Thursday, May 19, 2011

Interview with Shen Ko-shang, Director of "Two Juliets"

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 (US).  He wanted to cultivate some new blood into Taiwan’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.

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 Taiwan and internationally, so I got involved with documentaries at first.  My experience in making documentaries was a great help for this project.

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 island of Beigan is really far away from the island of Taiwan 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.

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 Taiwan’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?

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.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

"Blissfully Thai" Review: Pen-ek Ratanaruang's "Ploy"

Ploy. 2007. Written and directed by Pen-ek Ratanaruang. Produced by Rewat Vorarat. Cinematography by Charnkit Chamniwikaipong. Edited by Patamanadda Yukol. Music by Hualampong Riddim and Koichi Shimizu. Production design by Saksiri Chantarangsri. Sound by Akritchalerm Kalaynamtr.

Cast: Lalita Panyopas (Dang), Pornwut Sarasin (Wit), Apinya Sakuljaroensuk (Ploy), Ananda Everingham (Nut), Phorntip Papanai (Tum), Thakaskorn Pradabpongsa (Moo).

A Bangkok hotel is the backdrop for a crumbling marriage, a torrid love affair, and moody languorousness in Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Ploy, a film so ethereal that it nearly floats off the screen.  This is a mode Ratanaruang has favored in his most recent films: Last Life in the Universe, Invisible Waves, and his most recent feature Nymph.  His films now seem to be experiments in how minimal in plot, how elliptical and allusive in tone, and how much empty space and silence they can bear and still retain audience interest and substance.  Judging by some of his recent critical notices, the jury may be out on this, but as for me, I find both Ploy, and its follow-up Nymph, very beautifully made and fascinating, melancholy ghost(ly) stories of a sort.

The storyline of Ploy, such as it is, concerns Wit (Pornwut Sarasin) and Dang (Lalita Panyopas), a married couple returning to Thailand for a funeral, after living for 10 years in the U.S.  They arrive at their hotel at a troubled state in their marriage, having grown distant from one another, spending very little time together and no longer having sex, mostly arguing with each other.  Wit believes their love has reached its “expiration date,” and Dang suspects her husband of having an affair when he finds another woman’s name and number in his jacket pocket.  Unable to sleep (and perhaps as an excuse to get away from his wife for awhile), he leaves their room to get cigarettes and hangs out at the hotel bar.  There he meets Ploy (Apinya Sakuljaroensuk), a young woman with a frizzy halo of Afro-like curly hair, who is waiting for her mother to arrive from Sweden.  Wit invites Ploy to stay in their hotel room, to get cleaned up and wait for her mother, which greatly displeases Dang, who wishes to rest in privacy after their long trip.  As the film progresses, more tidbits of information about Dang emerge: she is a former film star who left the business long ago, and now appears to exist in a deep depression, which she assuages with heavy drinking, and (the film suggests) drugs.  While all this is occurring, a separate story details a hotel room tryst between a hotel maid (Phorntip Papanai) and a bartender (Ananda Everingham), a narrative thread which only has peripheral association with Wit, Dang, and Noy’s story, yet gets nearly equal screen time.

The minimalism of Ploy’s narrative allows Ratanaruang to visually indulge in varied ways, favoring long shots of its characters, and empty corridors that reinforce the sense of the drama that plays out against the hotel’s anonymous, antiseptic backdrop.  The maid and the hotel bartender serve as a counterweight to the distant and unhappy Wit and Dang, their sexual passion in stark contrast to the married couple who sleep as far apart as possible on their bed.  Although the film is named for her, we learn very little about Ploy, and she remains a mystery to the end; never explained, for example, are the bruises around her eye (which mirrors bruises Dang receives late in the film), or the male companion she leaves behind to go to Wit and Dang’s room.  Ploy shifts often between dream and reality, deliberately confusing distinctions between the two.  At least two major scenes in the film are revealed to be the dreams of Ploy and Dang, and this uncertainty about what we see in the film has a faintly unsettling effect.  Ploy ultimately lacks the lasting resonance of superior, earlier films such as 6ixty9, Monrak Transistor, and Last Life in the Universe; still, it has intriguingly odd visual and narrative touches and is never less than lovely to look at.

Ploy screens at Asia Society on May 13 at 6:45pm as part of the film series “Blissfully Thai,” which spotlights key Thai cinema of the past decade, including works by other major Thai directors such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul (last year’s Cannes Palme D’or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Blissfully Yours) and Wisit Sasanatieng (Tears of the Black Tiger).  Ratanaruang will have a Q&A after the screening, and will participate in a discussion on May 14 at 2pm with Apichatpong Weerasethakul at Asia Society to discuss their work and recent Thai cinema.  For info and tickets for Ploy, click here.  For info and tickets for Saturday’s talk, click here.

