Director Kent Chang, who has created an 18-minute pilot for the movie adaptation of the ‘Scrolls of a Northern City’ comic and is raising money for its production, spoke in an interview with ‘Liberty Times’ （sister newspaper of the ‘Taipei Times’） staff reporter Lan Tzu-wei about his project and the process of recreating old Taipei on screen
Liberty Times （LT）: “Scrolls of a Northern City” （北城百畫帖）, written by comic book artist Shen Ying-chieh （沈穎杰）, better known as AKRU, is set in 1935 Taipei, when the city hosted the Taiwan Exposition. She described the mood at the time as a “Taisho Roman in Taiwan.” Why did you choose to adapt “Scrolls of a Northern City”?
Kent Chang （張永昌）: In 2013, Mida （夢見）, an animated film I directed, participated in the Fancy Frontier anime convention. While I was walking around the convention, I came across Scrolls of a Northern City and was immediately moved by it — especially AKRU’s vision of 1930s Taipei.
The comic is set in the city’s Dadaocheng （大稻埕） area, with which I am very familiar. I do not count myself as being from Taipei. As my father was a police officer and I was born after he was transferred to Taipei, for me, Taipei is home, but also not home.
I studied fashion design in college and often went to Yongle Market （永樂市場） to buy fabric. I would walk along the streets of the Dadaocheng area while I was there.
At the time, there were still a lot of tea shops in Dadaocheng. The entire area was filled with a sense of slowness and clearly different from other places in Taipei. In other words, walking into Daodaocheng was like returning to old Taipei.
As long as it was not a holiday or the Lunar New Year, the atmosphere in Dadaocheng was slow and peaceful, and it completely reversed my impression of Taipei as a bustling city. Especially after I entered the fast-paced advertising business, Dadaocheng’s slowness allowed me to calm down and reflect, and think about the content of my work.
The original Scrolls of a Northern City adds elements of fantasy to historic events. Its style is similar to that of Midnight Diner （深夜食堂） in that it uses comic strips that each tell a different story. So, to adapt it into a film, we need to spend more time on the script, which we are currently working on.
LT: AKRU did extensive research before she began drawing. In your pilot, you also demonstrate the amount of research you have done.
Chang: The art department did in fact put in the time and effort in terms of research to recreate the setting of 1930s Taipei.
The tip that the customer gives the waitress at the Pai Hua Tang （“Hundred Paintings Hall,” 百畫堂） cafe in the pilot is a real five-dollar bill from the Japanese colonial era.
Originally, the art department wanted to use a replica, but I thought that the banknote would be of great significance for the film.
Based on the cost of living at the time, five dollars would have been a clerical worker’s monthly salary. By giving the waitress such a huge tip, the customer shows a father’s love for his daughter.
I think that if we had used a replica, the mood and authenticity of the time period would have been lost. So I looked for bills and coins from the Japanese colonial era in a street that sells antique money, and found it.
Although it was expensive, I would rather pay NT$5,000 to show the real texture of the banknote.
I have since been carrying the banknote with me everywhere as a constant reminder of the hard work involved in the making of the film. I will fulfill my promise to the crew and finish shooting the film.
LT: Both the comic book and the film are set in 1930s Dadaocheng. How do you plan to recreate the area’s former glory?
Chang: I am always doing research on old Taipei. The images of the city during the day and at night alone are very interesting. During that period, traffic lights had already been installed on the streets of Taipei. The city was prosperous, but not chaotic.
Even the architecture and the colors of store signs were not as messy and disorganized as they are now. They used warm tones instead.
When you walked along the streets at night in 1930s Taipei and looked around you, you would see neon lights shining on the red brick buildings. The warm yellow streetlights would fill the pavement with a soft color.
Back then, the colors of the city were pleasing to the eye. Even the colors of the clothing people wore were soft and elegant, rather than rich and bright.
Every time I walk the streets of Dadaocheng, I think about the 1920s and 1930s. This place used to be so prosperous. Why did it become quiet and fall under the radar for a half-century?
LT: In the comic and in the pilot, it is as if each building has its own soul. Last year, the former residence of late businessman Chen Mao-tung （陳茂通） was torn down because it did not have the backing of experts. What do you think about the treatment of historic buildings in Taiwan?
Chang: Several years ago, I thought that it was a shame and an ugly truth that the beautiful North Gate （北門） was trapped within a bridge system. Now that the North Gate is in the skyline again, new buildings continue to rise along Yanping S Road all the way to Dadaocheng and break up the landscape. However, these buildings are not better. They only make the city even more chaotic.
Ironically, as the public celebrated the North Gate’s return to the skyline, a separate force was destroying architecture worth preserving. Although a group of people used 3D technology to scan Chen’s former residence before it was torn down, and even tried to save it, in the end, all that was left was 3D imagery.
I believe every old building represents a story. AKRU thought that everything in Taipei had a soul and every building had a soul that represented the area. These spirits watch over the area like the Earth god.
I hope I can use the film to allow the historic buildings to tell their stories, which contain a touch of fantasy and imagination.
Every time I walk around in Taipei, I lift my head and often discover that some of the old buildings were decorated with owls or stone lions. Do these owls and stone lions also act as local spirits protecting the buildings?
By including this type of imagination, I believe that audiences who have been brainwashed by Hollywood fantasy films would be able to add all sorts of imagination to their hometowns and increase the number of possibilities for the city’s legends.
Translated by staff writer Sherry Hsiao
A still from Kent Chang’s pilot for a movie adaptation of Scrolls of a Northern City depicts 1930s Taipei. Photo courtesy of Kent Chang
Director Kent Chang holds up a Japanese-era banknote during an interview in Taipei on Oct. 8. Photo: George Tsorng, Taipei Times