Cheng Wei-hao was born in Kaohsiung in 1984, and had obtained a master’s degree from the Department of Motion Pictures, National Taiwan University of Arts.
After winning Best Short Film at the Golden Horse Awards in 2015 and multiple other awards for his mockumentary “The Death of A Security Guard”, Cheng’s first feature film “The Tag-Along” – based on a popular ghost story in Taiwan – was nominated for Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival and 4 categories of the 53rd Golden Horse Awards, and became a box office success, setting the record for top-grossing Taiwanese horror film.
Cheng’s second feature film “Who Killed Cock Robin?” was officially released on March 31st, 2017 in Taiwan and is now distributed by Cheng Cheng Films. Today, Cheng Wei-hao has established his reputation as a compelling story teller and a talented genre-film director.
We speak with him about his movie “Who Killed Cock Robin?”, the challenges in realising it, the masters that inspired him, the cast and other topics.
You are very young and your first movie “The Tag-Along” made a box office success that set the record for top-grossing Taiwanese horror film. An amazing achievement! Did this early success give you an expectation anxiety when you passed on to the next project?
I had always planned to make “Who Killed Cock Robin?” my feature debut because I wanted to test Taiwan’s market with a domestic dark suspense crime thriller. But because there hadn’t been a successful previous example, no investor was willing to take the risk, and in my case, another difficulty is that nobody would trust a new filmmaker. One thing led to another, I accepted directing “The Tag-Along”. Its box office success in 2015 and my short winning an award at Golden Horse Awards gave “Who Killed Cock Robin?” a much-needed push. We moved on to production right away in the next year. With the experience I gained from making the feature and up to 6 years of preparation, I had become more ambitious and dedicated. I was more confident to try more complex characters and a more intricate plot. I was concerned that the production could stop at any point and I’d have to wait another 6 years. The anxiety turned into my creative energy.
Can you talk with us about your love affair with genre movies? Have you always had this fascination?
If I get to decide what projects I work on, I’d choose genre films, for beneath genre films’ commercial appearance lies a satisfaction of our need for an escape that’s unrealizable in real life. I also feel it’s important to wrap up my message and emotions in it. Challenging existing formulas also excites me. I don’t know why exactly, but it is a creative process that gets me going, so I started my filmmaking career with genre films, and I love the direct communications I get to have with audience.
“Who Killed Cock Robin?” took a long time to be realised and the script was reworked and changed quite dramatically. Can you tell us about the journey to the finished product?
At first it was a suspense story with supernatural elements, but I didn’t feel strongly about it, so I told my partner that I wanted to write a darker, more realistic and more muscular story that carries a sense of fatalism, like lots of Korean films today do, and my partner agreed. Writing the script took three years, because I was doing it without getting paid. I had to moonlight shooting commercials to make a living. I kept polishing the script and showing it to friends and investors but got turned down repetitively, reasons being there was no successful domestic crime thriller, the story is too unethical or just doubts on whether a new director can pull it off. For half a year, the project wasn’t making any progress. A friend connected me to a TV-film opportunity at a platform, so I almost made my unpopular baby into a TV-film under a 4 million NTD budget.
But finally we found someone who really liked the script-producer David Tang at Rise Pictures. He said he can look for money for me so we can shoot it with a budget of 40 million NTD. And it turned out we did find investors right away. But we encountered more problems later on. We went through rounds of rewrites for an actor which took another year, but the actor didn’t come on board in the end, and the investment was dependent on having the actor in the film, so the money was gone as well. I had to persuade myself to take on some other projects, and my mindset was that hopefully after my feature debut, people would have more faith in my ability, so I directed The Tag Along.
One year after “Who Killed Cock Robin?” was put aside, my short won at Golden Horse Awards and Tag Along also became a box office hit. An angel investor from TMZ Media had confidence in investing in the film only based on the script and the director, so our production started.
Though I felt much more trusted with more space to create this time, the budget was very limited and the execution process was extremely difficult, the production condition wasn’t any less challenging. But I gave my very best because I had already waited for 5 years, I hoped that in the final year we’d achieve it nevertheless.
By the way, I want to mention that after the cast was finalized, the leading actor Kaiser Chuang and the supporting actor Mason Lee also contributed to the script. They brought out more possibilities for the story from the characters’ standpoints, especially the ending (not going to spoil it for you), which we came up with from our discussion during the shoot, and it was a fantastic creative process. I have to thank the actors for their selfless contributions which made the entire film much better.
In 2017, “Who Killed Cock Robin?” was finally released and seen by audience.
The main actor Kaiser Chuang is excellent in the role of ambitious and charming Wang. Did you have him in mind before starting the casting?
Yes. I had seen a few works of his. I felt he’s very energetic and especially good at roles that are underprivileged and villainous. His characteristics match the role, a local social news journalist who gets along with people from powerful positions or underground. He has a vibe similar to journalists I know.
His appearance also fits my expectation for the character. I needed a muscular actor because I wanted the film to be a hardcore neo noir, so he was my first choice. But like I said, the initial investment interest we got was attached to another actor and our project was put on hold for 2 years because that actor had been unavailable. Luckily with TMZ Media’s support, we restructured the investments and I got the right to pick my own cast, so I finally got to collaborate with Kaiser.
