When acclaimed Taiwanese filmmaker Chung Mong-hong was in the early stages of his debut feature, Parking, in 2007, his cinematographer abruptly quit. Time and money were already stretched thin for the project, so the director decided to simply take on the additional role himself. But when his crew asked him how they would handle the credits, a mysterious name popped into his head — Nagao Nakashima. Over Chung’s next four films — two of which were selected by Taiwan as its entry to the Oscars in the best international film category, and all which have won praise for their artful cinematography — he continued acting as his own DP under the pseudonym of Nakashima.
“At the beginning, only a few people knew who Nagao Nakashima actually was,” Chung says, “and gradually it seemed that I almost started to believe that the person Nakashima existed.”
But for his sixth and most recent feature, The Falls, Chung abandoned his old pseudonym and decided to lens his work under his own name for the first time. To mark the occasion, the director says he completely reinvented his usual creative process. Chung spoke with to The Hollywood Reporter‘s Asia bureau chief Patrick Brzeski for THR Presents, powered by Vision Media, about the making of The Falls, which has earned him the honor of being Taiwan’s official submission for the Oscars’ International Feature category for the third time.
The director says the changes to his usual way of working began early in the development process. The Falls breaks from the heightened violence and gritty lower-class scraping by that characterized much of his earlier work, telling a simple story about the fraught relationship between a well-to-do single mother and her teenage daughter.
Set during the early days of the pandemic, The Falls‘ story begins to turn when 17-year-old Xiao Jing (played by Gingle Wang in a breakthrough performance) is sent home from school to quarantine after a classmate tests positive for COVID-19, and her mother, Pin-Wen (veteran TV actress Alyssa Chia, showing a new side of her talent), is asked by her employer to take a leave of absence. The duo’s luxury apartment building, meanwhile, is undergoing exterior renovations, and the entire structure has been enclosed in a blue construction tarp, bathing the interior of their stylish home in a pervasive blue light. Isolated, the duo’s already testy relationship rapidly deteriorates, and Pin-Wen’s mental health, already shaky after a painful divorce, begins a precipitous decline. A reckoning with reality is what’s required, and perhaps, too, a reorientation of priorities — something that should ring familiar to anyone who has weathered their own pandemic hardship, even if not under such extreme circumstance.
A father of two daughters, Chung says that living every day in what is effectively “a female dormitory” aided him in limning the nuances of the mother-daughter dynamic, and he also did exhaustive research into the symptoms of psychosis and mental illness. He says he cast his lead actresses based on a single conversation with each of them, meeting them only for the second time on the first day of shooting. “It was a huge bet for me, but luckily we see the results,” Chung explains, adding, “I believe in my intuitions.”
For the cinematography, Chung, as Nakashima, had always used only zoom lenses; but for The Falls he transitioned entirely to prime lenses. He also shot the film in a more conventional, structured manner, whereas on all of his past projects he used to simply let the cameras roll, filming continuously as the actors worked through scenes and he aided them with his commentary. What remained a constant from his past work was his signature preoccupation with the color palette of yellow and blue, which he uses as “cues” to the character’s relationships and emotional states. In the new work, “you see even more high contrast in the scenes,” he says, “and I also hid all of these cues even deeper.”
The Falls ends with a near tragedy, one that echoes a real-life incident that befell the daughter of one of the director’s friends. Chung says it was important to him to take his story in a more hopeful direction, though. “If I had used my usual methods, maybe the daughter would have been washed away,” he explains. “But this film is about the process of coming to understand each other. If I decided to end this film in a death without hope, all of that process of understanding would have been in vain.”
This edition of THR Presents was presented by 3 NG Film.