The Generation Without Homesickness: An Interview with Director Zhang Teng-Yuan on Crossing the Sentimental Desert (2011)
by Dennis Lo
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The use of Taiwanese locales away from the urban centers and rural places made famous by the Taiwan New Cinema (e.g. Hou Hsiao Hsien, Edward Yang) and Post-Taiwan New Wave (e.g. Tsai Ming Liang, Ang Lee) has noticeably diversified in recent Taiwanese films. Unprecedented box-office successes and locally acclaimed films, such as En Chen’s Island Etude (2006), Wei Te-Sheng’s Cape No. 7 (2007), and Seediq Bale (2011), all center their narratives in locations outside the familiar northern and southern urban centers, Taipei and Kaoshiung. This exodus, however, does not suggest that a nostalgic return to the rural, or a flight from the urban, is driving local demand. Rather, by (re)discovering Taiwanese locales that were once marginalized or passed by in the cleanly separated urban and rural chronotopes of previous Taiwanese film movements, these nomadic characters and filmmakers are remapping memories of “home” to suit a contemporary geography where the urban is closer than ever before to the rural. Despite the challenges of documenting urbanization in a geography where the urban has been irreversibly blurred with the rural, at the front lines of these efforts is a new generation of filmmakers who are, like the young directors at the beginning of the Taiwan New Cinema, starting their autobiographies with a trip back home.
Zhang Teng-Yuan is one such aspiring student filmmaker who has returned from Taipei to his hometown of suburban Taichung to shoot a 30-minute short film, Crossing the Sentimental Desert (2011). Crossing premiered in the US at the 2011 Los Angeles Asia Pacific Film Festival; the film tells the story of a middle aged Taipei teacher’s memories of his family’s pork-bun (baozi) business in a 1990s suburban Taiwanese community, when the death of his mother prompted him to hire a female Vietnamese migrant worker to help as his father’s assistant. What begins as a portrait of the everyday affairs of the family business quickly spirals into an introspective investigation of generational and cross-cultural tensions.
Strikingly, for a story that highlights the plurality of experiences of place and belonging, the narrative of Crossing is nearly completely situated within the tightly framed interior of a baozi store that the film’s art designers constructed within an abandoned building in Taichung. Set against the long takes of the interiors, the complete lack of shots of contiguous exterior spaces makes it possible for this baozi store to represent a common site—and sight—in any suburban Taiwanese locale outside Taipei in the early 1990s. Yet, the orchestration of off-screen sounds is location-specific, weaving a rich tapestry of sounds of dogs barking, a factory in the near distance, leaves rustling, and the occasional scooter passing by.
I was curious whether this discrepancy between the levels of location-specificity in the spaces constructed from the film’s mise-en-scene and its soundscape was from the original set design, or due to practical challenges of constructing a baozi store in this specific neighborhood. I requested an interview with director Zhang, focusing on how the location-scouting process and on-location production experiences affected the film’s construction of space.
As this interview illustrates, the production process accesses three primary archives: the shooting location as a space of palimpsests, the archive of oral narratives and local “folklore” told by the residents and township leader (lizhang), and a database of shooting locations constructed by local location scouts. Palimpsests in the shooting location, such as an urban legend of how the building came to be abandoned, were excavated through oral narratives told by the residents to the filmmakers. Through such interactions between the residents and filmmakers, the shooting site was transformed from one of many abandoned spaces in a location database and a non-place to its residents, to a site of collective memory-making. Thus, far from being produced in an isolated environment, Crossing’s story about generational divide was forged reflexively in a contact zone between young filmmakers and older members of the community.
Significantly, these interactions reveal a tacit social contract between the filmmakers and residents, one that enables the filmmakers to address site-specific challenges through their familiarity with everyday life in similar neighborhoods. For instance, with only loose control over the divisions between the set and surrounding public spaces—due to the filmmakers’ sensitivity with their position as non-residents renting a space with ambiguous property rights—it was inevitable for place-specific sounds from nearby communal events to leak onto the set. Instead of filtering out the sounds, however, Zhang drew from his memory of similar communal events in other suburban Taiwanese neighborhoods during the pre-Chinese New Year season, ultimately incorporating the noises in the final cut as off-screen sounds. On-location experiences such as this generated a site-specific projection of Taiwanese folk memory, allowing an interface between a projected past and an encountered present to be established across on- and off-screen space. It would be misleading, however, to identify this as an isolated instance of on-location improvisation. Indeed, my interview suggests how this interface, in terms of spatial theorist Henri Lefebvre’s spatial triad, was forged in a web of spatial practices, representational spaces, and representations of space, including the director’s experiences of activating the historical consciousness of local residents, imaginations of folk customs, and a reflexive theory of filmic representation based on generational differences in the ways of perceiving rural space, respectively.
The following transcript is a selection from the full interview, with topics chosen to highlight the numerous processes where perceptions, narrations, and representations of home are, as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari might put it, in constant states of “becoming-minor.” Zhang himself identifies with the so-called “Generation Without Homesickness,” but his descriptions of on-location production betray how “homesickness” is more than simply a state of mind. After all, in Crossing the Sentimental Desert, home is not remembered separately as a set of physical locations, local folklore, or even familiar visual and aural signs, but is crafted as an everyday production of space where “archives” are linked to form fluid interfaces between the past and present, the familiar and the unexpected, the on- and off-screen.
Interview with Director Zhang Teng-Yuan (Transcribed from Mandarin by Dennis Lo)
Chinese Taipei Film Archive, Taipei, Taiwan (October 6, 2011)
Note: Words spoken in English during the interview are italicized.
Dennis Lo: Director Zhang, thank you for coming to talk about the production process for Crossing the Sentimental Desert. Can you discuss your interactions with the local environment and your research process in greater detail? Did you watch certain films and books about this place, or did you already know the environment personally?
Zhang Teng-Yuan: I had chosen a place like Taichung based on the resources I had available. Even though I was studying in Taipei, my hometown was in Taichung, so I thought it would be easier to get help in Taichung. I was also more familiar with the place. This is true, even though the location where I actually shot the film still has some distance from where I was living—driving would take up to 40–50 minutes—so that place was not really an area I was completely familiar with. But, later when I found a sense of familiarity, it was not because I had lived in this place, or that there was an empty house that I could use as a shooting location. Rather, it was a type of warmth I felt from the relationships between people there. Also, there were sounds in the environment and surroundings, as well as visual elements that were familiar.
Lo: What are some examples of these sounds and visual elements?
Zhang: Those kinds of sounds are actually very—Taiwan is more traditional in rural areas. I had lived in the suburbs of Taichung, a place that was more rustic. So these kinds of lanes (xiangnong), alleys (xiangzi), and old houses would be next to many plants and vegetable gardens, all connected together. Then perhaps next to this—a place outside—might be a temple, a Chinese earth god (tudigong) temple. Then when you walk into this tight place, you might hear a dog barking, or a chicken cackling on the side. You might also briefly pass by an older man, but he wouldn’t care what you’re doing, and you would continue to walk inside. All this would be familiar. And when I went to the actual place, I had looked for both the local lizhang and residents to help with the production. Their willingness to help is another familiar element.
Lo: But there must also be differences between your home and this environment. Is it challenging or natural to integrate these differences with the environment of your home?
Zhang: I think this integration is a very natural process and isn’t much of a problem. After all, I’m not looking for a place I want to live in. I want to find a location to shoot a film. For shooting locations, you already have an objective in mind, so you already have an idea of the general type of place. Yes. What is slightly different between the pre-production and production phases for our film is that the mise-en-scene for our baozi store was based only on a design blueprint. In other words, after I found this space—that empty house—I would arrange the setting based on the requirements from the original art design, as well as the requirements for my shots. I’ll construct this setting, then it will be ok. So, in reality, this type of empty house can be in any place, but the difference between locations is whether the surrounding environment would allow my actors, my personnel, and myself to enter its mood and atmosphere.
At the time, I had friends in Taichung who already found some deserted areas and empty houses for me. Later, when I came down to Taichung to look at shooting locations, they took me to a few places. Actually, they first sent photos of locations; I would flip through them one after another, and would sense that a particular place looks pretty good. Later, when I actually saw the place in person, I decided to use it for my shoot—everything was right about it.
Lo: When your contacts in Kaoshiung were scouting for locations, would the types of information they sent you be limited to pictures, or would they also include their impressions of their interactions with the residents?
Zhang: Just pictures. Because my contacts didn’t actually know my script that well. I only met with them once, and provided them with the picture I had chosen for them to consider. On the Internet, I found pictures with a similar tone, and told them that the location should feel approximately like this. Because these people in Taichung were also student filmmakers, they are incredibly good at what they do. It’s something of a legend, but apparently there is a blog on the Internet—I have not seen it in person or know of it that well—where they have accumulated information on all the various abandoned spaces in Taichung. In other words, they might have built an information database. They know what to look for and have an instinct for this. They might not know exactly if there is one such space at some particular address, but they would be familiar with which area has, in general, what kinds of spaces.
Lo: Can you describe your relationship with the lizhang? Did he place limits on the way you could execute your project, or did he make any suggestions on the types of stories you can explore? Would you consider him playing the role of a mediator between your filmmaking team and the local residents?
Zhang: I always thought that the lizhang occupies a very magical role in Taiwanese society. His perceived status is somewhat like that between an everyman and an official. He’s a mediator between residents and politicians, so he is only a half politician. It’s not that he has had much experience in politics being a community representative. The lizhang’s status in Taiwanese society is that he is situated in this particular place, that perhaps his business is also here, or maybe his character warrants much respect from the community.
He can handle local matters well, and additionally, he would share with us his opinions and plans. It surprised us that he had so much knowledge. He would say, “You filmmakers must do so and so and make such and such a type of film.” He even mentioned a place where a very long time ago back when the Central Motion Picture Company (CMPC) was still operating—perhaps in a neighboring place—that filmmakers shot at, and described how there have been no films produced in neighboring areas since then. While many others would not be aware of this, he could recall these filmmaking activities from his memories. Yes.
So, we were very surprised that he was immediately willing to help us, especially since he didn’t know us well; there are many scams these days. He wouldn’t know if we were here as part of a scam, but perhaps we convinced him otherwise. Even though his area of control is not very big—if you visited our location, you would immediately understand, like us when we first visited, that during the development of this large urban center, this particular area was left out. But, this lizhang still has aspirations for this neighborhood. He wants to work through us to produce some good, or to gain recognition for his community. These are his motivations. He also saw that we were still students, so he was very willing and generous in helping us, so much so that it was quite shocking for me at the time.
Lo: What are some examples of situations where you would need to improvise when encountering an unexpected situation during a shoot?
Zhang: I was shooting right before the Chinese New Year, so there would be many end-of-year banquets (weiya) being held in Taiwan. I also mentioned that there was a tudigong temple that served as a gathering space for the residents in this community, so any festival and worship would be held there. The Taiwanese pay much attention to following local customs. At the same time, in the alley behind the local factory, someone had just passed away and was having a funeral. For the Taiwanese, regardless of whether it’s to take part in the festivities or for other reasons, they would invite a puppet troupe (budaixi), and the funeral party would have to partake in sutra-chanting (songjing). These two events cannot be confronted. If you’re shooting in Taiwan, you cannot confront these events at all. So, when I was shooting, it was as if every sound imaginable would enter the set. Of course, I cannot tell the producer to make the request for these other events to be quieter or to have them stop, because that would be crossing over some boundaries. So, we waited for a while and found after waiting that it was still no use. So, while there was the sound of the event coming from one direction and a dog’s bark coming from another, I said, “Let’s shoot anyway,” because in my heart, I already knew what to do. Later, when I was doing the sound mix—usually you would find methods to remove those extraneous sounds, but I told my sound mixer, intensify them! Fill the audio track! If we hadn’t added these sounds, some scenes may have had a silent background. But I figured that if you make it compatible with the environment, it was possible that the people back in the time depicted in my story would have also experienced similar things in their surroundings.
Rather than removing them, I made these elements an intentional aspect of my design. In fact, the sound of the dog barking had been incorporated into many of the important moments in the film. This sound was transformed into a marker of the environment’s realism. For instance, during some of the arguments between characters in the film, the sound of the dog’s barking would appear. Or, if you recall, immediately before the mother’s spirit was to appear in her talk with the father, besides the sounds of chimes, there were also sounds of the dog barking in the background. Since I had encountered problems related to folk customs, I had used these elements themselves to manage the problems they might have otherwise created. According to folk customs, the sound of animals howling in the night might be an indication that the supernatural is about to appear. I might as well incorporate it then! That’s why I used this method.
Lo: At the Asia Pacific Film Festival, you mentioned that your sense of this place is specific to your generation of filmmakers. Since your cast and crew members cover a wide range of ages, did each age group have a different impression of the environment? Can you compare them?
Zhang: Yes. For me, this location already has a very specific shape in my imagination. For people in our generation, because Taiwan isn’t too big, the transportation between every county and city makes it very convenient to travel. Even though I normally live in Taipei, if I want to make a trip home, taking a train only takes two hours, and the high-speed train takes merely forty minutes, so I’ll get home very quickly. For us, there is no problem of getting homesick. In fact, those of us who have been born after 1985, or the 1980s in general, are called the “generation without homesickness.” This would even be used to refer to those who were born in the late 1970s. So, whether we are creative producers in literature, films, or other types of media, we would spend much time contemplating how nostalgic-looking settings are meaningful for us.
We found out that in this way, we are different from older directors like Director Hou Hsiao Hsien. By the time of the Taiwan New Cinema, Taiwan had already undergone many changes in urban areas through urbanization, so Director Hou felt that he had to put some effort into finding locations to shoot in and to make contemporary locations look realistic. But, Director Hou had really lived within those kinds of real environments and lived through the changes in these places. Since he grew up within those environments, he wanted the settings to reappear in his films. He would like to reproduce the setting as it was, and recreate the movements of people in those spaces. He would often discuss what the objective relationship was between space and people. So, when he arrives at a particular location, he would think of how people would move about in the space and address similar questions.
But, to us, this concept is somewhat different. We tend to view a rural or a more nostalgic setting as a stage, a space that is more appropriate for acting. In the film, it’s like this: the actors would come to act, the crew would come to shoot, but then they would all leave; reality is no different. In rural locations of shooting, there are only old people there, only old people who have stopped there. Or, maybe there would be some children and some dogs. But younger people would only return during the major festivals, then they would leave afterwards. This can also be compared to a process like life and death, where one would also enter, then leave. There’s a saying—I forgot who said it—and it goes like this: the city changes very slowly, but the places where there is the most accelerated change are in rural areas. If you return to take a single look at it after one or two months, or one or two years, it seems to be changing faster and faster. The cities would develop to a certain point, then stop, and would no longer continue to transform. As a director, that’s how I see this situation.
Returning to the question—the actor, who might be older than us, his first film was in a Hou Hsiao Hsien film, and his age is slightly younger than Hou, so for those guys, it would still be very familiar. He may have felt that the appearance of the setting is still very familiar. As for those film personnel younger than me, I feel that the place would be more unfamiliar to them, and the place would be merely a setting (changdi) for them to work in. This is especially true for those in the art department; for them, this location was a deserted space, where homeless vagrants would come and reside, so they would have to clean out the space prior to production. In other words, before setting things up, they would have to engage in an activity called qingli (cleaning). They would remove some of the objects that have accumulated in this environment over time and clear them all out, then set up film props over this emptied space. Only after this process is complete, would the art designer consider his job done. So, for them, I think this is more like a place to work.
But I also discovered a very interesting phenomenon: this deserted place would just sit completely unnoticed and the local residents would pay no attention to it. After walking by, they would not even care to take another glance at it. Inside are mostly the garbage they had dumped there, or some of their belongings that they didn’t have space to store at home. So when we were cleaning out the location, we had to put in some effort to ask which household a certain item we found belonged to. We would have to ask the owners to take these objects back home first. So, the owners really didn’t think twice about this space, and the place felt particularly dark. Nobody knows where the owner went. When did they start to notice it again, then? It’s only after I came here to shoot, that they discovered that you can actually make films here, which is something that had never crossed their minds. I think, then, the entire process of searching for a shooting location for the entire filmmaking team, can be summarized in the concept of defamiliarization (moshenghua). This is a phrase used in art. Some artists would intentionally take something familiar to people who had been accustomed to classic works of art, then inscribe some modernist changes on their works.
Lo: Is this process of moshenghua similar to a teacher and student relationship between yourself and the residents, where what you discovered in the environment would be a new source of historical knowledge for the residents? And is this relationship reciprocal?
Zhang: The film’s location—I wanted it to be a baozi shop. Because I was there working in this empty space and made it into a baozi shop, people who are watching the film might feel that the set and the environment blend very naturally, that the set has been integrated with the environment to forge a single entity. But, in reality, that place never had a baozi shop. It never had a baozi shop! What is really interesting is that before I had found this place, I looked for the lizhang for help. I thought the conversations I had with the lizhang was itself a process of oral narration, a process where he and the residents would narrate their own history and personal experiences once they began recollecting.
I did not intentionally stimulate them to think about this. After all, I’m not a cultural historian who is studying this place. I am also not a volunteer in an organization involved in this community’s development. So, when I arrived at the location, the process was accidental. I think it is an accidental process. When I went to ask what this place was used for, something very magical happened—everyone would very seriously question why there even was such a place. It is very magical. As the lizhang would say, maybe there used to be two brothers living there. They were originally going to build this house and had not moved in yet. Halfway through construction, there was a fire that prevented the construction from being finished. Later, it seems that the brothers’ economic situation took a turn for the worse, so they left this place, leaving the house empty ever since. After some time had passed, since the place was open to the neighborhood—even the door was not put up—the neighbors took advantage of this empty space. Here, the concept of legal boundaries is blurry. So the empty space left there was just too much of a waste to be left empty. My house is too full of things, so I’ll just borrow your space to put my objects in. If the owners return, then I’ll just move it out again. There is no sense of intrusion because there are no people living there, no furniture inside, and no door. It’s like that.
So when I went to this location, the residents began recollecting and dug up memories that collected in this space. That was before shooting had started. Once shooting began, when it became clear that this space was to be the setting for a baozi store, and that the film’s story showed the process of making baozi in an old baozi store, the residents entered another stage in recollecting memories. The earlier form of recollection focused on the history of the space itself, but later recollections would skip this. In other words, they would start to ask questions, including how people in the past made baozi, how a baozi store was run, what the price was of a baozi back then, and the process involved in making a baozi. When they saw the props from a different time period, they would comment, “Yes, yes, yes, this is the right feeling,” or they might warn us and say, “This isn’t right. It doesn’t feel right. It looks too new.” Then our art design would have to correct and adjust this. Their impressions of those old baozi stores had essentially returned. But back to what I mentioned earlier, there never was a baozi store in this location; this process, even before I finished the film, inadvertently stimulated them to remember these details. So, the relationship between memories and personal experiences related to a place—many like to investigate this relationship these days—is not exactly the same as the experience of theatrical spectatorship. Instead, it is only after the filmmaking team arrives at a location, and the process of moshenghua occurs, that nearby residents would think of these things.
 Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1991), 38-39.
 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, “What is a Minor Literature?,” in Out There, ed. Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T. Minh-ha and Cornel West (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1990), 68.
Dennis Lo is a 3rd year Ph.D. Candidate in Cinema Studies at UCLA currently conducting fieldwork in Asia. His dissertation project is a highly interdisciplinary investigation of the filmic geographies of Chinese cinema, drawing from a background in Applied Physics at Columbia University (M.S.) and a dual major (B.A.S.) at Stanford University in Film Studies and Physics.