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Taiwanese director Chung Mong-hong has been showered with acclaim in his native Taiwan, but his vivid, engrossing filmmaking continues to await its big breakthrough moment in the West.
The 55-year-old director’s work has twice been selected as Taiwan’s submission to the Oscars in the best international film category, first his psychological horror-thriller Soul in 2013, and last year the acclaimed, novelistic family drama A Sun.
A Sun also was nominated for 12 Golden Horse Awards, the most prestigious honors for Chinese-language cinema, and won six, including best feature, best director and the audience choice award. Netflix then acquired and discretely released the film worldwide (you can still see it there, and should), but despite some raves from trade critics — THR‘s reviewer summed it up as “an engrossing stunner,” while Variety’s chief critic picked it as his favorite movie of the whole year — A Sun was snubbed by the Academy and quickly slipped beneath the surface of Netflix’s oceans of content.
Although a festival regular, Chung has managed to cruise somewhat beneath the radar of that rarified community of cineastes, too. His feature debut, Parking (2008), premiered at Cannes in Un Certain Regard, where it was warmly received, and his work since has consistently appeared in sidebars at leading festivals around the world (The Fourth Portrait, 2010, showed in Busan and Tokyo; Soul, 2013, and Godspeed, 2016, both premiered in Toronto’s Vanguard section, and A Sun bowed in Toronto’s Contemporary World Cinema sidebar). But even though his cohort of critical champions continues to grow, Chung has yet to score a slot in an A-list festival’s main competition, a factor that has undoubtedly dampened awareness of his work among a wider public.
But so much the better for film buffs, then. For at least a little while longer, Chung is likely to remain that most treasured thing: A fully formed artist awaiting wider discovery, to be traded like a secret.
Widely considered a high-watermark his career to date, 2019’s A Sun was a sprawling, 155-minute family saga blending elements of black comedy, melodrama and grand morality play — one that breathed fresh vitality into the age-old tragedy of brotherly rivalry and the favored son.
Chung’s latest, The Falls, premiering in Venice’s Orizzonti section, further extends A Sun‘s transition away from the heightened violence and gritty lower-class scraping by that characterized much of his earlier work, telling an even simpler story about the fraught relationship between a well-to-do single mother and her teenage daughter.
Set during the early days of the pandemic, The Falls‘ story begins to turn when 17-year-old Xiao Jing (Gingle Wang, in a breakthrough performance) is sent home to quarantine after a classmate tests positive for Covid-19, and her mother, Pin-Wen (veteran TV actress Alyssa Chia, showing a new side of her talent) is asked by her employer to take a leave of absence. The duo’s luxury apartment building, meanwhile, is undergoing exterior renovations, and the entire structure has been enclosed in a blue construction tarp, bathing the interior of their stylish home in a pervasive blue light. Isolated, the duo’s already testy relationship rapidly deteriorates, and Pin-Wen’s mental health begins to fray. A reckoning with reality is what’s required, and perhaps, too, a reorientation of priorities — something that should ring familiar to anyone who has weathered their own pandemic hardship.
In addition to writing all of his films, Chung also has acted as his own cinematographer for the past decade, working in the role under the enigmatic pseudonym “Nagao Nakashima.” For The Falls, the alter-ego has been retired and Chung is credited for photography under his own name for the first time. His inspired framing and penchant for high contrast and saturated color remains intact, but Chung says he used the crediting change as an occasion to make a break with many other aspects of his usual creative method — from casting, to the lenses he favors, even how he directs his actors.
The Hollywood Reporter connected with Chung via Zoom from Taipei shortly before Venice to discuss how his creativity works and why he wanted to tell an even simpler story about family bonds.
What was the initial inspiration for this film?
My wife asked me one day if I could make a movie without any death or violence — or anyone’s hand getting chopped off. Could I make a film about everyday life, people just eating, walking around and not much happening? I took it as a sort of half joke.
Then one day one of my female friends came back from Costa Rica where she had been staying. This was just before Chinese New Year and she visited me at around 10pm. She proceeded to tell me a story about what had happened to her daughter.
Her daughter had been struggling with mental illness for a long time, and she had been accompanying her and caring for her for many years. And then the situation got better after her daughter started to go to college. Her condition improved and they started having a normal life. But just three weeks prior, her daughter and a friend went hiking in the countryside by a large river, and a dam happened to release while they were there, and they were both swept away, their lives lost. This had happened just weeks ago.
