An animated scene from Leon Lee's latest documentary film, "Letter from Masanjia."

An animated scene from Leon Lee's latest documentary film, "Letter from Masanjia."

‘I’d be in prison in China’: Surrey filmmaker shines light on a ‘message in a bottle’ story in native country

Leon Lee's latest work, 'Letter from Masanjia,' featured at Vancouver's DOXA fest in May

Leon Lee is pretty blunt about his current situation: “I’d be in prison in China if I weren’t here in Canada making films,” he said in a phone interview this week.

Lee, a South Surrey resident who moved here from China in 2006, is a hot property in the world of documentary films, having won a Peabody Award in 2014 for his debut doc Human Harvest, which exposed China’s murderous and illegal organ trade.

This week Lee is off to Toronto for that city’s influential Hot Docs festival to debut his latest movie, Letter from Masanjia, a rare look inside China’s police state through the lens of a prisoner of conscience as he revisits his torturous past.

The 77-minute film will make its Western Canadian premiere at Vancouver’s DOXA fest on May 5, with the director in attendance for a post-screening Q&A session. The event starts at 2 p.m. at Vancity Theatre (1181 Seymour St.).

The intriguing Letter from Masanjia starts off with the story of a woman in Oregon who in 2012 discovered an “S.O.S.” note stashed in a box of Halloween decorations from Kmart. When she went public with the discovery, the story went viral and eventually revealed the letter-writer as Sun Yi, a former Chinese prisoner who had been jailed for his spiritual beliefs.

“Although no longer imprisoned, Sun Yi still suffered from the constant fear of retaliation from the Chinese government,” says a description of the film on the DOXA website. “In spite of this, he bravely set forth on a journey to share his story” with the help of Lee, who is no longer allowed to visit his native country and, as such, had to assist Sun Yi from afar to make the film.

“Like many people,” Lee recalled, “I had read the story about the woman who found this note, because it had quite a bit of international media coverage. I contacted her, and the more difficult part was to find the author of the letter in China, and that took quite some time, but through a network of underground journalists and dissidents, I managed to track him down.”


Sun Yi, an engineer by trade, was thinking of making a film, and had heard of Lee’s work.

“He was very happy to work with me, and so then the even more difficult thing was to pull this off in China, because it had to be filmed secretly there, making sure that he was not captured,” Lee explained. “Because of my previous films, I’m not allowed to return to China, so I wasn’t able to be there with him. So the first problem was that he was not allowed to make a film like this there, and number two, he’s not a filmmaker, so we mostly communicated through Skype, and tried to figure out what to do, teaching him how to use a camera, so there is authenticity and immediacy with that, that came from all this hand-held footage.”

As a filmmaker, Lee’s goal is “to shine a light on highly-personal true stories that resonate universally across language and culture, giving a voice to the voiceless.”

Next up for the filmmaker is a narrative version of Letter from Masanjia, and he’s also working on a stop-motion animated movie about orphans in China. “Hopefully that one will be out later this year,” Lee said of the latter project.

The 17th annual edition of DOXA Documentary Film Festival will take place from May 3 to 13, at six venues in Vancouver. More details are posted at

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