Taiwan's Chung Mong-Hong on His Epic Oscar Hopeful 'A Sun'

A Sun
Courtesy of TIFF

Wu Chien-ho in 'A Sun'

Already streaming on Netflix, the director's vivid and novelistic crime drama has become a dark horse favorite in the best international film category among critics and tastemakers.

Taiwanese filmmaker Chung Mong-hong’s A Sun takes the material of a young adult TV melodrama and infuses it with such patient artfulness that a masterfully crafted novel soon comes to feel like the form it actually most resembles.

The film explores the various personal and societal pressures a family of four endures after their youngest son is arrested for his part in a violent crime and sent to juvenile detention. The offender is the family's recidivist black sheep, perpetually living in the shadow of his overachieving older brother, who is their father's pride and bound for medical school. Shocking events eventually force a wrenching reevaluation of that hierarchy, but the film also achieves surprising moments of black comedy, while skillfully swerving in and out of the crime thriller genre. A pure cinematic experience throughout, A Sun bathes its finely drawn characters in a striking color scheme of light and shadow — as the family grapples with the sins of the past and struggles to stay afloat amid time's relentless and indifferent flow.

Chung co-wrote and directed A Sun, which is his fifth narrative feature. The film's vivid and accomplished cinematography is credited to Nagao Nakashima — who also happens to be Chung. Since his feature debut Parking in 2008, the director also has served as his own cinematographer, crediting himself under this mysterious Japanese pseudonym.

A Sun never received U.S. theatrical distribution and its arrival on Netflix in January generated virtually no notice. But a steady drumbeat of critical adulation (THR's reviewer summed it up as "an engrossing stunner" and "one of the most memorable Asian films this year"), has positioned A Sun as a dark-horse favorite among cinephiles for this year's Oscar race in the best international feature film category.

Well before Taiwan picked A Sun as its official 2021 Oscars submission, the movie's award-worthiness was already well-established fact at home: It made nearly a clean sweep of the 2019 Taipei Golden Horse Awards — often dubbed "the Oscars of Chinese-language cinema" — winning best film, best director, best actor and best supporting actor honors, among other technical prizes.

Taiwan has submitted contenders to the Oscars for the best international feature film category since 1957, getting nominated three times and taking the trophy once — for Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000.

The Hollywood Reporter recently corresponded with Chung by email to discuss the making of A Sun and his personal interpretations of the film— as well as that mysterious pseudonym. The interview has been edited for clarity. It contains some spoilers and presumes a prior viewing of the film.

Many critics have commented on A Sun's "novelistic" quality. Can you tell us about the process of writing the film?

"With a painful howl, a hand is slashed off by the wrist. The hand drops into a pot of boiling soup. The wrist hangs lonely at the side of the pot. The victim is screaming. The wound is bleeding like a running tap. Blood is spraying all over the place. A-ho stands staring at everything in front of him. It happens too fast for him to react. He never imagined that a confrontation would end this way. He doesn't even know that his troubles are just emerging. Many more disasters are waiting for him ahead."

This is the beginning of my script. It describes the bloody incident that opens the film — the scene when the hand is lopped off into a hotpot. My script mostly reads like a novel, more than just lines of dialog and action in conventional scripts. I prefer this way to not only tell a good story, but also to document my imagination around these characters. Sometimes these written imaginings may not be visualized at all in film, but these adjectives and abstract notions help me focus on what I would like to express. It's more than just a slashed hand falling into a boiling pot. I want to include both facial expressions and the characters' internal struggles in a novelistic, narrative way.

After I described this hand/hotpot scene, it only took me about 40 days to complete the script. It was a smooth process. Characters were not fully born yet. I knew there would be a pair of friends slashing someone's hand off. The perpetrator had a grandma, and the main character, A-ho, lived with his parents and his older brother. That was the core story. I spent ten to twelve hours a day writing, and the script developed along the way.

How did you come to the film's title, A Sun. What does it mean to you in relation to the film's themes and imagery?