She told me this story over the course of three hours. The entire time, I didn’t respond or intervene, I just let her talk — a mom talking about her lost daughter. I was in complete shock. I couldn’t fall asleep that night. After about three days, I called her and said that I wanted to film her telling this story. I didn’t intend to do anything with it. I just wanted to keep it as a document. But she told me with a resigned smile that, actually, she was already at the airport, about to board a flight back to Costa Rica. So this story stayed in my heart for a long time. I didn’t intend to make it into a movie; for me, it was just a vivid story about a mother and her dear daughter.
Then one day I saw a house completely enclosed in blue canvas. Like in the film, it was all covered up because some work was being done to the building. I take a walk every night around 11pm, and I ran into this house in my neighborhood. That night I didn’t go home; I went back to my studio and began writing the story of The Falls.
What moved you about that image?
I started to envision what life would be like if this mom and daughter lived together in this building. The story happens in early 2020 when the pandemic had just started, so I thought that it was a great symbol for how people are getting disconnected from each other, and starting to feel very distant from each other. So it’s not just a human wearing a mask on their face, it’s like the whole house has a mask over it as well. And then it’s not just a literal mask anymore, there’s also something in the mind that’s constraining you.
So this image, of the building enclosed in blue, is what got me started, and it drew all these different things together — the idea of doing a simple story about everyday life, between a mother and a daughter.
A Sun and The Falls both have a natural image as their title and central metaphor in relation to the stories’ themes. So it’s interesting to hear you say that seeing that image of the blue building is what got you started. Is that how your creative process tends to work — you find images that you start building the story around?
For me, everything starts with the visual. Sometimes, a complete story is not enough to inspire me to make a movie. For example, with A Sun, if that image of a hand getting chopped off and falling into a hot pot of soup had not come to me, I would not have made that movie.
So the image of a blue tarp enclosing a home struck you as a potential metaphor for the pandemic experience that everyone was going through. Were there other ways in which the pandemic affected the film, either in the storytelling or the process of production?
Well, my home is just five minutes by walk from my studio. I spend my days between my home and my studio, making movies, reading or writing. So I can’t say the pandemic really affected my life that much. Of course, it affected my wife and my children because they need to go to work and school. But just imagine if you are living in Afghanistan right now. Imagine that. I don’t feel that I can complain about the pandemic’s affect on us. In Taiwan, life has mostly been business as usual. However, over the past few decades in Taiwan we have continued to feel a lot of pressure — political pressures, or tension between Taiwan and China. Our geopolitical situation. To me, these feel more threatening than the pandemic.
There’s an appealing literary quality to your recent work, which made me curious about your writing process. How do you write?
For my past few films I have actually invited other writers to participate in the process with me. What I do is I invite them to discuss the story with me, and then we just talk and talk. I remember Billy Wilder once mentioned that if you have two brains or three brains, it’s always better than one. In the end, with a script, I think it has to come back to the director, so I do the actual final writing, but it’s a very lengthy process.
When I was writing scripts in the past, I used to watch a lot of movies, but in recent years I read a lot instead. Before shooting The Falls, I read a lot of Raymond Chandler. They are not directly connected, I just really love the way he describes characters and relationships. Before I shot A Sun, I read a lot of books from the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. Actually, I didn’t really understand his books. But I love his descriptions and his words gave me a lot of images.
But I really hate writing, actually. [Laughs] I enjoy almost every part of the filmmaking process except for writing. Writing is really painful for me because I don’t type. So I always need someone beside me, and as I speak, the person types. Sometimes they have to pause because I don’t know what words to use, and then they don’t know what to do, so it becomes awkward. A while ago I asked my daughter to type for me. So then, in the middle of this, picture my daughter pausing and giving me that teenage daughter look, saying, “Are you really sure about this?” [Laughs]
Last time we spoke, you said you were abandoning the pseudonym you have used for your work as a cinematographer, Nagao Nakashima. Did you make a stylistic break in the way you approached the cinematography of the new film, to mark this new chapter of using your own name?
Nakashima has been with me for over a decade. After a while, I really started to feel that there is a real person named Nakashima. I’m grateful to him for all his efforts over the past few films. However, when I decided to make this new film I made a very conscious decision to retire him. I wanted to change myself. Change can be scary and change often leads to failure. But after making A Sun I’ve gradually become more receptive to pressure. Under pressure, I feel that my mind gets clearer — as long as I can keep it to a certain level so I don’t slip into a panic.
When Nakashima was filming he only used one zoom lens. So this time, I decided to use prime lenses. With a zoom lens, like a 28-290, you have a long range. With a prime lens, for a wide angle, maybe it’s a 16, 24 or 28. For a more narrow angle, an 85 or 100. And then I used a lot of like crane shots, or camera movement with a steady cam.
