Chang Chen, a Taiwanese actor who rose to fame across in Asia in the ’90s, has an impressive resume. At the age of 14, he got his first leading role in Edward Yang’s “A Brighter Summer Day,” which won the Special Jury Prize at the Tokyo International Film Festival. Since then, he has starred in some of the most critically acclaimed Chinese-language films, including “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Happy Together,” and “Three Times.” This May, “The Assassin,” Chang’s Latest work and second collaboration with Taiwanese Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien appeared at Cannes Film Festival. It won Hou the award for Best Director. This interview is translated from Chinese.
The Harvard Crimson: You have worked with many iconic Asian directors, from Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and Wang Kar-wai to Tian Zhuangzhuang. What was it like to act in their films, and have they changed at all over time?
Chang Chen: I feel I am very lucky, because my very first film was a Edward Yang film. At that time I did not know much about films; all I had was a good start. After making two films with him, I felt that acting was an interesting job and seriously decided to be an actor. I think Asian directors are comparatively more auteur-ish [than directors from other regions]. Every director would have some of his or her personality shown in films. Wong Kar-wai, for instance, is a very romantic director, and he asks for a lot of tacit understanding from actors. It usually takes him a long time to make a film because he works in a unique way. He talks to the actors, films the actors, and writes the script at the same time. So as he films, he constructs the structure of the film. Ten years ago I worked with Hou Hsiao-Hsien on “Three Time,” and now “The Assassin.” Ten years ago I thought he was a man of strong opinions. His films often dealt with social issues, and while often slow, they are full of emotional tensions. When he made “The Assassin,” since it is essentially a love story, he returned to the simplest emotions. I think this is because he has changed more or less with the increase of age.
THC: What did you think of your role as Tian Ji’an in “The Assassin” and how did you prepare for it?
CC: Hou Hsiao-Hsian asked me and Shu Qi to film “The Assassin” right after “Three Times,” and he [wanted] to do it [then]. I was actually not very used to [acting] when I played in “Three Times” because I joined the crew late when they were already halfway through, and I did not have much time [to acclimate]. [Hou] worked in a unique way. I remember vividly that he never said “action.” He would put the actors in the set and tell you what you are going to do next, and then you acted. When you were acting, maybe his camera would start rolling. It felt like making a documentary to me. So at that time, I was confused about how exactly I should act because many directors would tell you to interact with the camera. Mr. Hou was like the opposite. He asked you to forget about the camera. But at that time I was not so experienced, so it was hard really to grasp this conceptually. When there was a lot of time pressure, I was not satisfied by my work , but in “The Assassin” I had enough time to try whatever I wanted. I think Mr. Hou makes a scene a very realistic environment; what actors need to do is to realize the mood that is supposed to be in that environment. All in all, I worked on “The Assassin” mainly for the fun of it. For an actor, it was a very interesting challenge.
THC: Based on your own experience, what do you think is the most important quality for an actor to have?
CC: I met Mr. Zhong Acheng [a Chinese author and screenwriter] a while ago. Mr. Zhong said that the hardest thing to present in film is smell. If an actor’s performance gives the illusion of smell, then that’s a good actor. I think this is a very interesting idea, but how to convey smell—it is actually really hard. You can see there are still quite a few actors who give people the impression of smell. I think this is both because of their thorough understanding of their own personality and their great insight into their characters. In the end, all these things magically go through the film and present smell to audiences.
THC: Your father was an actor, and you yourself have been acting since childhood. After a lifetime of acting, what does film mean to you and what motivates you to act?
CC: I think it is much easier to be an audience member than to be an actor. I still do this job mostly because, when I made films as a teenager, that working environment really attracted me ... film as a job is very special; it is done together by many people in different professions. The coherence of the whole crew really moved me. It is like the sense of belonging—that people meet, get to know each other, and then work together and grow together. This is why working in films attracted me at first. Then I found out that film is truly interesting, because there are so many subfields, and each requires very specific skills and knowledge. I think a field like this is very vigorous and full of changes.
—Tianxing V. Lan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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