Presenting Director Mr. Cheng Li-ming's Phantom Cinema／作一場老戲院的夢─《空一格，戲院》
Presenting Director Mr. Cheng Li-ming's Phantom Cinema
◎English translation: Hou Ya-ting
◎Photo courtesy of Cheng Li-ming
As well as directing Phantom Cinema, Mr. Cheng Li-ming also plays the role of a mysterious man in his film. His character sometimes squats by the projection window, gazing at the empty theater. He waves a flashlight, captivating those watching with light and shadow. He guides audience members to their seats, recalling how Taiwanese people used to watch movies in theaters rather than at home. He picks up abandoned rolls of film, touching these reminders of the past. The character he plays wanders through the cinema like a phantom. He encounters two girls, convoluting this elusive, dreamy story.
Mr. Cheng Li-ming, a native of Changhua County who now lives in Taipei, graduated from Shih Hsin University's Department of Radio, Television & Film. He has worked at the Taiwan Film Institute and the Executive Committee of the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival. These experiences broadened his horizons, and he evolved into an astute film critic. He is now an independent director. In 2014, his documentary Looking for Siraya, about lowland indigenous people in Kaohsiung's Neimen District, won him a prize at the Golden Harvest Awards & Short Film Festival, a prominent platform for talented young filmmakers in Taiwan.
For Mr. Cheng, cinema is a way of presenting multiple perspectives on life, and it embodies both his interests and nostalgic memories of his hometown in Changhua County. During his childhood, Mr. Cheng frequented Yingong Movie Theater, which has since become a clothing store. However, he chose to film Phantom Cinema in the First Movie Theater in Kaohsiung's Meinong District.
In 1970, some 826 movie theaters were operating in Taiwan. However, because of the rise of TV and video, together with people moving from smaller towns to big cities, a great many theaters closed down. Meinong's First Movie Theater shut its doors for good in 1991. Changhua's Yigong Theater closed down in 1997. Islandwide, the number of surviving movie theaters fell to around 200.
Some may ask why Mr. Cheng filmed Phantom Cinema in Meinong. After winning an award in Taiwan's Short Film Base category at the 2016 Kaohsiung Film Festival for Phantom Cinema, he points out that many Taipei-based movie-makers are willing to submit works to Kaohsiung Film Festival. The festival has been praised for attracting highly creative and original works without restricting the type of subject. Mr. Cheng is not new to the Kaohsiung Film Festival, as Looking for Siraya won in the Short Film Base category in the 2013 edition of the festival. Even though parts of Looking for Siraya were shot in Tainan, the festival still embraced the film. Since then, Mr. Cheng has enjoyed participating in Kaohsiung Film Festival's Taiwan's Short Film Base project.
Mr. Cheng chose to use Meinong's First Movie Theater as a location for Phantom Cinema because the building is largely intact. "It's a shame the First Movie Theater doesn't have an ideal projection window," he says, "so some of the indoors scenes were filmed at the Sanduo Movie Theater in Sanmin District in Kaohsiung." Mr. Cheng describes Phantom Cinema as more than a documentary, and rather like a collective dreamland.
To fully apply experimental film techniques, Phantom Cinema weaves a sophisticated plot through images, dance, history, and screening clips from other films. Among those screened is the 1956 classic Love Amongst War, the first Taiwanese movie to use Holo (the local language also known as Taiwanese or Minnanhua) and a landmark in the development of Taiwanese cinema. He included Hakka elements to reflect Meinong being a bastion of Hakka culture. Phantom Cinema also features an outdoor screening of Cinema Paradiso, an acclaimed Italian film.
Phantom Cinema further builds a connection with Meinong by showing a few final scenes of vintage photographs, some showing Mr. Jhong Hao-dong. Jhong, who relocated to Meinong at the age of 18, was a prominent victim of the White Terror (a period of political repression in Taiwan after World War II). Jhong's older brother was the noted Meinong-based writer Jhong Li-he (also known as Chung Li-ho). Jhong Hao-dong's life has inspired many people, and the novel Sapporo Carriage Song tells his story.
Mr. Cheng says he did not know Jhong Hao-dong was related to Jhong Li-he, and believes many do not know his life story. Mr. Cheng himself learned about Jhong Hao-dong by watching A City of Sadness and Good Men, Good Women, two movies by renowned director Hou Hsiao-hsien. Mr. Cheng takes this opportunity to salute Jhong Hao-dong, saying he was a significant historical figure. Through his lens, Mr. Cheng narrates stories in various forms and perspectives, giving audiences alluring plots to decode.