Monday, May 9, 2011

"Taiwan Stories" Video: Q&A with Shen Ko-shang, Director of "Two Juliets"

Shen Ko-shang, the director of "Two Juliets," the second segment of the anthology film Juliets, introduced his film and did a Q&A after the screening this past Saturday. Video below.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

"Taiwan Stories" Review: Chung Mong-hong's "The Fourth Portrait"

The Fourth Portrait (Di zhi zhang hua). 2010. Directed by Chung Mong-hong. Written by Chung Mong-hong and Tu Hsiang-wen, based on an original story by Chung Mong-hong.  Produced by Tseng Shao-chien. Cinematography by Nagao Nakashima [Chung Mong-hong]. Edited by Lo Shih-ching. Art direction by Chao Shih-hao. Sound by Tu Duu-chih.

Cast: Bi Xiao-hai (Zhu Wen-hsiang), King Shih-chieh (Chang), Hao Lei (Wu Chun-lan), Leon Dai (Wen-hsiang's stepfather), Na Dow (Big Gun), Terri Kwan (Huang).

Twice in The Fourth Portrait, Chung Mong-hong’s downbeat, episodic, and almost surreally fragmented second feature, Wen-hsiang (Bi Xiao-hai), the ten-year old boy at the narrative’s center, enters, and emerges from, dark tunnels.  The first time, he enters a tunnel to retrieve a shirt that drifts away from him as he washes it at a river.  The second time, he is on a train with his mainlander mother Chun-lan (Hao Lei), who retrieves him to live with her, after having abandoned him years before.  This act of traversing dark passages neatly serves as a central metaphor for most of the characters in this film, set mostly in depressed backwaters of the Taiwan countryside.  Even though The Fourth Portrait is set in the present day, it’s very difficult to tell from most outward appearances, this setting being far from the modern urban landscapes of Taipei.  The film’s bright, deeply saturated colors, ranging from lush forest greenery to the neon of a karaoke bar, forms a sharp contrast to the darkness of the characters’ existences.
At the outset, Wen-hsiang has lost his father, and is forced to fend for himself, which he does by stealing others’ lunchboxes from his school.  He is caught by Chang (King Shih-chieh), the school’s caretaker, who relates a story of a traumatic experience from his own childhood fifty years earlier when his home was bombed by the Japanese in his native Shanghai.  Chang, despite his gruff exterior, begins looking after the boy, taking along with him as he raids a destroyed, abandoned house for objects to sell to earn money to give to Wen-hsiang.  Soon after, Wen-hsiang’s mother collects him to live with her new husband (Leon Dai), a fish seller who is instantly hostile to his stepson.  The couple also has a baby of their own.  Chun-lan lives a rather harsh existence as a marginalized Mainland Chinese immigrant in Taiwan, escaping dire circumstances in her homeland only to end up as a bar hostess servicing surly gangsters and coming home to a churlish, violent husband.  One of the film’s best scenes is a monologue Chun-lan delivers to Wen-hsiang’s teacher (Terri Kwan), expressing the travails of her life and the sacrifices she went through to get her hard-earned Taiwanese identity card.  A narrative thread that dominates the second half of the film concerns Wen-hsiang’s older brother, who lived with their mother and stepfather, who has now been missing for a long time.  Wen-hsiang often dreams about his brother, and his quest to learn what happens to him becomes a growing obsession.  In the midst of this rather depressing milieu, some comic relief is provided courtesy of a portly petty thief (comedian Na Dow) who calls himself “Big Gun,” who meets and befriends Wen-hsiang, taking the boy along on his robbery sprees.

The Fourth Portrait takes its title from Wen-hsiang’s penchant for drawing, and is structured around pictures the boy draws of key features of his existence.  The film’s tone is markedly different from Chung Mong-hong’s previous feature Parking, which had much more comedy, a sort of Taipei After Hours.  Chung’s nonlinear method of telling his story, at least initially, makes it difficult to immediately discern the relationships between people and to connect the episodes that are presented here almost like a puzzle.  The necessary information is doled out slowly and gradually over the course of the film, which may cause audience confusion (as it did to at least one viewer at this past Friday night’s screening).  Also, one major question remains unanswered: why did Chun-lan separate the brothers in the first place, only taking her older child to live with her and leaving Wen-hsiang to stay with his father?  This potential flaw is mostly overcome by Chung’s intriguing stylistics, most especially his visual palette, which is never less than strikingly beautiful.  The Fourth Portrait also benefits greatly from brilliant performances all around; Bi remarkably essays Wen-hsiang as a tough, plucky, resilient kid who navigates his harsh world and the troubled adults who inhabit it.  Hao Lei, best known for her excellent turn in Lou Ye’s Summer Palace, is just as impressive here as the mother who makes rather ill-advised life choices, yet is never less than deeply sympathetic.  Actor-director Leon Dai (Twenty Something Taipei, No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti), who also appeared in Parking, is riveting, adding considerable depth and shading to a character who, at least on paper, would seem to come across as simple a one-dimensionally evil character.  The Fourth Portrait, along with Parking, impressively exhibits the considerable range of its director, who is shaping up to be one of the most interesting to emerge in recent Taiwanese cinema.