The title A Sun came in 2019 when Professor Jerry Carlson from City University of New York interviewed me. He asked what I was doing then, and I told him about this film. I was thinking about A Sun as the title, but I was hesitant, as I knew there should be only one sun in the world ("the" sun). But he approved of the title. I asked him if there were any grammatical issues, because our childhood education system in Taiwan always prioritized grammar. Jerry shrugged and answered, "Why not?" After listening to me explain my ideas for the story more, he thought it was a great title. So we settle on A Sun.

"A Sun" is phonetically similar to "a son," obviously. There is only one sun in our universe, unless we discover another one in the solar system one day. Ironically, "a son" is related to an important lie in the film. The father repeats "seize the day, and decide your path" as a guiding principle. He even tries to delude himself into believing that he only has one son, who is outstanding. But if this lie is realized, and he comes to have only one son, how will he respond? Will he view his family in a thoughtful or empathic way? This is the subject I would like to discuss. When people discover the lies they have been living by after years of self-delusion, how do they continue in their lives and treat the people around them? When we think of each country as a group, these lies happen a lot. We continue to delude ourselves into believing in some illusory achievements — but these lies would jeopardize families, countries, and even mankind. That's the image I want to portray with the title.

What is the origin of Nagao Nakajima, the pseudonym you use for your work as a cinematographer? Do you feel you have a different identity, in some way, when you work in this role, or what is the name's appeal for you?

The pseudonym Nagao Nakajima came about by accident. When I was making my first film Parking, the cinematographer quit one week into production. I had been making commercials and did some of the cinematography myself before Parking. So some people believe that I started as a cinematographer, before moving into the role of director, but it was actually the other way around. After that cinematographer quit, I just took over his job. Later, the deputy director asked me what to do about the credits. When I looked at the list, I noticed my name was all over the place. Feeling embarrassed about suggesting that I did everything myself, I decided to use another name. Since everyone on set called me "Chung Dao" (鍾導), which phonetically means "Director Chung" in Mandarin, I chose the Japanese kanji "中島" as my cinematographer pseudonym, because those characters are also pronounced as "Chung Dao" when you read them in Chinese, but in Japanese they are read as the family name Nakajima. The Nagao (長雄) part is just a very common Japanese first name. This half-joke pseudonym has stayed with me since 2008.

As for the Japanese aspect, I remember a film, Tokyo-Ga, by Wim Wenders. It is a film about director Yasujiro Ozu and his cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta. I don't know if my pseudonym has anything to do with them, but I am deeply moved whenever I think of this cinematographer and his professionalism.

I had thought about giving up this name, and I have also wondered if this person really exists. Google results show there are many Nagao Nakajima in various occupations in Japan. I had thought about switching back to my real name in films many times, but never did so. But during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, I finally let go of the pseudonym. I made up a story that Mr. Nakajima went back to Japan because of the pandemic and never returned to Taiwan. This is how I retired the pseudonym. You probably won't see Nagao Nakajima again in my future films. I don't know if there is really a cinematographer out there named Nagao Nakajima. But if there is one, I wish him well.

What were your goals when you were developing the film's cinematographic style? The rich contrast and high saturation feel striking and original, and seem to connect with the film's themes in very poetic ways.  

In this film, I wanted to portray the shadows on our land under the sunshine. To create this contrast, our work schedules followed sunrises, sunsets, and even weather forecasts. I want to show an ordinary life under the ordinary sunshine, and everything happening between light and shadow. I personally prefer strong contrasts in lighting, so this film suits me well. It symbolizes the bright and dark shades of mankind, from warmth to cruelty.

We chose blue and yellow as the main tones. Blue is cold and merciless, while yellow is universally warm. This is a style that I've always wanted to present, so we spent a lot of time waiting for light and sunshine — especially for the sunlight flickering between the leaves in the last scene. We see that kind of light very often when driving, but it became extremely elusive when we tried to capture this view and feeling on film. Luckily, we got it in the end.

"I felt from the beginning that he was the only actor suitable for the part of the father,”"says Chung of casting Chen Yi-wen (above right, with Samantha Ko).

Were there any films that served as creative touchstones for you as you were developing and making A Sun?

