Wed, Apr 02, 2008 - Page 14 News List

Chen's magical lens

With the release of her allegorical tragicomedy 'God Man Dog,' director Singing Chen has emerged as one of Taiwan's most talented and promising young filmmakers



Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt shortly after arriving back in Taipei from the Hong Kong International Film Festival, director Singing Chen (陳芯宜) looks tired and has armed herself with a large cup of coffee for our interview. Her film God Man Dog (流浪神狗人) has been a fixture on the international film festival circuit since late last year and has garnered awards and recognition both in Taiwan and abroad. Which is pretty impressive, considering it's only her second full-length feature film, and one that was made eight years after her directorial debut.

Chen says her life hit a low point after her first film, Bundled (我叫阿銘啦), which caused her to entertain serious doubts about her abilities as a filmmaker. Fortunately, however, she didn't give up on her dream, a dream that was hatched during an apprenticeship with documentary filmmaker Huang Ming-chuan (黃明川) back in 1995, when Chen was a broadcast major at Fu Jen Catholic University (輔仁大學). "That experience … had a major influence on my creative career," she says, "since I realized that there was nothing a woman could not do." Since then Chen has continued to work with Huang on several projects, including an ambitious documentary profiling 100 Taiwanese poets.

The idea for Bundled formed during her senior year when she interviewed homeless people in Taipei's Wanhua district for a class project. Chen ended up spending the next three years checking up on her interviewees from time to time and even made friends with a few of them. She mined those experiences for the film, which tells the story of a homeless man named A-ming (阿銘) and his fellow vagrants. Bundled brought together a team of young filmmakers and close friends - including director and cinema-tographer Shen Ko-shang (沈可尚), art director Huang Mei-ching (黃美清), playwright Lou Yi-an (樓一安) and sound designer Dennis Tsao (曹源峰) - who have collaborated with each other ever since.

After Bundled, Chen returned to making documentaries, directing, editing, cinematographing and even making soundtracks for her works. (Chen has played piano since the age of 4 and was keyboard player for pioneering underground band 431.) Most of the documentaries she made were about performing artists, whom she kept in touch with and continued to film even after completing her projects.

Chen is a willing heir to Huang Ming-chuan, who is notorious for taking a decade to complete a film and who believes a documentary shot under time pressure is a documentary that is only fit to be aired as an expository piece on the Discovery Channel. But after her critically acclaimed debut, Chen found herself facing a moral dilemma. The local film industry was in a slump and discord had arisen over the question of how to save Taiwanese cinema. Some in the industry felt directors should make movies that appealed to a mass audience instead of the art-house films that were driving local audiences away.

The pressure gradually got to her. "I remember thinking, 'What if my next film doesn't sell? I would be one of those responsible for killing Taiwanese cinema,'" Chen recalls. "Directors are not what you think, a bunch of artists who care only for their art. We do take our social responsibilities seriously," she says, laughing.

Chen got over her frustrations when she was commissioned to make a documentary on the choreographer Lin Li-chen (林麗珍) in 2005. Lin encouraged the once-lost director to finish a script she had been working on for five years. It took her only two months to complete the script, which was for God Man Dog, an allegorical tale about contemporary Taiwan that ties together the stories of three unfortunate protagonists.

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