This change corresponded to other changes in my method. On my past films, I would just roll the camera, sometimes for 20 or 30 minutes, and I would continue to talk with the actors as they are performing, without stopping the camera. There was one time when a sound artist said to me, concerned, “The whole recording so far is just your voice.” I told him, “Oh, don’t worry. When I know the shot is what I want, I’ll shut up.”
But this time, I didn’t do that. I didn’t say anything, and I cut much more frequently. I would do shorter takes, pause, perhaps chat with the actress briefly, and then do another short take. So you don’t get the long shot that was a big part of my past work anymore. Only here and there. It might not sound like much, but these were big changes for me.
In a way, it sounds like in the past you had a quite free and unconventional method and you’ve decided to move in a more traditional direction. Besides challenging yourself with a new style of working, were there other reasons that you adopted these methods?
I didn’t have particular motivations; I just knew I wanted to try a different way of making films. Similar to how my wife inspired me by asking if I could make a new, simpler kind of movie. So I was just thinking about what are the other ways I can work. For example, I’ve always loved movies by Aki Kaurismäki, Ozu or Rainer Werner Fassbinder, such as The Merchant of Four Seasons. I revisited a lot of these films.
All directors famous for the simplicity and purity of their stories and methods.
Yeah, I was trying to keep it simple, to use simple methods — nothing grand — to tell a very simple story.
So what was the experience actually like, working in these new ways?
I really enjoyed making this film — but I don’t feel confident in it. Because throughout the film, the characters are just walking, talking, eating, walking, eating, talking. I even questioned myself whether this will be a good movie after I finished editing.
I’ve been making melodramas for these past several films, and I’ve come to think that it’s a very dangerous and tricky genre. Melodrama is rooted in daily life and sometimes that can touch you in quite profound and direct ways. But it can easily be excessive and sensational, or sentimental. So I think the visual aspect and the style are essential to transcend simple melodrama.
The performances from the two actresses are the only thing that built up my confidence on this project. Their performances gave me so much joy and sorrow — I can feel the movement of emotion through these characters.
Similar to A Sun, you use very striking blues and yellows as your primary tones throughout The Falls.
Yellow and blue will continue to play huge, important roles in my future work. Maybe I’ll make another film in black and white, I don’t know. But I feel that yellow and blue symbolize all of the joy and tragedy in human life. So when I visit a site or when I look at these characters, I’m almost unconsciously drawn to these colors and elements.
Often in your work, exterior establishing shots, or transition shots, are almost distractingly poetic and beautifully composed. How do you approach those types of shots?
Well, I didn’t do a lot of scouting for this film because the luxury apartment where much of the film takes place was actually made in a studio. But, of course, I’m always scouting for those scenes that we shoot outside. We filmed some places that I visit quite frequently. I wonder if you remember the opening shot, before the credits, a scene of people waiting to cross the street, with the sun gradually lighting up a big building?
So, one day I went to the supermarket with my wife, and as we were leaving the supermarket, stepping out into the street, I suddenly saw that whole scene. So I asked my wife to stand there and I took a photo. The reason for it actually had nothing to do with her, but she was also happy. [Laughs] So, the next day I took my cinematographer and my camera crew to that same location, at the same time, and we got that shot. It was still months before starting the movie. When I see a scene that moves me — some lighting, some shadow, some movement — I remember it or I take a picture, and later I recreate it. So the shots you’re probably thinking of actually weren’t just another shot that we did while making the movie; usually it was a thought or an encounter that I had, and then filmed, months beforehand.
It’s thrilling to hear you say that, because you can really feel it in the work — that these are moments of inspiration, rather than just shots. So, A Sun primarily centered on a father-son relationship, while The Falls focusses on a mother and a daughter. What’s the appeal to you of these domestic stories and relationships at this moment in your career?
I think I began to have these feelings after I became a father. Feelings about family became very strong for me. But I don’t intend to project my experiences into my films. These melodramas develop or appear because I encounter some experience by accident that inspires me to develop the work.
I can share a story with you. When I wrote The Falls I actually paused for a while in the middle. The story I started with was about a mother taking care of her daughter, who is the one who has a mental illness. I was struggling a bit in the process, and I went to a mental health institute to try to better understand these conditions. And while I was visiting, I came upon [a print of] Degas’ painting, Racehorses in a Landscape, hanging in one of the wards. The painting had been there for decades, and it had faded and become all blue. So it’s basically the same painting that I used in the film, [in that pivotal scene where the mother discusses the painting with a fellow patient who has some knowledge of art history.]
