Crafting Empathy Through Cinema: The Visionary Works of Award-Winning Filmmaker Yanghuixiao Gao

Portia Leigh
8 min readMay 7, 2024


Every filmmaker has a style that is uniquely their own. While some are visual-centric and others are more focused on story, the filmmaker’s style and cinematic choices greatly determine where we place our attention and at least in part, how we experience the film.

For Chinese filmmaker Yanghuixiao Gao, the power of film comes down to the medium’s ability to connect the audience to the character’s emotional experience, a power that she wields brilliantly in her recent dramatic film “What If.’

Filmmaker Yanghuixiao Gao shot by Yue Hua

“I’m mostly interested in slow cinema, drama, dark comedy and psychological thriller,” explains Yanghuixiao Gao. “I love digging into human nature, both the dark side and the loving side. I believe it’s both of these that make us human, and interesting.”

Set in a small town in China, “What If” is a uniquely touching film that sheds light on the difficult decision a single woman in her early 20s faces upon discovering that she has a life altering gynecological issue. In the film, Yilin, played by Cuishan Liang (“Till Love Do Us Part”) is faced with the decision of whether to have a surgery that could prevent her from ever having children, but potentially save her life, or rush to find a mate so she can have a child before the issue forces her to have her uterus removed.

Gao’s meticulous use of lighting, set design and choice of camera movements, coupled with her direction of the actors, paints a very isolating picture that drives home the sense of loneliness the girl feels as she transitions through a time that is made even more difficult by the fact that she faces external pressure from her mother and society to have children– when what she really needs is a hug and someone to tell her it will be okay.

“It’s a very personal story for me, because it’s based on a personal experience,” explains Gao. “I was initially inspired by the personal revelation that there always exists a hidden timeline dictating when the ‘right’ moment for a woman to become a mother is.”

Film Poster for “What If”

While countless films explore topics like abortion and miscarriage, few dive into the scenario of a woman being forced early on to choose her future of whether to become a mother or not due to unexpected issues; and the mental, physical and emotional impact that choice has on the woman. This is something Gao does brilliantly in “What If” as she takes us into the daily life of Yilin. For Gao, “What If” is something of a personal essay on self- acceptance, which begs the question of a woman’s worth outside of her ability to just become a mother. Can she be accepted by society, by her family and most importantly, by herself, if she doesn’t fulfill this role?

Though still making its way across the festival circuit, “What If” has already achieved impressive international attention. Since beginning its festival run last year, the film has won the Festival Award and Special Jury Award from the Mokkho International Film Festival, the International Jury Award from the Festival del Cinema di Spello, the Best Drama Award from the Paradise Film Festival and others. Additionally “What If” has been chosen as an Official Selection of

the Oscar qualifying HollyShorts Film Festival, the Oscar and GOYA qualifying Festival Internacional de Cine de Huesca, Valencia International Film Festival Cinema Jove, the BIFA qualifying Director’s Notes festival and others.

“Working with Yanghuixiao was truly remarkable. Her unique vision and directing style seem to stem from her insatiable curiosity about the world. Her clear vision always provided the team with precise guidance… and her exceptional observation skills and innate sensitivity greatly contributed to the film’s success,” remarked “What If” lead actress Cuishan Liang.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the film and found its end result quite impactful… it effectively conveys the character’s pain, eliciting genuine emotions from the audience. Additionally, its selection for several renowned film festivals is a testament to its quality and success.”

Over the years Gao has become known for her work as the writer, director, and producer of other narrative films such as “The First Snowfall,” which was awarded at the Peak City International Film Festival, and “On the Way Home,” which was nominated for awards at the Seattle Asian American Film Festival, Tryon International Film Festival and the Asian Film Festival in Los Angeles, as well as the documentary “Auks One,” which took home the Best Documentary Short Award from the Andromeda Film Festival, and was nominated for the NYIFA Award from the New York International Film Awards and several others.

Film Poster for “Auks One”

One aspect of her work that sets her apart is the dedication she gives to the emotions of her characters and the lengths she goes to in order to help her audience connect to their story. This is something that we can see in both her narrative and documentary work.

She explains, “In my works, it is important to me to make sure every character is vivid and empathetic to the audience. I am extremely interested in analyzing human nature and people’s subtle but unconscious behaviors.”

Back in film school, Gao came across Japanese director Tetsuya Nakashima’s film “Memories of Matsuko.” The film had a tremendous impact that helped her to not only come to pivotal realizations about herself as an individual, but also galvanize precisely what it was she wanted to share as a filmmaker.

