Godspeed Director Chung Mong-hong
The Alluring Vicissitudes of the Real Taiwan
A society news story has become a Taiwanese road movie in the hands of film director Chung Mong-hong, an auteur who breathes life into the frustrations of everyday characters, transforming them into Taiwan’s most authentic landscape.
The Alluring Vicissitudes of the Real TaiwanBy Lucy Chao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 611 )
The Taipei Minsheng Community studio of director Chung Mong-hong, whose recent film Godspeed received eight nominations and just won the Best Art Design at the 53rd Golden Horse Awards, is particularly clean and bright. Sunlight streams through the full-length windows, splashing over a black and white photograph on the wall and accentuating the play between its shadow and light, reminiscent of one of his movies.
Chung has been described by famed Taiwanese photographer Chang Chao-tang (張照堂) as “the black panther of New Taiwanese Cinema,” and by film critic Wen Tien-hsiang (聞天祥) as “possessing a rare modern touch in the Taiwanese cinema realm.”
If likened to a color, the tone, or perhaps rather the spirit of Chung’s films, would probably be black. The gradations of lightness, darkness and contrast are laden with elements of tranquility, alienation and absurdity, combining brute force underlined with caring.
Chung had just returned from the Tokyo International Film Festival the day before our interview. With a coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, the director alternated between sighs of exasperation and joyful laughter as he spoke about his world of cinema.
A director, scriptwriter and cinemaphotographer all wrapped into one, Chung has consistently flexed his creative muscle since his 2008 full-length drama Parking, roughly maintaining a steady pace of one film every two years since then with works including The Fourth Portrait (2010), Soul (2013), and this year’s Godspeed.
Chung’s lens is like a surgeon’s scalpel, slicing open the bone and sinew of Taiwanese society. In his recognizably highly stylized visual aesthetic, he challenges viewers’ neurons, nakedly zooming in on the darkest, murkiest sides of human nature.
Selected as the opening film of the 2016 Taipei Golden Horse Awards Film Festival, having been nominated for eight awards and winning Best Art Design, Godspeed has attracted the most attention of any Taiwanese film this year.
The humble protagonist of the film, played by Michael Hui (許冠文), is a taxi driver originally from Hong Kong and down on his luck after living in Taiwan for over 20 years. He encounters a drug mule played by Na Dow (納豆), an erratic loser, and a road trip where dog eats dog and people’s humanity is put to the test.
Inspiration from Life
The story originated from a news item about a taxi driver that drove a passenger all around Taiwan for 25 hours before the passenger skipped out on the fare.
“The news story is in itself a road movie. But what were these two people really doing in that enclosed space the whole time?” explains Chung as he recounts the germ of curiosity that got the story rolling.
As his curiosity germinated, the story got going in his head.
As a genre rarely tackled in Taiwanese cinema, the road movie posed considerable challenges in both scripting and filming.
The first task was spinning out the narrative axis from start to finish, which had to keep the story moving forward while expressing the changes taking place in the characters’ minds. Another challenge was how to employ the scenes inside and outside the car as it traveled, so as to break up the visual monotony and enrich the experience on an imaginative level.
“I think everyone has that road in their mind. The scenes outside are not important, and what matters is what you see inside through the outside - what are they really thinking? After all, each scene represents the characters’ trains of thought, states of being, or perhaps expresses what stage the story has reached,” says Chung, relating that he finds such things among most compelling aspects of road movies.
Taiwan, Warts and All
The camera follows the journey south as Chung’s distinctive cinematography shows Taiwan like we have never seen before in scene after scene.
“It is a sort of beauty remaining following devastation - a beauty that is full of life’s highs and lows,” says Chung in reference to scenes in the movie so ruinous as to elicit grief.
From the old apartment in Parking, the abandoned vacant building in The Fourth Portrait, and the mountain scenery of Lishan in Soul, to the lakes and fields of the rural villages in Godspeed, in Chung’s eyes it is the decaying, abandoned spaces that truly represent Taiwan’s living force and spirit.
However, the more layers of fancy style are stripped away, the more his deep, inward exploration of concern and inquisitiveness towards society becomes clear.
From his exploration of the possession of and identification with Taiwan in Soul, to the tolerance and understanding between the island’s residents in Godspeed, Chung continues to extend the scope of his political investigations.
“I’ve been talking about this issue since The Fourth Portrait. I really care about local identity, especially how over the past several years Taiwan has not only lost national competitiveness, but across society people have lost respect for life, for interpersonal interaction, mutual understanding, and even humanity,” says Chung.
Some have said that Chung’s past accumulation and transformation is evident in Godspeed.
“When I chat with Director Chung, I often tell him ‘You’ve finally come down to earth, getting that much closer to people,’” says Ju-feng Yeh (葉如芬), executive producer of Godspeed. “Director Chung has his own distinctive visual style and signature artistic expression, and oftentimes a higher level of philosophical thinking, which can make it difficult for the audience to get into it. But Godspeed is a bit easier to understand,” she adds.
“Godspeed has Parking’s dark humor, Soul’s clashing and overturning of categories without its heavy-handedness, and The Fourth Portrait’s social observation and modern touch. Rather than allowing the narrative to get bogged down in a single linear thread, he dares to skip around and make omissions. While exercising sharp observation, the ultimate warmth and salvation comes subtly, smoothly, and with feeling in this film, marking significant progress,” says Wen Tien-hsiang, film critic and chairman of the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival Executive Committee.
Speaking to changes across Taiwan’s filmmaking environment, market orientation, and audience tastes, “making movies in Taiwan is tough” is invariably the first sentence movie people utter. “Taiwan’s market is too fragmented, not just small,” reflects Chung with exasperation. “The audience has been conditioned by YouTube, and movies have become more like television,” he says.
The Taiwanese audience is becoming increasingly accustomed to viewing immediate, simple, easily digested fast-food films on the Internet. When one local production goes up against 10 foreign films in the theaters, when funding is lacking and talent is draining away, how can Taiwanese cinema grow? “I think it means getting back to the essence of cinema, and good moviemaking,” offers Chung, stressing the importance of getting back to the heart of filmmaking.
“Go to the cinema more often,” states Yeh, producer of numerous Taiwanese films. “We still have to maintain optimism amidst pessimism, because this is the land that nurtured and raised us, and giving up is not an option,” she adds emphatically.
On Taiwan’s cultural soil, filmmakers like Chung with an abiding passion for movies still exist even under a harsh climate. As art and commerce collide, people like Chung continue to dedicate themselves to storytelling in pictures, all the while wishing Taiwanese cinema “godspeed” on its path to future success.
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman
- Born in 1965
- Occupation / Director, scriptwriter, photographer
- Education / BS, Computer Science, National Chiao Tung University; MFA, Filmmaking, School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
- Works / Advertising, music videos, documentaries and dramas. Representative works include the documentary Doctor; full-length dramas Parking, The Fourth Portrait, Soul, and Godspeed.
- Honors and Awards / Best Director at 47th Golden Horse Awards for The Fourth Painting; latest release, Godspeed, eight nominations, winner of Best Art Design, 2016 Golden Horse Awards.