My wife is actually an art history professor and has been studying and writing about Degas for a long time. So I took a photo of the painting in the hospital and sent it to her; and after I returned home we discussed it and she told me all about the painting and its history. The lines in the film where the characters in the hospital are talking about the painting were all written by my wife. For example: The mystery of the painting, how the riders are all dressed up but it’s unclear where they are going. Perhaps this is a situation, or a dilemma, that a middle-aged single mother in her late 40s or 50s, whose daughter is about to leave for college, would encounter? Where is her life going? Can we even extend the question to think about what is the future of humankind — particularly in this moment? This is when I decided to switch the story and make it about a mother with a mental illness, whose daughter is caring for her. And then all of the writing began to go more smoothly again.
That’s a pretty great example of what you said earlier about how your creativity is stimulated by images. You go to a hospital to research mental health conditions, but it’s a random painting on the wall that inspires you. So, as male writer, were you concerned about your ability to grasp the dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship?
Well, I have a teenage daughter, so every time I call my wife I learn about the latest dynamics in the mother-daughter relationship. [Laughs] As soon as I return home and open the door and see the expression on my wife’s face, I know what might have happened with them today. But really, I think it’s quite intuitive. People in Taiwan will say that family bounds are priceless. But we actually pay a big price for that. [Laughs] When you are turning these family stories into a film or a novel, however, it’s important to expand the melodrama, and add some surprising elements. Because family life is so universal, you need to deepen these individual’s issues — even if they are similar in some way to what we all go through.
So the two lead actresses are both really fantastic. Could you talk about the casting process, and how you worked with them to shape the characters and performances?
Normally, when I’m casting, if I think I will want an actor or actress to play a lead in my next film, I cast them in a supporting part or guest appearance in my current film. Because if I don’t know them well, I won’t have the confidence to play a whole film on their shoulders. But for The Falls, I decided to cast both of the leads before I had even met them once. Everyone around me was like, what? Really?
Alyssa had appeared mostly appeared in popular TV series. Gingle had been in several films, but they were very different from this film, like Detention, a horror film. But I read through the different profiles, and I thought deeply about all of the actresses I could think of in Taiwan, and I really came to think that these two actresses would be a great mother-daughter pair.
What was it about them?
Their appearances were perfect to me. I really felt they were the only ones in Taiwan who were right. First of all, they naturally look kind of rich and well-educated — and they’re beautiful, of course. That’s how I imagined such wealthy people would be. They have been educated into a certain kind of shape, or way [of] behaving. However, when they are faced with real challenges or a crisis, they will initially be the least capable of coping with it and responding to the challenge. The building they live in is located in a very quiet, rich, well-guarded area of downtown Taipei. I wanted to portray the lives and despair of people in these living in these conditions. I’ve been making films about middle-class people, or people at the bottom of society for most of my career.
So what was shooting with them like, since the method was new to you and you had so little experience together?
think in this film I tried to capture a [inaudible 00:45:40] of a royalty of this kind of family, a rich family. I read through all the different profiles and I thought about all the actresses that I can think of in Taiwan, I really think that this couple and these two actresses can be a great mother and daughter pair. So I decided to cast them before I really met them.
From the way you described your former process, it sounded like you had elements of rehearsal built into the shooting process, where you would just let the cameras roll and work through things until you go what you wanted. But you said you didn’t do that this time, and you were also working with actresses totally unknown to you. What was that like?
I felt very nervous and my stomach was in knots for the first three days. But then I felt that they were immersing into the characters really nicely. When I decided to make this film, I made a very deliberate decision that I would make it well, no matter how long it would take. Even if it took months or years — and I didn’t really have the budget for that — I was going to do it as well as I possibly could. So even though we did shorter takes, I was prepared to just do it again and again. But they got into character very quickly.
In the beginning, Alyssa was a little bit uncomfortable because the way I was lighting and using the prime lenses was very direct — there was no soft lighting in the process. It’s very sharp. She was intimidated in the beginning, and worried that after this film she would only get offers to play mother characters, which was very different from what she had been known for on TV. I understood her concern, but I just told her, you have to make a decision: Do you want to be a celebrity in Taiwan or do you want to be an actress? She gave me her trust and we continued. I’m very grateful.
What are some of the moments in the finished film that you’re most pleased with?
Well, I’m very pleased with these two actresses’ performances overall. But I’m especially happy with the scene when the daughter, played by Gingle, is taking that long walk with her father, who is mostly absent from her life, and she confronts him very directly about that. It was really difficult for me to shoot that scene, because I started thinking about if my own daughter, who is the same age, spoke to me in that way and told me something like that. How would I react? How could I go on justifying my life to myself? So it was very emotional to me, even though nothing like that has ever happened to me. But I really started thinking about what it would be like — and what if?
A version of this story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Sept. 2 daily issue at the Venice International Film Festival.
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