The Fourth Portrait screens at the Walter Reade Theater today at 3:30. Click here to purchase tickets.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

"Taiwan Stories" Review: "Juliets"

Juliets. 2010. Produced by Khan Lee. Consists of three short films:

Juliet's Choice. Directed by Hou Chi-jan. Written by Hou Chi-jan and Kelly Yang Yuan-ling. Cinematography by Mahua Feng Shin-hua. Edited by Ku Hsaio-yun. Production design by Tsai Pei-ling. Music by Han Cheng-ye.

Cast: Vivian HsuWang Po-chieh.

Two Juliets. Directed by Shen Ko-shang. Written by Shen Ko-shang and Lu Hsin-chih. Cinematography by Tao Chien. Edited by Ku Hsiao-yun. Production design by Tang Chia-hung. Music by pigheadskin.

Cast: Lee Chien-na, River Huang.

One More Juliet. Written and directed by Chen Yu-hsun. Cinematography by Chen Chien-li. Edited by Ku Hsiao-yun. Music by Chris Hou.

Cast: Kang Kang, Liang He-chun.

The omnibus film Juliets consists of three short films set in the 1970’s, the 1980’s (in flashback), and the present day, all riffing on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  As with most portmanteau films of this kind, the quality varies, with the final episode being the weakest.  But all three of them, especially the strong opening two sections, are diverting and well-made films, and feature clever closing twists.  As the title indicates, the focus, at least in the first two films, is very much on the women in the romantic relationships depicted.  Here, they take the initiative, the risks, and find their own strength and agency in pursuing love, much more than the men do.

The first film, Hou Chi-jan’s “Juliet’s Choice,” set in 1970’s Taiwan during martial law, concerns Ju (Vivian Hsu), a disabled young woman who works in her father’s print shop.  She is withdrawn and shy, hiding her face behind her hair, and seeming to wish to disappear.  She feels trapped within both her body and her circumstances, scarcely venturing out of the shop, and hardly speaking to anyone.  However, a possible path of escape emerges in the form of Ro (Wong Po-chieh), a handsome college student who comes to the shop seeking to print banned Marxist materials for his dissident student group.  Rejected by Ju’s father, an instantly smitten Ju offers to print the materials surreptitiously after hours.  As she travels to the college to deliver the materials, she feels she is getting closer to “Romeo,” as Ro’s friends nickname him.  She begins wearing red lipstick and wearing a red dress. (Red is a dominant color in all three films.)  But when she suffers a humiliating episode during one of these trips, her reaction leads to the film’s clever emotional twist.  Sumptuously shot in a nostalgic glow justly compared to Wong Kar-wai’s films, “Juliet’s Choice” also intriguingly juggles its chronology in a similar fashion to Hou’s previous film, the feature One Day.  The film also boasts a strong central performance by pop star Vivian Hsu, boldly cast against type as the awkward and dowdy protagonist.

The second and strongest short, Shen Ko-shang’s “Two Juliets,” ambitiously spans two time periods, the 1980’s and the present, and features a fantastic performance by first-time actress Lee Chien-na, who portrays the two central female characters.  The Juliet of the present is suffering from a recent break-up, so much so that she has become suicidal.  She drives her father’s cab and picks up an unusual fare: a middle-aged man who is going to a mental asylum where he has gone to find his Juliet, whom he has left there after promising to rescue her from there thirty years earlier, and failing to follow through on that promise.  The man’s story as told to the present-day Juliet forms the bulk of the film, an extended flashback which relates the love affair between the man (played in his younger days by River Huang) and Julie (Lee Chien-na).  This story hews the closest to Shakespeare’s original story of warring families, as the lovers have to be in secret because of their rival fathers.  The young man’s father is a puppetmaster, and Julie’s father is a vaudevillian who runs a show in which Julie is a featured performer.  They have their secret trysts in a purportedly haunted house, and they believe they see ghost lovers who also use the house.  Julie is much bolder than her lover, and his diffidence and weakness lead to the tragic conclusion to their love story, which extends to the present and the man’s regret and wish to rectify the past.  Shen, a documentary filmmaker making his fiction debut with “Two Juliets,” impressively uses a very sophisticated narrative structure that packs an incredible amount of depth and poignancy into its brief running time, and has an acidly clever, emotionally satisfying twist.

The final segment, Chen Yu-hsun’s “One More Juliet,” in stark contrast to the other two films, is a broadly comic tale of a male Juliet (TV personality Kang Kang), who after 28 unrequited love affairs, attempts suicide on the eve of his 40th birthday.  This male Juliet, named Chu Li-ye (say it out loud to get the joke), while trying to hang himself, is drafted by a film crew to join a commercial for a slimming Spanx-like garment made for men.  “One More Juliet” gives the anthology’s theme a twist by featuring a gay protagonist, whose Romeo is an extras actor (Liang He-chun) he meets on set.  Unfortunately, the frenetic humor here mostly falls flat and is more energetic than clever, and would seem to have more resonance with Taiwanese audiences familiar with its popular comedian star.

Juliets screens at the Walter Reade Theater on May 7 at 1:30 and May 18 at 4pm as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s film series “Taiwan Stories: Classic and Contemporary Film from Taiwan,” a 20-film survey spanning from the 1960’s to the present.  Click here to purchase tickets.