A First Glace at Always Come in Second with DP Yifu Li
It would be difficult to find a film with as much heart as Always Come in Second. Every coming-of-age film has its own unique perspective with a cross-cultural thread of relatability and this story does so in the form of a Chinese teen named Tyler. This is an idyllic blend of comedy and drama which illustrates the struggles of achieving your own dream as opposed to the ones held by those who love you. The intersect of high school and different cultures is perhaps the most volatile of scenarios; cinematographer and co-director (alongside Todd Lien) Yifu Li has taken the audience inside a realm full of angst and joy with extraordinary craftsmanship. The shorthand required by his position on this film has served it exceedingly well, culminating in a distinct emotional personality. International notoriety has followed Always Come in Second with a trio of Best Director awards (Istanbul Film Festival, Beijing Film Awards, Florence Film Awards), as well as awards from the Canadian Diversity Film Festival, Hollywood Gold Awards, WorldFest Houston, Prague International Film Festival, and many more. When asked how he has dealt with the attention this film has brought to him, Yifu comments, “The core of filmmaking is to present humanity and hidden subtle emotions on the big screen. In regards to this requirement, there’s not that much difference between the titles of DP and director because both are creators. In regards to the recognition of Always Come In Second, I understand that my ability to catch the tiny details in family relationships, in emotions, moved and impressed my peers. I have the ability to refine the sparkles from life to the silver screen, to focus on the universal human emotions for others to feel. Seeing others receive the message I’m crafting always fills me with pride.”
While Always Come in Second is a story about family, it also resonates profoundly in a social-media centric society. Ultimately this is a story about how we should define ourselves and rebuke comparison. The main character of this film is an American born Chinese teen named Tyler. His mother, an immigrant to the U.S., wants the best for both her sons and she provides them with the best: the latest iPhone, K-Pop dance lessons, expensive sneakers, and more. While his elder sibling Thomas excels at most things, Tyler struggles. His passion lies in sports, specifically basketball. Resentment takes seed where it should not, in the family unit. Tensions explode at a family gathering but this leads to acceptance and understanding when all parties present their points with honesty.
The challenge of any film is to bring the audience into the emotional state of the characters. Yifu seems to achieve this with astounding ease in Always Come in Second. A scene in which this is highly evident is when Tyler’s basketball time is interrupted by his mother for piano lessons. For Tyler’s “court time”, Yifu prefers tight shots with different body parts such as hands, knees, elbows, etc. A handheld camera and fast cuts communicate the sense of freedom and enthusiasm Tyler feels playing the game. When Tyler’s mother arrives and asks him to stop for piano lessons, the frame instantly widens and adopts an almost stagnant energy with a slight downward angle. The concept is easily perceived, Tyler has left his happy place and is thrust into the real world again. More proof of how insightful Yifu’s approach is can be seen in the piano lesson scene. His work here illustrates how a gifted DP can transform text into a powerful moment. Yifu expounds, “For this scene in which Tyler and Thomas have a piano class together, I designed a complementary/opposite visual interpretation. I used the dolly on a curved track for Thomas’s part. The camera movement matched the flow of the water like a song on the piano, smooth and elegant. The camera was making a circle movement to center Thomas, to enhance his role model brother profile. In contrast, Tyler’s part was shot on the locked-down camera, with him off-centered, making him less confident to be seen in the frame. When we shot Tyler’s part, I adjusted the light to grab the afternoon sunlight at a slightly lower angle to bring out more shades on Tyler’s face.”
Every generation deals with the confrontation of establishing who they want to be, and every generation has their own unique set of circumstances in dealing with this. While the theme of this film may be an evergreen story, the ability to present this core message without repeating previous versions is far more demanding. Yifu Li, director Todd Lien, and their collaborators have crafted something distinctive and memorable in their version of this tale. The specificity of it ironically speaks to those from all different walks of life. In regards to the visual language of this film, thanks to Yifu’s contribution, we can inhabit Tyler and relate to his desire to decide who he will be while coming to the realization that those who love us can make bad decisions that originate from a good place.
Writer: Winston Scott