I don't really use other films as direct creative references in my works. I started A Sun with my own imaginative material. Starting from the hand in the boiling pot of soup, I built up the script and story gradually. To me, visual perspectives are sometimes more important than story archetypes. It's more fascinating to me to use simple visuals as starting points.

After I finished my script in March or April, I watched Fargo by the Coen brothers again one day. I had watched it hundreds of times. I didn't go back to it intending to find inspiration. I watched it again purely out of love. I was surprised to discover some similarities, though. Both stories began with a careless incident that spirals out of control. Although that's a common starting point in many films, I found myself feeling different about Fargo while watching it that time. I became obsessed again with those characters, including the kidnappers. I sympathized with the perpetrators, as well as the victims. I sympathized with the female police officer, played so memorably by Frances McDormand. I analyzed every scene and loved the film more than ever. So I am not sure if Fargo could be called a creative touchstone for A Sun, but I did watch it several times during the making of my movie — purely out of love for it.

How did you decide to use animation for the brief sequence where the older brother is telling the story of Sima Guang near the start of the film? 

That is a fable we all learn about in childhood in Taiwan — teaching us how to be brave and intelligent boys. When we learned about the story, we didn't think there was anything deceptive about it. It was something inspiring to children, even though it's fantastical. When I thought about transposing it into a darker tale, animation seemed like the right way to do it. In Taiwan, 3D animation isn't so developed, so I thought the quality would be compromised if I went in that route. I prefer hand-drawn works and darker tones. Luckily, I met a hand-drawn animator in Taiwan whose style I enjoyed a lot. Soon after making a rough cut, I invited him to watch the film. He felt a connection to the film, and drew some character styles and scenes. I felt that they fit the film perfectly, so we went ahead and collaborated together to finish the animated sequence. Even though it's less than one minute long, it gives a different flavor to the whole film. It's dark, and fits into the feeling of an ambiguous personal pursuit. I am really glad to have included it.

The sibling/family dynamics you establish feel so true to life — the privileges and burdens that come when one sibling falls into the family role of assuming a monopoly on moral purity; and the hurt that comes when the other sibling slips, or is forced by circumstance, into the role of gaining attention by always doing wrong. This predicament seems particularly common among brothers. Do you have a brother? Did your own relationships, or relationships you have observed in your own life, inform the story in any way? What appealed to you about dramatizing these dynamics?

Husband and wife, father and son, brothers and sisters — there are always some hopeless connections in a family. It's very fascinating to me when these relationships appear in literary works or films, because these kinds of conflicts are often unspeakable — the emotions are so suppressed. These observations don't come from my own family; I think it's universal. I have three older brothers, and they are all doing well in their life journeys. We didn't have huge gaps between us with work or school in my family; and I have never felt my parents preferring certain kids. When I tried to portray these interactions between siblings, I didn't adopt anything from my own family. It was more important to offer the most fascinating perspective. In A Sun, I don't really focus too much on how the siblings interact with each other. Instead, I pay attention to how the father treats them differently, and how each sibling thinks about the father's role.

After A-Ho is finally released from prison, he returns home and his father is watching bears catching fish on TV and doesn't even look up. I felt very sad about the scene, because people with blood relationships couldn't communicate with each other. What went wrong? What was the turning point in their relationships? That's why I am attracted to this story and I want to make this film

One of the film's messages seems to be that life is too complicated for simplistic slogans like "Seize the day. Decide your path." And yet, the film doesn't reach a resolution of sorts until Mr. Wen finally follows his own slogan and takes drastic action, deciding his own path — but his doing so also entails something terrible (murder). One of the film's other messages seems to be that life also is too complicated to live under the harsh light of moral purity. I found the last scene to be a beautiful celebration, or embrace, of the occasional necessity of moral ambiguity — a stolen bike ride of a mom and her son, in the dappled afternoon shade/sunlight (neither in full light nor darkness). Am I on the right track with these interpretations? Could you talk about some of these thematic tensions and what you see in them? 

