The Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge serves a metropolis of over six and a half million people. It took 500,000 tons of cement and one million tons of steel to build. It is one of the most recognizable landmarks in China.
At least once a week, someone uses it to commit suicide.
China’s problems with mental health do not start and end with the Nanjing Bridge—at over 200,000 reported deaths a year, China is the site of one fifth of the suicides worldwide—but it most definitely has become a symbol. As the most popular place to commit suicide in the world, it casts a foreboding shadow across the city [x].
Angel of Nanjing, directed by Jordan Horowitz and Rhode Island native Frank Ferendo, paints the bridge as a transitory go-between. A layer of greyness seems to cover its surfaces, to permeate the very air, like a world blanketed in ash. Cars and trucks roll by in the center lanes. Pedestrians amble along, or loiter by the railing. There are few smiles, little joy. The world feels static even as people go about their lives.
There is one bright spot amongst the dullness: a man dressed in a red windbreaker, riding a scooter up and down the lane. The man is Chen Si. His mission: bring the number of suicides from the bridge to zero.
What began as simple volunteer duty—patrolling the bridge and looking for people who might jump—now takes up the majority of Chen’s time. Chen is not paid for his work, nor does he have regular hours. When he isn’t on the bridge, he is often on the phone, talking people through their problems, or blogging about his own thoughts and feelings. He has a day job to support his family—but as Horowitz and Ferendo frame it, his true work has little to do with business and all to do with people.
You can see it in their eyes, Chen says, when you encounter someone who is ready to die. And he demonstrates, time and again, how correct his instincts are. He pulls people away from climbing the rails. He speaks with them, takes them to dinner. Helps them find work, reconciles with their families. His most important job, however, is simply listening.
“Mental illness and depression are fairly taboo subjects in any country,” Horowitz said in an e-mail interview. “However, in China there are far fewer outlets where people can go to seek help.” Indeed, according to Bloomberg Business, “Of the approximately 173 million people in China estimated to suffer from ‘a diagnosable psychiatric disorder,’ only about 15 million have ever received medical treatment” [x]. There is a shortage of doctors, a shortage of training, a shortage of the simple willingness to listen.
Chen is not a psychiatrist. He repeats this fact many times. But he displays a profound understanding of human nature, a deeply-seeded respect for the sanctity of life. Angel of Nanjing masterfully illustrates the life of a man dedicated to helping others. He is, as the title would have it, a true angel for the people of Nanjing.
Read our e-mail interview with directors Jordan Horowitz and Frank Ferendo below:
RIIFF: How did you hear about Chen’s story? What drew you to this topic?
Jordan Horowitz: I read a small article online about Chen and knew immediately I had to make this film. Seeing as I knew nothing about filming in China I thought it’d be a good idea to bring on a partner. I had known Frank for a while and we had worked together in the past, so I asked him if he wanted to jump in with me, and the rest is history.
RIIFF: What kind of relationship did you build with Chen over the course of making this movie? Did anything about his personality surprise you?
Frank Ferendo: We went out to Nanjing, China on May 5, 2010 and filmed with Chen over the course of a year and half. During that time we got to know him, his family, and his friends, very well. He doesn’t speak any English, and our Chinese was limited to just the basics, so even though we formed somewhat of a bond with him, I don’t think we ever fully understood him.
I think the thing that surprised us the most was how complicated of a man he is. Though he is doing such great things, he himself is just an ordinary man, with the same inner struggles that we all have and face. Even after principle photography on the film ended, we continued to keep in regular contact with Mr. Chen, and have even met a few times for dinner just to catch up.
JH: Chen has a great sense of humor that really comes through in the film, and I’m always amazed by his ability to hold on to that despite all the tragedy that surrounds him.
RIIFF: Do you feel that the attitude towards mental illness is different in China than it is in the US? If you have screened in China as well as in the US, what has been the audience reaction to this film in the different countries?
JH: I think mental illness and depression are fairly taboo subjects in any country. However, in China there are far fewer outlets where people can go to seek help. We tried calling one of their “hotlines” and it was a total joke. The person on the other end kept hanging up on us. That’s why Chen gets so many calls. Because there aren’t many other places to turn. He certainly has no one to talk to when he’s depressed, which is why keeping a blog is so important to him.
What’s interesting to me is that we all experience these feelings at one time or another. It’s part of what makes us human, so there’s really no reason to feel ashamed, yet most people, myself included, still do.
RIIFF: How has making this film affected you personally? Has it changed your outlook on life? What have you learned?
FF: I can’t even begin to explain how my life has changed since making this film. Before production we were living in New York City, and knew nothing about China. All we had was our cameras and an amazing story.
Originally we thought we would be gone for three months filming. I ended up living in China for a total of four years. People often ask us if the subject matter affected us. I would say that, luckily, I was able to look at the material as subjectively as possible, but after seeing an ordinary man going to extreme lengths to help others it did strengthen my feelings of wanting to help others as well. And I hope audiences will take away similar feelings from our film.
RIIFF: I had to take several breaks while watching this movie to keep the subject matter from overwhelming me—which shows how powerful the story is. Was it difficult to maintain your own peace of mind and separate yourself from the heavy emotions involved in this film?
JH: Of course it was difficult at times, but I think seeing the struggles some of these people were going through really helped me gain perspective into my own problems, and see how insignificant they really were. People are always bitching to me about these ridiculous “first-world” problems like not knowing which car to buy, and I’m like, do you realize how ridiculous that is?
RIIFF: How do you hope this film will affect people (spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, etc.)? If the audience could only take away one thing, what would you want that to be?
JH: One day after Chen had already left the bridge we stumbled onto a man who was giving away his ATM password on the phone and was about to jump, and it was on us to save him. That really made me think about the personal responsibility we all share towards one another as human beings, which is what I think is the thing Chen hopes will be our biggest takeaway from the film. I think if people understand and act on that it will allow his work to continue on long after he’s no longer able to.
RIIFF: Are you working on anything now? What’s next for you?
FF: Part of the reason I stayed in China after filming was to write a script with Nanjing and parts of Shanghai as the backdrop. This time delving into the narrative format, I wrote a thrilling love story between a young American boy and a local Chinese girl who are trying to find each other during a deadly virus outbreak, called “Torn Apart.” However, next I plan to focus on another script I wrote in Vietnam called “Repaid.” It’s a crime/thriller about a naive young backpacker who gets caught up in the drug trade in South East Asia, and will feature Vithaya Pansringarm (Only God Forgives) as Quan, the local mafia boss who he ends up owing a lot of money to. Both films are in development and more info can be seen at Balance-Films.com
JH: I’m currently in post production on a narrative feature that I wrote and directed here in Rhode Island. More information is available on my website, JordansFilms.com.