As part of a student film project, she traveled back to China to direct a story about her family's leaving the country when she was 7, not long after the crackdown at Tiananmen Square. On the second day of production, government officials appeared out of nowhere and shut her down.
"I knew there were censors, but I didn't know the level of government restraint that permeated all levels of society," she said. Rather than abandon the movie entirely, Yu returned to the United States and turned the project into the documentary, "A Moth in Spring," about her experiences with Chinese censors and the ambition of the film she wasn't allowed to make. It has played at several film festivals.
Even as they welcome more and more Chinese students onto their campuses, American educators recognize China as a burgeoning opportunity and are trying to dispatch more U.S. students and faculty to Shanghai and Beijing.
CalArts hopes to start a joint project with the Beijing Film Academy, and has been sending current students, recent graduates and professors to work with film students on other Chinese campuses. USC's Harris pairs seven American students with seven Chinese students to make documentary shorts together. "It's not a colonial approach," Harris said. "Each person has something to contribute."
Bob Bassett, dean of Chapman's Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, said the school is hosting 10 Chinese students and is working on a program in which students would split their studies between the two countries. "The aim of the program is to do international co-productions," Bassett said.
And Jordan Kerner, dean of the filmmaking school at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, says students in his producing program will soon start studying Mandarin because he is convinced that China is "where much of the funding for film is going to come from."
Though U.S. films are popular in China, Chinese movies have yet to make the same kind of inroads in America. Some of the Chinese filmmakers studying here suggest that the more the two countries share in film education, the more likely it will be that Chinese movies can be made in a way that will attract American interest.
Bai Yu, who is from Beijing and earned an MFA from CalArts in 2006, said one of the best features of her American campus was the independence to craft an interdisciplinary set of courses. "You have opportunities to do self-discovery, to find out what you really like," she said. Her instruction included copyright law and budgeting, "things that are not taught in China."
Yu, who is also an actress and singer, is now working in Beijing, trying to bring her education to bear on potential Chinese-American co-productions. "I want to make Hollywood-style action films for the Chinese market," the 33-year-old says. "Very few Chinese filmmakers have been trained in the United States, so they don't know how to make those kind of movies."
Chloe Zhao, an MFA candidate at NYU, said she's optimistic that Chinese students returning to the mainland will help shape the future of Chinese cinema. "There's a new generation of filmmakers — independent filmmaking is really happening," she said. "Students who go back to China will make a huge difference. We just have more human stories to tell — a bigger sky."