year. I would try to stop the calf from being taken, and so would my protagonist, Xiaohui.

In the summer of 2021, I spent half a month working as a volunteer teacher in a remote mountain village where I got to know the kids. I noticed that they seldom talk about their parents. When I ask about their parents, a subtle glimmer appears in their eyes. Most of the Chinese children living in the countryside are left-behind children. They only see their parents once a year, during the week of Chinese New Year. Their parents have to travel to far cities to work. What does separation mean to the kids? Are they so used to being apart that they don't feel the pain anymore?

During the pandemic, I also experienced separation. I was in New York, longing to go home, but I couldn’t afford a flight back home. I missed my family so much. In this short film, I wanted to express the longing for a connection between Xiaohui and his parents, and also between the mother cow and the baby cow. I hope this story can resonate with an audience who have also experienced separation.

Filmmaker Xinying Lao

How did you find your cast?

When my producer and I were location scouting a village a friend had recommended, our friend’s young brother, Jinhao Wei, hosted us. After spending the day with Jinhao, my producer said, "I think this kid is good. Why not give him a try?" I set up a prompt for Jinhao to improvise and recorded it on my phone. "Imagine your dad suddenly comes home today and brings you a gift,” I told him. Jinhao's performance was very genuine and natural. He was able to stay calm and be himself in front of the camera. Jinhao's mom warmly invited us to stay for dinner, and we auditioned her and her son together. Jinhao's reaction to his mom was also very genuine.

Later, I auditioned city children who had acted in commercials. Their acting, however, felt staged, and they didn’t understand what it’s like to live in a rural area. I also went to the elementary school in the village to interview other rural children. Some of them were very shy in front of the camera, and some were not allowed to participate by their parents who feared we might be kidnappers. But some of the child roles were cast from the elementary school.

Jinhao and his mother were my first casting choice. They perfectly fit the characters in my script. They are real residents in the mountains. The dynamic between them is believable and beautiful. Although they have never watched a movie—it is very difficult for them to travel to a theater—they were very passionate about filmmaking.

We also visited several villages to find the right cows. We once got stuck between a group of cows, sitting in the car with a herd in front of us and a steep cliff on our left. Fortunately, our producer was able to drive us out of danger.

I wanted to find a real mother and calf cow. We weeded out cows with aggressive personalities and the ones whose calves were the same size as their mothers. Finally, in my aunt’s village, I found the two cows that appear in the film—gentle, obedient, spiritual, and beautiful. Jinhao was a little scared of the cow at first, but after we did a test shoot of the two of them together, he told me, “Now I’m not afraid of cows anymore!”

Xiaohui and His Cows

What In the final cut most captures what you saw in your mind when you first imagined the film?

The interaction between mother and child, as well as the moments between Xiaohui and the cow, were captured successfully. I managed to grasp the moments when Xiaohui lay on the back of the cow, stroked her, and gazed at her. These shots with cows were challenging to capture. However, the final effect was exceptionally beautiful. The interaction between the cow and its calf, as well as between Xiaohui and his mother, was particularly genuine and moving. The destinies of these two pairs of mothers and offspring are intertwined in the story. Their sincerity in front of the camera is consistent.

What was the biggest lesson learned working on Xiaohui and His Cows?

Plan ahead. Due to the limited budget, time, and location, filming this movie posed significant challenges. I lived in my aunt’s village for a month, doing location scouting, casting, rehearsals, and more. I added more details to my script by observing the local people’s lives. During rehearsals, I discovered that our lead actor, Jinhao, could climb trees, so in the first scene of the movie, the audience sees him up in a tree.

In the script, Xiaohui's plan for distracting his grandfather is to release the pigs and make him chase after them. A few days before shooting, we attempted to release the pigs, but some pigs refused to leave the pen, while others ran too fast, requiring an hour-long chase to get them back. As a result, my key crew members and I brainstormed and came up with the scenes that now appear in the film.

Additionally, because we were filming during the pandemic, the entire crew had to undergo COVID tests at the local hospital in advance, and we needed to have medical supplies on hand, in case anything happened. I am grateful that we started pre-production early enough to ensure we were adequately prepared for the actual shoot.

As an emerging filmmaker, who are your influences?

My favorite director is Hirokazu Koreeda. I admire the vivid details that he steals from reality. I've learned many useful techniques for directing child actors from his interviews. Children in his films are always authentic. His stories are heartwarming but not cliché, with each character having both good and bad traits, and families reflecting complex contradictions.

As for writers, my favorite is the Chinese author Yu Hua. He has a talent for using the most simple, concise, and humorous language to portray characters. In his descriptions, I can sense the subjective world as seen through the characters' eyes. He inspires me to convey characters' feelings through an objective lens.

However, the greatest influence on me actually comes from my family and the people I encounter in my life. My mother is my best friend. She’s very talkative. She often shares with me big and small stories from her life. The world always surprises me, sometimes being even more interesting and dramatic than I can imagine. Before starting to write a script, I always spend time observing and interacting closely with the groups of people I want to portray. Many of my stories are inspired by reality.

Xiaohui and His Cows

What was the first film you saw that made you want to be a filmmaker and why?

The first movie I ever watched was probably Transformers. At that time, I was fascinated by this genre of movie. Occasionally, I would even fantasize about being as cool as Michael Bay, directing on set and creating spectacular scenes with special effects.

However, what really made me seriously consider becoming a director was Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice. My favorite scene is when Darcy walks in the morning mist from far away, covering a long distance to reach Elizabeth, whose eyes are fixed on him. He says to her: “I love, I love, I love you.” Elizabeth's response is, “Your hands are cold.” This scene made me unable to hold back tears. It's unique and beautiful. At that time, I believed what made it so moving was mainly the director's decisions. The director didn’t excessively dramatize it. Instead, he handled this romantic moment in a gentle, delicate, yet powerful way. How wonderful it would be if I could convey emotional power to the audience like that! At that moment, I also wanted to be able to convey emotions with my design and make the audience feel moved without them sensing the director’s hands.

Are you working on a feature film?

I am currently working on my thesis short film. Just three months away from the Chinese college entrance exam, a high school student named Keke follows a mysterious red-haired boy and an Alaskan dog from the campus and experiences a wild night in an abandoned park. The next day, the red-haired boy disappears, and Keke returns to campus. While his peers are buried in exam papers, Keke, who was once dedicated to his studies, decides to lie down on a chair and sleep.

At the same time, I am also writing two feature-length scripts. In Chichi, a 12-year-old girl struggles to adapt to a new school and her young stepmother, Yaya. Chichi's biological mother died two years before while on a global adventure. During the summer, Chichi retraces her mother's journey in hopes of understanding her mother’s thoughts. Yaya, concerned for her safety, secretly follows her. During this journey, Chichi and Yaya develop a new understanding of each other. In Weiwei, a high school girl cheats on multiple exams. Cheating makes her the top student and significantly improves her social status in the class. When she learns that cheating on the college entrance exam could land her in jail, she struggles with this unethical behavior.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.