In the winter of 2004, Yu Guangyi entered the snowy forests of Black Bear Valley to record the lives of some of China's last lumberjacks. He spent four months, shooting with a single Sony PD150, a documentary that captures the dangerous and arduous nature of their work as well as their traditions and camaraderie.
The documentary was Yu's first venture into film-making. Originally entitled The Last Lumberjacks, it has since opted for a more literal translation, Timber Gang, of its Chinese title Mu Bang - and was entered as a late submission to the inaugural Cinema Digital Seoul Film Festival (CinDi) in July. A showcase for new Asian talent from the region, the festival hit on a rough diamond. The film took two top prizes ex-aequo, awarded respectively by a jury of directors and one of critics.
"What Yu has done is amazing," said Lav Diaz, one of the jurors, whose film Death In The Land Of Encantos closes the Horizons section at Venice this year. "He's proven that digital has truly revolutionised film-making. He's just one man - who had no previous experience film-making - and he went into the mountains with a single camera, and look what he brought out."
Timber Gang has been selected to screen in competition at the Vancouver International Film Festival (September 27-October 12).
The CinDi critics' jury lauded the film for its "intuitive, painterly approach, the absence of conventions and cliches and the way the director resists any temptation to impose a narrative on his material."
Indeed the film works without any music or narration. With a self-financed budget of $30,000, it took Yu a year and a half to edit on his own.
Originally a painter and a graduate of the China Academy of Art, Yu was born in Heilongjiang Province and took up the digital camera to record the disappearing traditions and livelihoods of his people.
"I'd been away for 20 years, in Daqing where China's largest oilfield is found," he explains. "The difference between the lives of the affluent people in that city and the poor people back home was immense. Society doesn't care about them, but they live happily."
Yu is now editing his next feature, a more dramatic documentary set around a community displaced by a new dam in Harbin. One of them moves to live in the woods, ending up with a makeshift family and menagerie of his own.
A film-maker with a social conscience, Yu says: "In our modern times, there are unique cultures and ways of life that are disappearing. I feel this sort of work has an anthropological significance - we are leaving a record for coming generations."
Joan H Lee, an executive at Korea's CJ Entertainment, a CinDi fest sponsor, says: "Yu's film is evidence of how digital is changing film-making, cinematic aesthetics, and a film-maker's power to directly affect an audience. We already look forward to seeing a second and a third film from this director."
YU GUANGYI'S CULTURAL LIFE
Favourite books: The Field Of Life And Death about the tragic lives of peasant women, by Xiaohon, a left-wing female writer of the 1930s; and Blood Coloured Evening by Lao Gui, a modern novel in a documentary-style. I also like biographies of politicians and ancient Chinese military strategies.
Favourite film: Nanook Of The North by Robert J Flaherty.
Inspirations: Film-making is a continuation of my artistic pursuit as a painter - only the medium has changed. My inspiration comes from daily life. I feel the need to record the changes in China and how they affect the people.