On the opening day of "Taiwan Stories," the Film Society of Lincoln Center's survey of classic and contemporary Taiwanese cinema which wraps today, I sat down to interview director Shen Ko-shang at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York (TECO). Shen directed "Two Juliets," the second section (and my favorite) of the omnibus film Juliets, which reinterprets Romeo and Juliet in contemporary and historical Taiwanese settings.
What was the origin of the Juliets project?
The project was inspired by director Ang Lee, who won an award of $300,000 (
). He wanted to cultivate some new blood into US ’s film industry, so he decided to use this money to do that. He gave the money to his brother Khan Lee, who was the project manager of the Juliets film. Taiwan
You were a documentary filmmaker before participating in this film. Why did you choose this particular project as your first foray into fiction? Was this a long-standing aspiration of yours?
I’ve always dreamed of being a director of feature films, but it takes a great deal of capital to make this kind of film. I cherish every opportunity to let my voice be heard, and there is a market for documentaries in
and internationally, so I got involved with documentaries at first. My experience in making documentaries was a great help for this project. Taiwan
Could you talk about Beigan, the island setting for “Two Juliets”? What was it about this particular location that was attractive to you for this story?
I scouted many locations before I settled on Beigan, but none of them fit the allegorical tone that I wanted for my film. Being an allegory, the story has to be beyond time and space, and very abstract. The
is really far away from the island of Beigan proper, and I found that this island contained all the elements I’d imagined. I even revised my script to reflect the particulars of the setting. island of Taiwan
I was very impressed by how intricate your film was, for such a brief running time, being set in two different time periods: the 1980s and the present. Could you talk about how you came up with this particular structure?
Figuring out how to reinterpret the classic story of Romeo and Juliet was a very difficult task. I decided to focus on women’s self-awareness. I highly value women’s persistent attitudes toward love and relationships; I think women are more courageous than men in this respect. The time structure of my film is like a circle. In every relationship we start from love, which eventually comes to an end. But this ending also means the start of a new relationship, so it’s just like a circle. The first two thirds of the film focus on the previous time, or the “old Juliet.” The final part of the film concerns the present time. This is how I chose to deal with the dilemma of love. I purposely made the male character kind of dumb; he’s the only one who doesn’t know that Juliet hasn’t gone crazy.
I was also impressed by your lead actress, Lee Chien-na, who beautifully pulled off the dual role of the two Juliets. This must have been very difficult for someone with no previous acting experience. How did you find her?
Before I started shooting, a lot of people thought I was crazy, because I cast someone who had never acted before, and who has to play two roles in this movie. Lee Chien-na was a contestant on
’s version of American Idol; she came in 10th place, I think. So she clearly had singing talent, even though she had no acting experience. I spent a lot of time talking with her, and I could see that she was kind of obsessed with love and passion, and these were the kind of characteristics I was looking for. So I decided to choose her to take the leading role. Before formally shooting, I spent about a month with Chien-na to go over the script, to explore her acting potential. Do you think she performed well? Taiwan
Oh yes, very much so.
Compared to other actors of the younger generation, I think Chien-na is less “urbanized,” as we’d call it. But you can still feel she’s very energetic and localized. She’s like a stone that hasn’t yet been crafted by other artists.
So she’s more natural, you mean.
Yes, she’s more natural.
Did you sense this about her the first time you saw her?
No, the first time I only thought, she’s pretty! (Laughs) I cast her based on a hunch, and also the way she talked about her previous love experiences. I decided to bet on her. In addition, her upbringing is similar to the character she plays; her real family ran a singing troupe like the one depicted in the film.
It’s very interesting to hear that you drew upon your actress’ real-life experience to shape the character she played. This leads me to wonder how your experience as a documentarian informed the way you made this fictional work.
Before Juliets, I spent about 8 years making documentaries. Because of my abundant experience making documentary films, I’m always in touch with real life and real people. Based on my long-term observations of reality, I imported these images into this film. While I was making the film, I would think of how real people breathe, how real people act, how they sound in the documentaries, and then bring this to the fiction. It’s very funny that when you’re shooting documentaries, you always want to make people more dramatic, but in fiction you want people to look more authentic, more real.
How much leeway did you have while making this film, as far as your interpretation of the Romeo and Juliet concept, and its connection to the other two films? I was struck, for example, by the dominance of the color red throughout all three films. How hands-on was Khan Lee in supervising this project?
I had 100 percent freedom in creating my film. Producer Khan Lee did not interfere at all. Before shooting, we all discussed it, and came up with the concept that the three directors would subvert the classic Romeo and Juliet. Then Khan Lee just left it to the three of us to interpret it in our own way. He completely disappeared from the whole project after that.