Was it challenging for the actor to adapt to the role? He looks very comfortable in it!
He looks effortless on screen because he prepared with high focus and dedication. He’s an actor who has high regard for work. From the pre-development stage to the shooting process, he always made sure to give his best. For example, at one point in the story, the character goes through a few nights without any sleep, and Kaiser really stayed awake during those few days so he looked burned-out on set. Sometimes we wanted his eyes to look red and swelling, he would use fingers to keep his eyes open for a while before the shooting started.
He really drank whisky for the dinner party scene and the scene in bed. Basically he doesn’t mind adjusting his body according to what the role experiences so his performance looks convincing. Especially in genre films, the actors are required to arrive at a status fast, and whether the performance is realistic or not can be easily told by audience when it’s shown on big screen.
In general, how was the casting process like for the film?
The producer recommended Mason Lee because they had worked together before. I saw his performance in “Where The Wind Settles” and was indeed very impressed. When he smiles he looks like a warm and harmless big boy, but when he keeps his face straight, he has a concerned expression that looks a little evil. So we met to chat more.
The first two meetings with Mason exposed me to his ambition for acting. He studied some classic psychopath characters in addition to reading our script to prepare for our chat. I actually wasn’t sure about casting him for Wei’s character back then. But the two meetings and his memorable eye expression won me over, I decided to have him play Wei right away.
Regarding the two actresses, Ann Hsu and I developed a great working relationship from making The Tag Along. I got to see her powerful acting energy, so I invited her for my new project. She’s a great fit for Maggie. I was sure she’ll be able to handle the femme fatale character well.
I had always been paying attention to Ko Chia-Yen because I feel she has a special presence. The TV shows she starred are very successful. Her excellent acting in TV was recognized by a Best Actress award. What’s more important is her short hair look is very close to the image of a bookish, innocent and harmless teacher character in this film. Ko Chia-Yen likes reading detective novels herself and is all for challenges (her character goes through a lot in the film), so after just one chat she agreed to join the cast.
The cinematography is very sophisticated and atmospheric. Can you tell us about working with Chi Wen Chen?
Around 2015, there were less people working on genre films in Taiwan than in other countries’ film-making environments. To make a genre film I had to find crew members that are experienced in the field. Cinematographer Chen Chi-Wen has made strong quality shorts and features in this category. In addition to adjusting colors, he also has great ideas about storytelling, so I invited him to lead our cinematography department.
Because the protagonist is a journalist, I told the cinematographer I want the camerawork to be entirely handheld with some zoom-ins. It looks like documenting what’s happening onsite real time as well as an eye peeking into a case’ developments.
We did storyboards for every scene. But after the actors had rehearsed their lines and positions, we asked the cinematographer to just follow them freely and capture whatever they felt like. If we needed to show some clues that are essential to the plot, we’d add some close-ups or even just move on, so that if looks natural.
We used high contrast color palettes for the film, one for the indoor scenes and the other one for the outdoor scenes. We used cyan colors for the indoor scenes to make them look like lightened by daylight lamps. The outdoor scenes were filled with warm colors like yellow and green, because most street lights in Taiwan are in yellow. I wanted to use these high contrast color palettes and documentary style handheld camerawork to deliver a suspenseful atmosphere.
One recurring theme of your movies is the duality truth/lies, real/false. Is it one of the reasons why the investigation in WKCR is in the hands of journalists? Instead of a classic police thriller?
The positioning of the film is a suspense crime thriller, so there must be a detective character in it. But I don’t want a genius pro like Kindaichi or Sherlock Holmes. A local news reporter would be a more convincing and suitable detective for our film. He’s in touch with people in power and from underground so he investigates a case through connections. I feel this is much more realistic.
I wanted the story to have lots of twists. Usually crime thrillers end with a big revelation. But I want to see whether we can end it with a “Rashomon”, so it’s engaging for audience and closer to real life. People tell lies from their own standpoints no matter whether the lies are well intended or not. It is the source of entertainment in our film and also expresses what I want to say-we can’t see the truth because each of us is only a part of the whole big picture.
Have you got any noir “auteur” you really admire and draw inspiration from?
Johnnie To from Hong Kong, Hollywood’s David Fincher and Christopher Nolan and Bong Joon-Ho from South Korea. I’ve seen all of their works. When I make my own films, the cinematic language I try to realize is closest to the aesthetics of these masters.
Can you share your thoughts about Taiwanese cinema at the moment? It seems that the last few years have been really good!
Since “Cape No. 7” in 2007, Taiwan’s commercial films have made significant progress. More sub-genres have emerged. There are Tai-Ke (Taiwan locals) motivation, sentimental youthful romance and domestic horrors. Recently, more people started making crime films as well. Basing on the artistic legacy from Taiwanese new cinema, we have branched out and grown up. I think this is a great thing for a maturing Taiwan film industry, because for an industry to exist, there must be more products. Keep it going. That’s the right way.
Can you reveal something about your future plans? Will you stick with genre cinema?
For my next project I’m trying soft science fiction. The plot will still be about resolving a crime case, but it’ll come with supernatural elements. It’ll approach topics like soul, life and death through brain and RNA. There haven’t been many films in this genre from Taiwan. I’d like to give it a try.