Star of the Month — December, 2015 - Taipei Film Commission
“To tell a story well, genre is the quickest way to go.”: Interview with The Tag-Along Director Cheng Wei-hao
(Article/Chun-mu Ho; photography & video /May Wen; translation/Master Translation Service Co., Ltd)
The Tag-Along director Cheng Wei-hao in an interview with Taipei Film Commission.
This has been a year of Taiwanese genre films, with New Year comedy The Wonderful Wedding, YA romance Our Times, gangster film Gatao, and even two horror films - The Bride in August (directed by Lingo Hsieh) and the closing film of this year’s Golden Horse Film Festival, The Tag-Along, released on November 27. The Tag-Along is based on a local supernatural tale from 17 years ago and directed by Cheng Wei-hao, whose short film The Death of a Security Guard won the major short film awards in Taiwan this year - Best Short Film at Taipei Film Festival, Golden Harvest Award in the General category, and Taiwan Award at the Kaohsiung International Short Film Competition. The Tag-Along is his first venture into the feature film market.
Focused on genre films and fascinated by classic subjects.
Since his student years, Cheng has been focused on genre films. His notable short films, You Are Not Alone, Real Sniper, and The Death of a Security Guard all have different genre elements. “To tell a story well, genre is the quickest way to go.” Therefore, he has decided that his next few feature films will be genre films. He stated that making genre films in Taiwan, one has to draw from local inspirations and use Taiwanese subject matters, so that the film can have a life of its own and escape the formulas. When producer Hank Tseng brought him the outline for The Tag-Along, Cheng, who grew up in the golden age of Taiwanese paranormal TV shows, was instantly captivated by the classic local tale and signed on as the director.
The Tag-Along is based on a Taiwanese horror story that occurred 17 years ago and is regarded as a local horror classic. (Poster courtesy of VieVision)
In the film, the titular entity is positioned as a “Mô-sîn-á,” more of a spirit and less of a deity. Accordingly, Cheng conducted research on both folklore and anthropology. For folklore, he visited locations, studied with folklore researchers, and read Classic of Mountains and Seas for reference. For anthropology, his research was more scientific. For instance, he read An Anthropological Imagination of Mô-sîn-á by Professor Lin Mei-rong. In the book, there are more than 200 entries of quantitative and qualitative field studies, which became reference for the story. The titular entity, described as “monkey-shaped, child-mannered, and agile,” with jumping abilities and is capable of possessing humans, is indeed a far cry from the spirits and monsters that are common in Chinese cultures.
“Film is always one-sided. We gathered as much interpretations as we could, induce the best possibilities, and put them in the film,” Cheng said. “However, the filmmaker needs a point of view. We convey our ideas and themes through the entity. For instance, for city-dwellers, the entity represents fear of nature.” Given the chance, he would see the entity for himself, so that he can know for certain whether their interpretation of the story is one-sided.
How should it be scary?
Cheng, who knows the horror genre like the back of his hand, drew inspiration from both Eastern and Western horror films and created The Tag-Along. In terms of content, the film took the concept of karma in Asian horror films and introduced one victim after another. In form, the film borrowed the mise-en-scène, cinematography, and blocking from Hollywood-style horror films, which are like visits to a haunted house. “They create a perfect haunted house, take you there, and act out a story for you.” The Tag-Along will also take the audience through scenes of horror in the darkness of theaters.
The Tag-Along takes after Hollywood horror films and takes the audience on a journey of horror. (Poster courtesy of VieVision)
Making a genre film, especially in the horror genre, which is rare in Taiwan, Cheng pointed out that the greatest challenge was a lack of knowhow. Even for the basic lighting tones, cinematography, and mood, there were no examples to follow. The making of the film was on-the-job training for the crew. He emphasized that horror films are “technology-intensive.” Therefore, the recruitment of the crew was focused on those with experience in genre films. For special effects, makeup, and sound - three major elements in horror - they sought international collaboration in the preproduction phase. The subsequent conversion of techniques to story requires direction from the director. “All I had was a direction because there were also many limitations - limitations on location, actors’ physical limitations, time limitations, and limitations on makeup and special effects. With all of these combined, it was very difficult to tell a horror story.”
Because of this lack of knowhow, Cheng remembered that making the film was a trying process on both body and mind, and the tremendous pressure made a lasting impression on the new director. From short films that could be completed within a week to a feature that was shot over a month, Cheng believes that the durability of the story and the execution were the greatest challenges. The former determines whether the audience could sit through the 90-minute film, and the latter is the work of the director. As the leader of the crew, with the responsibility to maintain reasonable work hours and morale, “precision” has become the most important training for Cheng on his way to feature filmmaking.
The Tag-Along is planned as a franchise.
The Tag-Along is planned as a franchise in the hope of training professionals for genre films and cultivate genre film talents in Taiwan. (Poster courtesy of VieVision)
Cheng revealed that “Once the challenges were overcome, I wanted to make a sequel.” The Tag-Along is planned as a franchise. In the first film, a new image of horror, “Mô-sîn-á,” is introduced to the audience, and the global market response will serve as reference for the sequel. However, it has been determined that the sequel will center on the origin story of the entity. He believes that for the industry, this franchise can introduce new talents with experience in genre films and horror films and enhance Taiwan’s ability in producing genre films.
When The Tag-Along was in post-production in Thailand, Cheng invited several local distributors to a screening of the film, to which they responded surprisingly positively. “I was afraid that distinctively Taiwanese subject matters would limit its audience, but I was able to achieve entertainment values and an overall style, which convinced them that this was a marketable commercial film.” This young director has been aiming for the global stage. In addition to collaborating with international technical teams, he also made the film with the Asian market in mind. Cheng can serve as a model for all aspiring filmmakers.
[About the Director]
Cheng Wei-hao was born in 1984. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Department of Advertising & PR, Fu Jen Catholic University and a master’s degree from Department of Motion Picture, National Taiwan University of Arts. He is an iconic director of police crime action from the generation born in the 1980s. His first short film You Are Not Alone won the award for Outstanding Asian Student Film at the International Student Film and Video Festival of Beijing Film Academy in 2008 and the award for Best New Director at South Taiwan Film Festival. It was nominated for best short films in the DV category at the 31st Golden Harvest Awards and at the 16th Beijing College Student Film Festival. His second short film, the crime thriller Real Sniper, was selected for the Global Chinese Vision section at the 2009 Golden Horse Film Festival and was nominated for Best Short Film at South Taiwan Film Festival and Golden Harvest Awards. It also won the Industry Award for Short at the 2010 Taipei Film Festival and was nominated for Best Short Film at Asia Pacific Film Festival. His third short film, mockumentary The Death of a Security Guard, won Best Short Film at the 2015 Taipei Film Festival, award for excellence in the General category at Golden Harvest Awards, and Taiwan Award at Kaohsiung International Short Film Competition. His first feature film, The Tag-Along, opens on November 27 in Taiwan.