The Taiwan that I lived through from the 1960s to 1980s was a country full of slogans. It's the same even today, to an extent. When I was a kid, we often repeated slogans to praise our leaders. We were told that these slogans were true, and our leaders were truly as great. "Seize the day. Decide your path" is a slogan connected to our memories, but in the film I applied it to the father in a more contemporary way. To many people, slogans are merely slogans, but some people actually take them as a personal doctrine to follow over time. The father in this film is not very intelligent. He doesn't have a noble job. The slogan at work gradually becomes his principle in life. And in the end, he does something egregious under this principle. But even if it's something egregious, he may not think it's a mistake, or that he has done anything fundamentally wrong, because he was just following his principle. It's an irony. Even if he may go as far as murder, he still holds onto his principle.

In the last scene, the kid steals a bike and takes his mom for a ride. I think your interpretation fits the scene well. When we reach for something great, it doesn't matter if it's perfect. But how much are you willing to give up in pursuit of perfection? How many moral principles are you willing to let go? Is it immoral to steal a bike? To me, A-ho has been stealing bikes since he was a kid. But by the end, he has changed and he's started to contribute to his family. Is he playing a little joke on his mom? Will his mom feel anxious again that this means he's going to start doing bad things again? To A-Ho, this little moral misstep may be just a joke on his mom. His mom may also feel the joke. But even if she doesn't take it that way, the scene brings her back to some great memories. Therefore, she also forgets about the moral aspect, sits on the bike behind her son, and sees sunlight flickering between leaves.

Morals are terrifying, as they are forced upon us. However, we still need to follow certain rules. We also need to choose which rules to follow and which not. It's about empathy, I think. It's about whether you will hurt anyone in the process, and whether your action will have consequences on many innocent people. If not, I believe we can tolerate some moral defects.

I was also struck by the way so many of the problems in the film stem from characters failing to put themselves in other people's shoes — failing to really see each other. Even Raddish, although he's the villain, has a surprisingly cogent, if not fully legitimate, gripe about how he and his family were mistreated by A-Ho and Mr. Wen after his arrest. The film seems to be urging us to pay more attention to each other and to try to see things from each other's perspectives. Is greater sensitivity and empathy something you are arguing for in this film, or am I getting carried away? 

It's unlikely for a film to change a viewer's lifelong value system. It's unlikely for a film to teach us about how to approach life or treat others. I just wanted to tell a story that happens on a small island named Taiwan. I just hoped viewers in Taiwan and in other countries or cultures could find some resonance with the story, and face the family and social issues that it raises. But in some ways, yes, A Sun is about empathy and understanding. After watching the film, I don't know — does it help you understand others more? As a filmmaker, I always want to touch upon something that I feel I don't fully understand. Making the film is my attempt to understand, and it becomes a learning process for me. For example, I want to become a person of greater empathy, and a responsible father. Making films gives me more perspectives on this ever-changing life.

The whole cast is fantastic but Chen Yi-wen as Mr. Wen was especially unforgettable to me. The authenticity he brings to the film makes him alternately hilarious and heartbreaking. Could you share a little about working with him to create this character, and what kind of direction you gave him?   

Chen Yi-wen is a great actor whom I've gotten to know over recent years. He worked with director Edward Yang when he was young. Chen also did some directing in recent years, before resuming his acting career. I felt from the beginning that he was the only actor suitable for the part of the father. He often wanted to discuss the role with me in great detail. But unfortunately, before I start making a film, I prefer to keep the actors in a void. I don't want them to fill all kinds of emotions or behaviors into their characters in advance, otherwise their performances will be too full, or saturated, from the beginning. Instead, I hope they can gradually immerse themselves into the role. It takes some time, and some initial performances may not be ideal, but that's fine. We can always reshoot those initial scenes.

But Chen spent a lot of time learning about the role. There is a scene where this father attempts to encourage driving school students by mentioning his dead son. Chen even recorded his lines in advance, and discussed nuances of his vocal performances with me. He did the same for the important scene in the mountains with his wife. I was grateful for what he did, but I kept urging him not to go so deep into the part so early. I needed him to develop and grow this character over time, so that lighting, cinematography and artistic elements could build up and shape the character together. This is how I work. I couldn't tell him what the character would be, but in the shooting process, I believed we would know how to portray this role. It took us a lot of time to modify. As a great actor, it wasn't difficult for him to digest and adjust. He soon delivered a great performance. It was really fun to work with him; everyday I could expect something different from him.

