Hsieh Pei-ju earned her MFA at Columbia University. She is one of the directors of Ten Years Taiwan, a collection of short films, which was selected for Busan IFF. Her feature debut, Heavy Craving won Best New Talent at Taipei Film Awards and the Audience Choice Award at International New Talent Competition of the 21st Taipei FF.
On the occasion of “Heavy Craving” screening at Taiwan Biennial Film Festival, we speak with her about the difference between shooting short and feature, the discrimination associated with appearances, parents’ love, the cast, and many other topics.
“Heavy Craving” netted you Best New Talent at Taipei Film Awards and the Audience Choice Award at International New Talent Competition of the 21st Taipei FF. How do you feel about this success?
I am very happy of course. I make films for the audience so I am very happy that my film can connect with people
Your previous work was the segment “A Making-Of” in “Ten Years Taiwan“. How was the experience?
I really enjoyed working with the other four directors, since our backgrounds are very diverse. My segment was a comedy while the others were more serious but I really liked the combination and the way the order of the films was arranged. Actually, Chang Yao-chen, who also stars in “Heavy Craving” was in that film and it was cool to work with an old friend.
“Heavy Craving” is your first feature film. How did you find the transition from short to full?
It was very challenging, because I had not work in a feature film before. I worked in the script for a really long time. I had my first draft at 2014, and then I kept rewriting and rewriting, until this year. The structure is different between the two. But I had a great crew, mostly young people and they were very passionate for the film. I think it turned out fine but I was very nervous before, about doing this feature
What was the inspiration behind the story of “Heavy Craving”?
I was a little chubby when I was a teenager, I ate a lot. My parents would call me names, although in a very loving way, something like chubby. I knew they loved me but sometimes it was still hurtful to hear these words. In Taiwan, it is very common to greet others by commenting on their body figure, something like “Hi, you gained some weight” or “you look thinner”. It is very natural here, although weird. Therefore, when people say that, it is a daily conversation, but for people who are very wary of their body, it can be hurtful. So, I wanted to tell the story about this whole concept, how society treats people with different kinds of body figure.
Do you feel that overweight people are subjected to a kind of racism, in essence?
It is a kind of discrimination. Also in cinema, we do not see different types of bodies, especially for women we only see slim, with perfect bodies, but this is not real life. In real life, we have different kind of people and I feel we should show them more on screen. I think that if we see that more on screen and advertisements for example, or media in general, then people will get used to the different body types and not feel so conscious if they are not slim or perfect. Because in real life, no one is that perfect, the images we see are usually Photoshopped, they are not even real.
Why do you think people are so “obsessed” with appearance? It is a worldwide phenomenon.
I do not know, I am wondering myself. I guess because it is the first thing we see and is easy to talk about appearance. But, in fact, we do not know the story behind any appearance. For example, we may see a thin person, but that does not mean that he or she is healthy. And if you are size 8, it does not mean you are not healthy. I guess I have to think more about this.
The mother of the boy who likes to dress in women’s clothes insists that his life will be more difficult if he is different. Do you agree?
When I showed the film, a lot of audience’s respond to that part was strong, particularly from the parents, because they really worry about their children. Of course they want a perfect world where everything will be fair and everybody would be treated equally, but in reality, we are not just there yet. As a parent, of course you worry about your kid’s future and I think it is a struggle even for very understanding parents that their children may face these difficulties growing up, if they encourage them to be themselves. I feel I should present this perspective because I think most people do things out of love, even when they have a different perspective and they take opposite sides, but they do this from loving someone. I have my opinions but I also understand this position of parents as well.
Did you do some research regarding the practices of the weight-loss institute?
It is actually a made up institution because I kind of combined everything together, the lectures, and the surgery, and the fitness coach. I don’t think there is a thing like that now in Taiwan like that, like a multiple organization but I think there are some places like that in the US. I wanted to combine all these into one institution because it is easier to have one clear antagonist and that is the space that place represents.
Actually, I really enjoyed the performance of Hsieh Tsu-wu in the role of the coach. Can you give us some more information about your cooperation?
He is a very experienced and popular actor in Taiwan. He did some TV series when he was young and those were very popular. I think he was a perfect fit for the role because, despite his age (he is 51), he maintains his body and overall appearance very well and he has that very strong presence. He is kind of scary sometimes (laughs). His lines are very long but he is very experienced, so he memorized everything before going on set and he could do the whole scene in one cut. That was very impressive. It was an interesting experience, we were very excited and nervous about working with him because he is a well-known actor; but he respected both the crew and me completely. It was great!
And can you tell me about your cooperation with the protagonist, Tsai Jia-yin?
When I was writing this script, I felt like I wanted to work with a new talent, because as a first-time director, I felt I needed someone who has the patience to work with me and start with me from the beginning, to talk with her from the writing stage about the character and develop the character with her. I saw her in a short film and I was really impressed by her performance. She was very chill and natural while acting, because sometimes, when you see plus- size actors or actresses, they are often asked to play funny or clumsy. When I saw her, she was not doing that, she was being herself, and I guess I was attracted to that. So, I found her and we had coffee a few times and I kind of wrote the script with her in mind and then my character became more and more about her. And she is also an acting coach, so she is very professional. When we were on set, I just let her do her thing actually, I talked to her about the character, but it was mostly her and she was really good.
Her character in the film is the victim of much hardship, like from the children mocking her and others throwing eggs at her. Was she uncomfortable in any way during the shooting?
I talked to her about this and she was prepared. I think she gets this kind of treatment some times in real life as well. I think she wants to bring these issues up as well.
The scene with the fighting is the most impressive in the movie. Why did you decide to include it and how did you shoot it?
I always wanted her to fight with an imaginary character because I wanted to visualize her inner struggle. She has to fight society and against the pressure she feels and I think that is the perfect way to visualize that.
The idea of them fighting in a stomach came from our production designer YAO Kuo-chen. The orange color implies the organ and echoes the interior of the fitness center. We used stretchable fabric and yoga balls to create the moving walls, and had our crew pushing the yoga balls crazily every time we rolled. It was the last scene we shot. It was a fun and very tiring scene to do for our team and the actresses. :)
So, no special effects?
No, we did some color correction to make the colors pop up more but it was all on set, like people pushing it behind the wall. It was fun, probably more for me (laughts)
Can you give us some more details about the location the film was shot?
We shot mostly in Taipei and Taichung. We got funding from Taichung so most of our locations were there.
What is your opinion about Taiwanese cinema at the moment?
There are more and more different films and that is great. I think we have a lot of freedom to try different things right now. However, sometimes it is hard because there are only that many audiences. I kind of like it we are all working in our own way. I am optimistic.
Is there any kind of censorship in Taiwan?
You mean from the government? No. We pretty much do what we want.
Are you working on anything new?
This film is going to be released in November in Taiwan, so I am now working on that. Actually, after making this feature, I shot a short film. I have some ideas in mind but I will have to think about it after “Heavy Craving” is released.