What you need to know
A discipline of Tsai Ming-liang, Chinese director Pengfei discusses his latest film "The Taste of Rice Flower."
By Anthony Kao
Upon the release of his 2015 debut feature “Underground Fragrance,” upstart Chinese director Pengfei (full name Song Pengfei) already elicited comparisons to noted auteurs like Jia Zhangke, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang.
This should come as no surprise — after studying at the International Institute of Image and Sound in Paris, Pengfei worked as an assistant director to Tsai Ming-liang for almost a decade.
Now, Pengfei is out with his second feature, “The Taste of Rice Flower.” The film, which we recently reviewed, tells a pellucid mother-daughter story set in an ethnic Dai village in Yunnan Province, close to the border with Myanmar.
Cinema Escapist caught up with Pengfei while he was in Venice for the film’s premiere and learned more about the extensive preparations and ruminations he undertook.
Cinema Escapist: What inspired you to make “The Taste of Rice Flower,” and why did you set the story in Yunnan?
Pengfei: After my previous film “Underground Fragrance,” I was looking for a new theme.
At first, I wanted to tell a story about young people going back home after working in the city — but I didn’t know where to start. I then realized that “left behind children” are a very serious issue in China. Thus, I thought about telling a story about a mother coming back home to a daughter who she hadn’t seen in a long time.
The Chinese Association of Social Workers helped me find a place to experience this issue firsthand. They brought me to Yunnan, where I lived in a Dai minority village near the border with Myanmar. I didn’t think I would stay for one year — but I liked it, and decided to shoot there. So you could say the choice of Yunnan was fate; it wasn’t planned.
CE: The film shows many traditional practices from the Dai ethnic minority. What was the process like for researching the Dai people and ensuring you portrayed them in an authentic manner?
Pengfei: [In that mountain village near the border with Myanmar], I lived for one year in the house of a Dai minority social worker.
I did interview some old Dai people to understand their practice, but I spent most of my time experiencing Dai traditions myself. I spent every festival during that year with them — praying to Buddha, preparing for the events, going to dance rehearsals before the celebrations.
Because I was afraid they would create a biased image, [throughout this process] I didn’t tell them I was going to shoot a movie. I essentially converted myself into a local guy and lived among them. I gave money to the Buddhist temple. I ate ants and live insects. Because I spent that one year of my life in the mountains, I think the traditions and local culture in the film are authentic.
CE: Is lead actress Ying Ze from the Dai ethnic minority?
Pengfei: She’s not. She’s from Beijing, but has some Chinese minority blood. I called her for this role again (Ying Ze also starred in “Underground Fragrance”) because I liked her strong and independent character, as well as her comprehension ability.
We have a very good mutual tacit understanding. I like the character of the mother she [created for “The Taste of Rice Flower”]. Her character does not have much dialog in the film, but she has a lot to say inside. In China’s male-oriented society, strong females are not always welcome. But I feel many women are stronger than men.
CE: What about the child actresses/actors and other villagers — were they from the Dai minority? What was the process for casting them? For example, did you cast locals from the area you were shooting in?
Pengfei: Yes, everyone except the main actress and teacher were Dai.
Children in the area I filmed in have to walk eight hours between school and home. As a result, they usually go back home once or twice a month. They will gather into groups of 20 or so when they walk back, since they’re afraid they might run into beasts like snake and wild boars.
As such, I had the chance to drive kids home — I fit 13 kids in my car. I developed a good relationship with these kids, living and having fun with them. Throughout this process I was choosing my actors.
At the same time, their grandparents were wondering if I was a child trafficker who would eat their eyes! But the kids trusted me and were good to me, and my actors ended up trickling in progressively and naturally.
CE: Where in Yunnan province is the Buddha cave from the last scene in “The Taste of Rice Flower?” Is it publicly accessible, or did you have to obtain special permission from authorities?
Pengfei: The Buddha cave was close to our shooting location [near the Myanmar] border. It’s a natural karst cave, which has recently started becoming a tourist attraction. I did have to get permission from local authorities though, and they said okay. Tourism has made the caves quite ugly though, which I feel bad about. So in the movie, we had to clean up the cave to make it more authentic.
Ultimately, when the mother enters that cave in “The Taste of Rice Flower,” I hope that audiences can forget all of the film’s previous scenes. In the cave, we’re showing a pure relationship between man and nature. In nature, man is very small. In history, man is just a flash. With that scene, I’m contemplating what exactly humanity is doing, why humanity has so many tragic stories. [Through that contemplation, maybe we realize that] emotions and trust between people might be the most precious thing we have.
This article was originally published in Cinema Escapist as "Interview: Chinese director Pengfei on 'The Taste of Rice Flower.'"