After his son died on a USC film shoot, a father is still looking for answers

A man holds a black and white photograph of his son.

Hualun Wang, father of Peng “Aaron” Wang, holds a portrait of his son.

(Jay L Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Filmmaking was 29-year-old cinematographer Peng Wang’s dream. He grew up in a small town in northern Sichuan Province, where his family ran a small grocery store and saved everything to support his son’s filmmaking career.

Wang, who went by the first name Aaron on the Orange County film school campus at Chapman University, was cautious and generous, his father told the Times in an interview.

When he received a call early April morning to say his son had died in an accident while filming a UC student film in the Imperial Sand Dunes, he was stunned.

“There is no greater pain in life than this kind of grief,” Hualun Wang said in a speech from the Chapman University guest quarters provided to him. “With our son gone, we have to endure all the pain, all the societal pressures, and the pressure to take care of ourselves as we grow old.”

More than a month after Peng Wang’s death, two of California’s largest film schools, their students and the family of the young and popular filmmaker are still grappling with the tragedy. Friends and students held three memorials for the cameraman, whose death was a stark reminder of the dangers of the film industry. Crews have fought for safer film set conditions for decades, a struggle reignited last year by the death of another cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins, on the set of the film Rust.

“As a filmmaker, God only knows where he would have gone, but I feel like he made a difference,” said Johnny E. Jensen, an Emmy-nominated cinematographer and professor at Chapman’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts.

He spoke at three memorial services for Wang, including one attended by 200 classmates, friends and colleagues at Chapman University.

Men at a film shoot with a camera.

Cameraman Peng Wang holds a camera.

(Zilai Feng)

“He was such a philosopher and a wonderful person,” Jensen said, his voice shaking. “He wanted to help poor people in China. He had great ideas about how we could all live better together.”

Raised in China, Wang’s family had to make sacrifices to support his cinematic endeavours. They rented a house in a bigger, more expensive city so he could go to a better school, his father said. In order to afford Peng’s tuition and living expenses abroad, they had to sell a house they owned, Hualun Wang said through an interpreter.

“It was his dream,” said Wang, 48, of his son’s passion for cinema and dream of studying film. “If your child has a dream, as a Chinese parent, you work hard to make the dream a reality.”

Wang’s parents divorced when he was a teenager.

He studied mathematics at Changchun University of Science and Technology, but soon discovered that his true passion was making small student films. He later went to a relative near Beijing University to work with student filmmakers there.

Around 2015 he left China for the USA and earned a degree in film studies from the University of Minnesota. He then attended Chapman’s graduate program at Orange.

During his three years at Chapman, Wang took a year off to start his professional career in China and began winning recognition awards. A short film he was working on, a supernatural story called Daemon, received an honorable mention for Best Drama at the 2020 Los Angeles Film Awards.

By the time he died, he had all but completed his studies with Chapman, so Chapman posthumously awarded his Master of Fine Arts degree.

After graduating, Wang had hoped to return to China to help independent filmmakers there. His father said he has traveled to Africa to make public service films and also to underdeveloped areas of China to teach.

A man sits in a backyard.

Hualun Wang traveled from Chengdu, Sichuan in China for his son’s funeral and was hosted by Chapman University, where he lived in a small house just off campus.

(Jay L Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

“He wanted to use films to express that the world needs love and compassion,” Wang said.

In late April, the third-year Chapman graduate student helped a group of USC film school students complete a project for a directing class. It was common for the diaspora of Chinese film students to help each other with film course projects, share details about their features, and cast on the Chinese instant messaging platform WeChat. This was a short film called “Finale” about a man traveling to his death in the desert.

Peng Wang was riding in the back seat of an SUV with three other filmmakers through the sand dunes of Imperial County when the vehicle overturned. The California Highway Patrol said Wang died at the scene after being partially ejected from the vehicle. He was wearing a helmet but no seat belt, the public information official said. Authorities are investigating the accident and no autopsy has been released.

USC said students at its prestigious film school appeared to have disregarded its safety policies and procedures while conducting filming at the Imperial Sand Dunes recreation area, a remote desert area three hours and more than 230 miles from its campus.

Without a translator, Hualun said he was unable to speak to police and had no contact with USC or the students who were in the vehicle with Wang.

The suggestion that he wasn’t wearing a seat belt struck his father as odd.

“[Peng was] a very cautious person,” Wang said. “He had a habit of wearing his seat belt.”

He was also frustrated with the response to his son’s death and believed that more should have been done to prevent such an accident.

“This is a prestigious university with 100 years of history that totally fails to take responsibility. [Peng] was a Chapman student. He didn’t know the USC rules. After a month, no organization has taken responsibility.”

In a statement emailed Monday, USC expressed its “deepest condolences” to Wang’s family.

A man stands in front of a zebra crossing and holds a photo in his hand.

Hualun Wang holds a photo of his son Peng Wang.

(Jay L Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

“Mr. Wang’s death was a terrible tragedy and an unfortunate reminder of the importance of adhering to safety regulations during filmmaking. The USC School of Cinematic Arts has comprehensive safety protocols and requirements that have been developed over many decades and shared by all of our Students are expected and trained to follow these. Unfortunately, the school is unable to effectively monitor and ensure safety if these established protocols are disregarded. The school’s commitment to safety has been, and continues to be, uncompromising.”

Chapman noted in a statement that filming was not an in-house production, adding that the school’s own safety protocols were extensive.

“Peng was a talented and popular member of the Dodge School of Film and Media Arts community. His loss was a loss to our entire Chapman family and we will miss him dearly,” said Cerise Valenzuela Metzger, a spokeswoman for Chapman University.

Late last month, the Asian World Film Festival in Westwood hosted a film retrospective that showcased a range of the cinematographer’s work.

However, the situation remains painful for Wang’s family.

Hualun Wang said he is in his third year of unemployment, having previously worked in health and nutrition product sales. Peng Wang’s mother works at a factory to support the family, which also includes a maternal grandmother who has cancer and an uncle who has struggled with mental illness, Wang said.

He said he was unaware of the risks of film work.

“There could be more tragedies like this,” Wang said. “We Chinese families are not ready to see that.”

Cindy Chang, Deputy Editor of The Times, contributed to this report. After his son died on a USC film shoot, a father is still looking for answers

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