Filmart: Why a Veteran TV Commercials Director Risked It All to Make His First Feature

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After a 20-year career in advertising, Maren Hwang sold his house to help finance his debut, 'Xiao Mei,' a stark drama about a young Taipei woman whose drug abuse leads to her mysterious disappearance.

Respected former ad man Maren Hwang may have decades of experience shooting commercials in Taiwan, but when he made the leap to feature filmmaking, he got a rude awakening on how arduous the whole process can be. For his debut feature film, Xiao Mei, the principal photography took two months, but the reshoots took two years. Fortunately, the finished movie had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival last month to an enthusiastic response. Now, the drama, which revolves around a drug-abusing young woman in Taipei who suddenly goes missing, has been selected as one of the two opening films for the 42nd Hong Kong International Film Festival. The 44-year-old director talked to THR about the willpower he needed to finish the film, the renaissance in the Taiwan film sector and why he embraced the “roller-coaster”of making features.

How do you feel having your first feature selected as one of the two opening titles of the 42nd Hong Kong International Film Festival?

I am grateful to the HKIFF for choosing Xiao Mei as one of the opening films. To me, it is a memorable day; I sincerely hope Xiao Mei will bring a wonderful beginning to the HKIFF.

Xiao Mei was also part of the official program of the Berlin International Film Festival. How did the German and international audience receive the movie?

The audience in Berlin was unexpectedly delicate and warm. I felt very surprised.

You used to work in the advertising industry. What made you make the jump to feature filmmaking?

I have made commercials for 20 years. It is an extremely fun industry, but it is also like getting on a swing: after swinging for some time, you'd hope to get on a roller-coaster to get a bigger thrill. You want to try the ecstasy of transcending the five senses.

What are the main differences between filmmaking and advertising?

They are completely different, mostly related to the time required by the creative phase and the pressure it puts on your life. Making commercials is akin to being an interior designer, but filmmaking is like being an architect.

Xiao Mei revolves around the issue of a young Taiwanese woman’s drug abuse. What made you want to explore this topic?

Drug abuse by young people is a global phenomenon. It is no longer a dangerous entertainment for the marginalized or a specific class in a big city. This issue has evolved and is hidden in plain sight. We feel deeply helpless and puzzled by it.

It has been reported that in order to make Xiao Mei, you sold your house to raise funds. How much financial pressure did the film put on you?

Yes, the birth of this film is through using the savings I had from making commercials over the years, and selling my personal possessions. I also got the help of director-producer Chung Mong-hong [Godspeed] to raise the production funds. At the end, the film took around HK$9 million [$1.1 million] to finish.

Did you apply for the Taiwan government subsidy for making Xiao Mei?

I did, and I am very thankful to the Ministry of Culture of Taiwan, and the Taipei city government Department of Culture Affairs. The government subsidized about HK$2.5 million [$318,825].

How much help do you think the Taiwan government subsidy has given to the local industry, especially to new filmmakers?

Its help is of paramount importance. The Taiwan government's subsidy to new directors is given out of love and kindness. As long as you have a story, everyone can apply for the subsidy. New directors are often kind of stuck — usually the film investors would like to see what and how you did with your first film, and first-time directors haven't made a first film yet. It is quite paradoxical.

Xiao Mei took three years to make. What was the biggest challenge for you?

It was my first time making a feature film, all my experiences were new and fresh. In fact, during the process I was rather worried about my willpower being depleted by the circumstances. But it was OK because the fun in filmmaking is dealing with challenges and solving difficult problems every day. It was a lot of fun.

How has the renaissance of Taiwan cinema in recent years helped new directors?

Taiwan has a very free film culture legacy, and the shooting locations and natural conditions are generous. This strength means the problems we face during filming might be smaller than the ones elsewhere.