Were there any other memorable moments in your collaboration with the actors, or aspects of their performances, that especially surprised or delighted you, which you would like to share?

When I was making this movie, I felt more pressure than ever before. The core storyline was a bit similar to melodrama, which could be very boring on screen. It could also be full of melancholy. I spent a lot of time working on getting restrained performances and emotions. In the process, I also felt uncertain and hesitant. But the cast, Chen Yi-wen and others, performed so well that I often felt delighted and amazed. Still, I always felt under pressure and pained during the shooting process. The most joyful period was editing, because I rediscovered more of what the actors had given me, and I recomposed these segments. I realized that what we had made was very similar to what I had in mind. In such a painful and sorrowful story, we had remained distant, so that viewers were not pulled into a feeling of endless tragedy.

I was really happy about the first scene we made on the first day, which was the hand in a hot pot. I didn't throw any temper on that day, and even burst into laughter when I tried to arrange and place that hand in a soup. We spent a lot of time putting the hand in the right position, so it could fit into special effects. It was fun that day. Many real gangsters were on set that day as extras, so we made fun of that hand. It was quite a fun moment, on the first day of shooting.

Who do you make films for?

I have never imagined who my viewers might be. But when I write a script or make a film, I often ask myself why I make movies. I study films from abroad, and make films in Taiwan. I have spent so much time watching so many great films. I enjoy films by Jim Jarmusch, for example. I want to make films that I can identify with. I don't intend to produce blockbusters that appeal to mainstream or popular tastes. I feel lucky that over the years people have supported me in doing so. Even though the box office performance of my films many not be so impressive, I feel very happy to tell these stories in such an expensive medium. Ultimately, films start with a director, but that connection is cut off once the film is made. Personally, I cannot anticipate what audience these films will reach. Maybe Hollywood can achieve that through certain marketing operations and calculations, but it is difficult to do so in our Taiwanese industry. People occasionally tell me that viewers won't understand some of my approaches. They might also suggest what I could do to allow viewers to enjoy or understand more. However, there is no final answer on what makes a good movie. I can only stay true to what I want to make and express, and viewers can then enjoy or appreciate these films in whatever ways they prefer.

From left Wu Chien-ho, Samantha Ko, Chen Yi-wen and Greg Hsu.

What's it been like to have your film acquired by Netflix and made available worldwide on their platform? It seems like the film was initially somewhat lost in Netflix's vast content pool, but that it has since gained attention thanks to some critics and is now being more widely seen.  What has it all been like from your perspective? 

Since the 1980s, Taiwanese films haven't received a lot of international attention. Many recent directors perhaps were not as creative or artistic as Edward Yang or Hou Hsiao-Hsien. A lot of the films emerging from Taiwan today aren't much like the New Taiwanese Cinema of the 1980s. They focus on stories that modern Taiwan wants to tell, or lifestyles Taiwan wants to show now. The world is always evolving, and the film world is, too. A Sun was distributed to the whole world because of Netflix. It happens naturally in this changing world. I didn't necessarily expect that the film would receive more attention on Netflix; I only thought it would be available to more people globally. The film world has changed drastically, and more changes are coming because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I believe you can still make authentic regional films, but you should also focus on higher concepts that everyone can understand without social or cultural barriers. In other words, films should touch upon universal values. We don't know how far these films can go or how many people will be touched. However, I am certain that I have a responsibility to handle every segment and element better. If I don't do it right, viewers may have a lesser impression of Taiwanese cinema. Therefore, I am more careful than ever to get every detail exactly right.

I understand you're in production on a new project. Can you tell us a little about the new film?
The new project is called The Falls, and Nagao Nakajima will not be involved anymore. Chung Mong-Hong will be the cinematographer. Even though everyone knows they are the same person, I hope this film will deliver a new and different style from my previous work. And not just in the cinematography — characters should be different, and story formats too. It is still being edited, and I hope the film can be screened by September or October of 2021.

'A Sun' ('Yang Guang Pu Zhao'): Film Review | Tokyo 2019