“It was at that moment that I felt how powerful a great film could be and how a film could make a huge impact on the audience,” recalls Gao.

“Growing up in China, there was a prevailing expectation, particularly for women, to subsume their own identities in service to others. This societal pressure to prioritize the needs of others over one’s own individuality led to a disconnect within myself that I didn’t fully recognize until encountering ‘Memories of Matsuko.’ Through the lens of this film, I reflected a version of myself that had been obscured — a realization that sparked a journey of self-discovery and personal growth.”

In addition to proving herself as a writer, director and producer, Gao is also a skilled cinematographer. In fact she served as the cinematographer on her film “Auks One,” as well as on Dinghui Liu’s 2022 drama “Invisible Green” and Yue Hua’s 2024 film “Trace on My Body,” which had multiple screenings in London and across Europe, and was nominated for an award at the Grrl Haus Cinema festival. Prior to moving to the US she also spent four years as a professional editor in China.

Her experience taking on a vast range of roles across departments has been hugely influential in the success of her work as a producer and director. Though it is a challenging task to balance the two roles, with the director side of her brain wanting to make everything happen for the story and the producer side keeping in mind logistics, her experience across departments has furthered her ability to collaborate with and understand the needs of her team, and work in a way that best supports the overall project.

“These experiences allow me to know how to communicate with my creative department heads and crew members because I know their language and understand their work. It works for either when I am a director or a producer,” explains Gao. “For me, the most important thing when working with my team, either as a director or a producer, is to make my team feel heard and understood. I believe that is what glues a team together.”

Yanghuixiao Gao (center) speaking during a Q&A session next to other filmmakers at the HollyShorts Festival

Over the years Gao has established a highly regarded reputation as a talented and experienced filmmaker, something that led her to be invited as a judge of the recent 16th Annual New York City Independent Film Festival, the same festival where her film “Auks One” screened just a few years prior.

“I tried not to see myself as a judge when watching their films, but more just an audience with a perspective, so that I could really pay attention to feel what was working and what might need some more work,” recalls Gao.

“As a filmmaker myself, it felt good to be able to see a great pool of filmmakers’ work, what other filmmakers are doing, what they care about, and what they want to talk about. It’s like I’m communicating with them in a very different way.”

Not one to slow down in the wake of success, Yanghuixiao Gao is already busy crafting the story for a feature film that centers on themes of self-love, growth and familial relationships. The film tracks the journey of a first-generation Chinese woman in America who, while discovering her true identity away from her family in China, faces the difficult decision of whether to return and care for them as they grow older or cling to her newfound freedom.

One of the things that makes Gao’s work so refreshing and unique is the way she infuses her stories with universal themes of struggle and personal-growth and presents them through a female lens. A talented storyteller in her own right, Gao is greatly inspired by the struggles of women who are searching for the strength to find and express their own voice in a society that has forced them to submit to others– something we can see in her films “What If” and “On the Way Home.”

“My own journey has imbued me with a profound desire to dive into the obstacles and challenges I face and share my experiences with others through storytelling, in the hope of inspiring similar journeys of self-discovery and empowerment,” says Gao.

“For women, especially those who have long been suppressed or marginalized, the journey to self-realization requires immense courage and effort. It involves breaking free from societal constraints, finding one’s voice, and daring to be seen and heard in a world that often seeks to silence or diminish individuality.”

In addition to working on her own films, Gao is also producing the films “Hand” by Benny Chen (“Sunshine in the Rain”) and “Visiting Hour” from Cannes Film Festival Award nominee Li Yingtong (”Feng Zheng”), as well as co-producing and potentially DPing “When People Fear People,” an upcoming feature from Dominican filmmaker Cecilia Caraballo. Aside from producing and directing films, she is also busy working as a commercial producer and director for c318 Films, which is known for producing commercials for companies such as CMB,, Industrial Finance, Ecoflow and more.

As a filmmaker Yanghuixiao Gao’s unique vision and voice shines through her stories in a powerful way that invites audiences to experience life from a different perspective. With each new film comes a new point of view, and we can’t wait to see what comes next.

“The willingness and effort to try to understand others is what makes this world feel warm, loving, worthy, and hopeful, and what makes us human, and how we connect with each other,” says Gao.

“I don’t want to tell the audience what’s right or wrong. Instead, I would like to share authentic stories and genuine emotions. There is no right or wrong, it’s just different decisions. They might not agree with what the characters do, but after seeing the movie, they will understand where the characters’ decisions come from. ”



Portia Leigh

Portia is a journalist & poet from Los Angeles. You can find her work through №3 Magazine,,, and more.