Star of the Month — February, 2016 - Taipei Film Commission
“Into his garden of flourishing flowers”: Interview with Teng Yung-shing, Director of Documentary - Hsien-yung Pai
(Article/Chun-mu Ho; photography & video /May Wen)
In the opening scenes of Pai Hsien-yung’s documentary film - Hsien-yung Pai, the audience sees the sun emerge from darkness through an airplane window, rain drops falling onto a windshield with moving wipers, a silhouette of Pai Hsien-yung shot against the light, and a profile of him looking through the car window. The sequence of images gave a hint to the audience about how this literature master is always moving forward and searching for new ideas, while at the same time guided the audience into his journey, or as director Teng Yung-shing had put it - into his garden of flourishing flowers.
Teng Yung-shing, director of Pai Hsien-yung documentary - Hsien-yung Pai, interviewed by Taipei Film Commission
The beginning of documentary on Pai Hsien-yung - Hsien-yung Pai
Released in 2011, The Inspired Island is a series of films that capture the stories of Taiwan’s great writers. Through image and audio, they present a different view to the renowned masters that words alone could not describe. The second series was released at the end of 2015. It comprised of documentaries on 7 Taiwanese and Hong Kong writers, the most prominent of which was Hsien-yung Pai, a documentary on Pai Hsien-yung. Teng Yung-shing is an experienced commercial and MV director. His feature film - Return Ticket won Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress at the 2011 Golden Horse Awards. Teng was initially assigned to direct a documentary on Eileen Chang for the second series of The Inspired Island, but 2 years down the road, he had to put the project on hold and direct documentary on Pai Hsien-yung instead.
Before Teng Yung-shing took over, two other directors had already spent two years capturing more than 1,000 hours of footage on Pai Hsien-yung. When the project was handed over to Teng Yung-shing in 2014, Teng regretted at first for digging himself such a large hole. Teng said that it was hard to explain what drove him to accomplish this impossible project, but as he interacted more closely with Pai, he started to realize the possibilities and attractions the story may provide.
In Hsien-yung Pai, the life of the literature master Pai Hsien-yung was presented through the camera (still/ Fisfisa Media)
Teng recalled having conducted extensive research prior to meeting Pai Hsien-yung for the first time; he had even studied the Kun Opera that Pai has recently been working to restore, and came up with the idea to direct the film using some of the aesthetic elements from Kun Opera. “However, I discarded the idea as soon as I met Pai, because his character simply outshines whatever aesthetic element I bring into the film. Pai’s literature talent, love life, lifestyle, dedication to Kun Opera, and care to his father are all highlights of the film; and there is no better way to present his story than to direct attention to him and him only.” Having decided to adopt a “people” focus, Teng went back to the 1,000-hour footage, looking to find gold in tons of rocks.
Ballroom dance-like interaction with Pai Hsien-yung
Teng Yung-shing began his interview with Pai Hsien-yung from a literary perspective, and gradually explored intricate details of the literature master’s life experiences. What Teng wanted to present to the audience was not simply a series of questions and answers, but the experience of having a master figure invite you into his garden of wisdom. In order to set the right tone, Teng withdrew from his dominant position as a film director, because, “In a documentary, you can direct the film, but not the subject; the only thing you should be controlling is the power of the film.” After digging through more than a thousand hours of footage, Teng learned a great deal about Pai and hoped that the audience sees what he sees.
Teng said that the part that required the most effort was finding the right way to work with Pai and make him the subject. “This film is not one that carries the director’s style,” said Teng, “my style would conflict with Pai’s, which was why we took the ballroom dancing approach and have him lead while I follow.” What the audience sees in the film will be the lead dancer moving about under the spotlight, like Du Liniang in the classic Kun Opera - The Peony Pavilion. In this analogy, Teng considered himself to be Du Liniang’s maid - Chun Hsiang.
Home is not necessarily a specific place; to Pai Hsien-yung, the entire Chinese culture can be called home (still/ Fisfisa Media)
One of the most memorable moments during the filming stage was the interview on Pai’s short stories collection - Taipei People. Pai was ready for his narratives at that time while the production team had staged the scene like a casual conversation of two people, and between them, fictional characters such as Yin Hsueh-yen, Mamma Lo and Taipan Chin were brought to life in front of the camera. As interviews progressed, Teng started to notice similarities of how he and Pai Hsien-yung have missed home. Despite having been born 20 years apart, they are both descendants of the soldiers who retreated from China in 1949. Because of their common experience, they share a less location-specific definition of the term “home” and “belonging.” To them, “home” is not a specific place but a state of mind that one spends his entire life pursuing; as for Pai Hsien-yung, he considers the entire Chinese culture to be the place he belongs.
Learning of new filming techniques after the documentary
“Sometimes you achieve better results if you just let things flow,” said Teng. In this documentary, he learned to let go of the habits he accumulated over the last 20 to 30 years, and adopted a less dominant approach. He accepted more than a thousand hours of footage he did not take, he followed Pai’s footsteps, and yet he learned something out of it. “In Return Ticket, I put in everything I had and found my mind empty at the wrap-up; but this time round I put in little and found my mind filled in the end.” He changed his usual directing habits and allowed himself to be guided into Pai Hsien-yung’s world. Even though they had no other personal interactions, Teng felt a firm and rewarding companionship growing between them.
Having devoted more than 20 years in the audiovisual industry, Teng Yung-shing enjoys all kinds of video production from commercials, documentaries, MVs, to films. Even when making commercials, he would go to great extent to make sure that the message is conveyed properly. To him, filming is like painting; some are drawn on a larger canvas while others are smaller, and sometimes you are given oil paint while other times all you have are pencils. “Whatever it is you have been given, just make the best out of it! If you truly like painting, then you should give your undivided attention to every piece of work you do.” When asked about his next feature film, Teng smiled and replied: “I will begin when I have enough ideas to fill such a big canvas. This case with Pai has taught me that some things are best accomplished without forcing. If you push too far, your ambition will undermine the sincerity of the things you do.”
[About the director]
Teng Yung-shing graduated from the Department of Radio and Television, Shih Hsin College. He began his first job at Kuangchi Program Service, then worked at an advertising agency as a producer. Three years later, he ran his own film company until now.
Teng Yung-shing makes a broad variety of productions from commercials, short-films, MVs, to feature films. He said: “I enjoy my filming career because I am more interested in people. I think emotion is the key that connects the audience, and all the different forms of presentation are just different approaches of delivering emotions within a story. In commercials, I have a rather short time to tell a story or part of it, whereas in a feature film, I have enough time to finish a whole story. There may be a shift in focus due to the different lengths, but there is little difference as far as filming is concerned.”
Teng’s previous works include Love At 7-11 (2002), a film based on Tsai Chih-heng’s novel, and Return Ticket, a film that claimed Asian New Talent Award - Best Director at the 14th Shanghai International Film Festival and Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress at the 48th Golden Horse Awards.