35 Generation: Tag-Along Director Cheng Wei-hao
Blazing One’s Own Trail in an Adverse Environment
A young director is taking on a variety of projects as he strives to make a name for himself while also bringing about a renaissance for Taiwan’s feature film culture.
Blazing One’s Own Trail in an Adverse EnvironmentBy Lucy Chao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 632 )
In 1997, The Fifth Element, a science fiction action film by French director Luc Besson, became a box office hit around the world. In Kaohsiung, a junior high school student skipped dinner after prep school and bicycled to the cinema to watch the movie. The young man spent his secretly saved pocket money on the admission ticket and sat through his first movie theater screening, completely forgetting his empty stomach.
Hollywood movies left him dazzled and stunned, and turned him into a movie aficionado.
Now, that teenage movie buff has just turned 34 and is no longer just dreaming about the big screen. After several successful releases, Cheng Wei-hao is being touted as Taiwan’s most promising genre movie director.
In 2015, Cheng won Best Short Film at the Golden Horse Festival for his short film debut The Death of a Security Guard. The following year, his feature debut The Tag-Along earned multiple Golden Horse Award nominations including best new director. This year, the crime thriller Who Killed Cock Robin and the horror movie sequel The Tag-Along 2 both hit screens and were nominated for the Golden Horse Awards in several categories, with the winners being announced in November. Finally, it seems, Taiwanese genre movies are moving into the spotlight after a long period of gloom.
Hesitating no Longer, Going for Box Office Success
After entering university, Cheng looked for opportunities to shoot films and read about movies. He actively sought out internships and joined film crews as a set assistant, which gave him an opportunity to observe how the professionals went about moviemaking. Cheng’s pragmatic, proactive and goal-oriented attitude helped him accumulate various filmmaking skills.
Filmmakers face massive obstacles in Taiwan. There are plenty of stories about directors who risked financial ruin, selling their homes or taking out big loans just to be able to make a movie. For young aspiring filmmakers, the situation is even more difficult because they usually not only lack money but also the necessary connections and background. Faced with so much uncertainty, many lose their initial enthusiasm for filmmaking.
Cheng frankly admits that he toyed with the idea of quitting filmmaking before he shot The Tag-Along and Who Killed Cock Robbin.
He asked himself an endless string of questions, “Should I go for the film festivals? Doesn’t that mean that I need to reach the level of director Hou [Hsiao-hsien] to have so-called achievements? Should I go for the market? Taiwan doesn’t even have so-called genre movies, so how should I go about this? Can I make money doing this? Are you kidding? You don’t even know how much you can collect in director’s fees since you are a new director.” At the time, Cheng was very unsure whether he was on the right track.
Yet, when the first opportunity came around to go for commercial success, he mustered the courage to grab it. That opportunity was directing The Tag-Along.
Cheng was fully aware that for a rookie director, horror movies and crime thrillers were the best “entry level” genres because they were similar in nature: They provided a high entertainment value at a low budget and gave a budding director an opportunity to showcase his skills in telling a story and creating an atmosphere of horror and suspense.
A Pioneer in Genre Movies
Reminiscing about his decision to shoot a horror movie three years ago when he had no experience filming a full-length film, Cheng notes,
“Young Taiwanese, including myself, are quite bold when it comes to trying out new things. The horror movie market in Taiwan is small, and since there are no precedents that one could follow, the mental burden is low and fault tolerance high. If you fail, people won’t remember it.”
Chen Shin-chi, one of the producers of the The Tag-Along franchise, observes that Cheng does not come across like a novice director with regard to controlling the set and requirements. “Given the constraints from different budgets and props, he is good at using various weapons during the production process, which raises the accuracy [of the filmed scene],” notes Chen.
“I think he is quite calm; though he is new at it, he is able to control the set and the actors. He makes the actors relax completely, and he will very gently guide them to deliver the things he wants,” remarks Taiwanese actor Rainie Yang, who plays the female lead in The Tag-Along 2.
Cheng is also driven by a sense of mission to raise the profile of Taiwan’s film industry. “If we get an opportunity to act as pioneers, I personally have a sense of mission; I hope to truly influence this society through my own works. Once genre movies get an opportunity to make it, there is an even bigger opportunity for a regional movie industry to take shape," he says.
Each time Cheng completes a movie, he feels like his creative energy has been ruminated away and exhausted. But although he is tired, he can't help but carry on. “I feel this is very strange; maybe it’s just my nature to really love doing this. With a little luck, I was able to shoot three movies in a row, which reassured me: Cinema is what I want to make my whole life, and the one thing I am very passionate about.”
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz