Kaohsiung VR Film Lab 2019: An Interview with Director Kidding Hsu 許智彥
Interview by Chng Ying Tong
After his debut as co-director of the widely successful Dear Ex 《誰先愛上他的》, Kidding Hsu uses the language of VR in Home 《舊家》to translate the warmth of a family reunion through the eyes of a grandmother. The 17 minute short made its world premiere at the 2019 Kaohsiung Film Festival, as part of its Kaohsiung VR Film Lab Originals initiative.
Home details a summer afternoon as a family gathers in their old family home to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival. All of them surround Grandma, each showering her with love and affection in their own ways.
Sinema had the pleasure to sit down with the budding Taiwanese director to talk about his experience working with VR:
How did you begin the process of making this VR Film?
I directed a VR music video a while ago for the band WONFU but I consider that experience more of a commercial project, and saw VR as more of a tool. Since there were four members in the band, I knew that the camera would be focused on four sides to give the audience something to look at. My use of VR for this project was straight-forward and was more towards creating a sense of rhythm.
Hsu Yu-Ting and I both directed Dear Ex – she wrote the script and directed the performances while I was involved with its cinematography. After the film, since it was my first as a director, I was quite unsure about a lot of things, especially about what being a director encompasses, and about directing actors. I wanted to make sense of my experience and think about my plans for the future so I returned to shooting advertisements and music videos.
Six months ago, Kaohsiung Film Festival presented an opportunity to shoot a film in VR. I began by thinking about perspective in VR. What exactly is VR? What is it that the audience feels when they wear their helmet – is it voyeurism? When I first tried VR I felt that it was quite a fresh experience – people couldn’t see me. When I wear the VR goggles, I could still look away and observe while everybody was watching me. Who will the audience be when they put on the VR goggles, whose perspective are they watching the story from? In the end, I chose to use my grandmother’s perspective.
It so happened that my old home was going to be taken by the government. That was when I decided to make something personal, while using the opportunity to memorialize the home in film. It was going to be gone soon. Afterwards, I summoned up the courage to ask my family if they wanted to be in the project. Those that agreed were in the film and those that didn’t were played by actors.
To me, the whole shooting process wasn’t all related to VR. Instead, I found that the process made me more confident in directing performances. I had confidence because what happened in the story is based on what happened to me. Each role was based on family members whom I thoroughly understood. This knowledge made it possible for me to direct more precisely and with confidence. It was filmed with just one shot till the end and there was no need for close-ups, jumps, dolly-ins, which made the whole process very easy-going.
Sometimes the VR camera will overheat and need to cool down, because of the unusually long scene. But we noticed that no one would jump out of character and ask for a smoke break. Everyone would stay in the scene and in character and chat and that created a cinematic feeling and a sense of homely warmth for the film.
一直到半年前，高雄電影節就給了一個機會來拍VR。我那時候一開始先想的是VR的觀點。到底VR是什麼。觀眾戴起（頭盔）來的時候的感覺到底是什麼。是偷窺嗎？因為我一開始在感受的時候發現有一件事特別的爽 – 別人看不到我。我戴起VR，大家都在看我，但我也可以轉開。這個感覺很特別。所以我就想先focus在這裡。到底觀眾戴起來他們是誰，到底他們是從誰的視角在閱讀這個故事。所以後來就選用我的阿嬤。
There’s a scene in the film where the audience will unknowingly become part of the family photo. Was this audience reaction planned?
Yes it was. And even though it was and that I expected the surprise, I still felt an emotional sting.
My plan was always to let my family be the first ones to read the script. My grandmother had just passed away, and my uncle became the eldest of the family. His thinking was that the family should remain tight-knit and not splintered off. My uncle had a lot of suggestions after reading the script, such as how the film should include the big tree behind our house, and how my grandfather’s memorabilia should be filmed. After much thought, I decided that the film should not be about remembering my grandmother, but more about how – through her point of view – she remembers our family. Because honestly, I was on my phone for most of the time when my grandmother was still around the house.
My grandmother spent most of the time in the house sitting down without a hint of emotion. This caused some in the family to be quite direct in their emotions. In the film, I wanted to show how we acted in front of our elders, such as the three brothers quarrelling over ice cream. I wanted to convey that all of us loved our grandmother. And that all of us love our country even if the way we convey that love is different, based on what we think is right. The message I wanted to transmit is that even if we don’t know for sure what our grandmother and country wants and needs, it should be unmistakable that all of us are acting in good faith.
Sometimes when we watch a quarrel, we as the third generation can feel very tired and helpless. Sometimes it feels like the entire family atmosphere is stressful. When I was a student, I rejected this feeling and even hated this family. But after growing up and with a child of my own now, I realised, I wanted to show that feeling in the film too.
那個反應呢，我也是等到後期團隊把粗剪剪好，我戴上VR眼鏡的時候，我才發現明明是我set up 的，但我自己的手也會配合，我也會有這種感覺。
Looking back on the experience of shooting this film, is there anything you would like to improve?
Because there is no way to directly review the footage, you can only see a plan. After putting on the VR goggles and watching the film, I cried – I am very satisfied with the end product. On the first two takes, I was very anxious because I was both the director and actor. There was once when my uncle’s car hadn’t arrived and I got worried about time constraints. Later, my wife criticised my acting performance, telling me to mind myself first before anything else. It was then when I made adjustments, and had no regrets with the entire process afterwards.
I came to Kaohsiung three days ago to test the film. The feeling I got was that the film came off as too hasty. I would have liked for the ending to be pulled back, giving the audience some room to breathe. I hope there would be an opportunity to showcase the 17-minute version of the film, which would be closer to my vision. I would also want to include my family’s portrait at the end of the film. I want to show the audience how my grandmother looks. Most of the audience that I spoke with felt that the ending was sad. But what I really wanted to transmit was the warm emotions of a family reunion.
Were there any challenges filming with VR?
There were different challenges at different stages.
While writing the script, I felt that it was very mild. It did not have the energy of a music video, with music driving the rhythm of the video. When I showed the script to Yu-Ting, she said that although the script did feel mild, there were still dramatic tensions in the ups and downs of the film. I wasn’t sure at that point of time. But after filming – and perhaps with the help of VR – I felt that, on the contrary, the mood is very strong.
Another challenge is with directing performances, because VR has its limitations. After positioning the camera, there are lines drawn on the ground where nobody can stand at or which is a challenge on its own. I think the cast did a great job in their performances. I think I was the only one who performed poorly.
While watching the film in VR, I found that there was no one in the wheelchair when I looked down. If my perspective is grandmother, I should be able to see her legs. Was this a technical issue or was this intended?
This was discussed with my post-production team, who is very experienced. They showed me references and gave a few suggestions. Apart from adding the body, another method was to add voices, like Grandma’s coughing voice. However, after experiencing it, I didn’t like how it limited the audience’s imagination. I want the audience to explore without knowing that they are Grandma at the beginning.
I settled on leaving clues around. The audience sees a picture of the grandfather hanging on the right, with a photo in the distance of both the grandfather and the grandmother. There was only one bird left on the balcony. These were the many symbols I used to show that her husband has passed away, and that she is now alone. Everybody is talking to you, but you don’t know who you are. It was only when the last hearing aid is turned up, when you know for sure that you are Grandma. I want the audience to slowly find out who they are in the film.
Where do you see VR’s role in the future of storytelling?
Because the camera hardly moves, I had the opportunity to practice my shot coordination because the frame is static. For example in films, a simple handshake could take different shots to demonstrate. That was difficult for me because I was not unsure where the focus was. In VR, the frame is static. Because of that, I wholly focus on the actor’s performance.
Regarding VR’s narrative language, I don’t think I have a clear answer to that yet. I feel that VR offers perspective. I saw a Korean film that used the point of view of a ghost to tell the story, with the camera slowly descending to a coffin to transmit the message. Currently, all the great movies I have seen are based on these different point of views. I am still figuring out the medium’s narrative language.
What do you think will be your next VR or AR project?
I think I am still a bigger fan of films. This might be because I haven’t seen enough of other VR films, or because of the limited reach of the medium. It’s not like a movie in the cinema or on Netflix where thousands of people can easily access them. Since I have a background in filming advertisements and music videos, I am more used to doing commercial art meant for a mass audience. I want to tell stories in movies, and I think it’s only with a feature length where I can fully convey what I want to say. This is why while I’m going to start preparing for my next film, I am unclear about my next step with VR.
Check out the VR short’s trailer and a behind-the-scenes look below: