FEATURE PHOTOS COURTESY OF HUAN CHENG, 2021
San Francisco-based filmmaker and multidisciplinary artist Huan Cheng explores the loneliness of the immigrant experience in her short film Danny, Danny. Cheng, born in Taiwan, draws upon her own experiences of arriving in the United States as a young adult in Danny, Danny, which screened at CAAMFest this year and The Method Fest in 2020, and is now available to audiences again. Cheng is a member of the Hollywood Professional Association 2021 Young Entertainment Professionals (YEP) Program, currently living in San Francisco, with beauty, impermanence, nuances, and fleeting moments of everyday life as recurring themes in her works.
Grace Hwang Lynch: Where are you originally from and what brought you to San Francisco?
Huan Cheng: I was born in Hsinchu City, Taiwan and studied Communications Design in animation at Shih Chen University in Taipei, the oldest and most prestigious art and design college in Taiwan. Neither of my parents went to college, and I’m the only one in my family to come to the United States. I became fascinated with real-time filmmaking during my senior year, and I relocated to San Francisco four years ago to pursue graduate studies in film at California College of the Arts. I earned my Masters of Fine Arts degree in 2020.
In Taiwan a lot of film funding is from the government, and you usually make films out of passion, not to make a living. When I was growing up, most of the documentaries I saw were from National Geographic or something like that, not like the Asian and Asian American films I’ve seen at CAAMFest. Also, in Taiwan, people respect older, established directors and it could take twenty years for a young filmmaker to establish their career. There’s definitely a lot more diverse opportunities in the states.
GHL: Your stream-of-consciousness short film Danny, Danny screened as part of CAAMFest 2021. Tell us a little bit about the story and how it is influenced by your own experiences as an immigrant in the U.S.
HC: The film explores the silent spaces of our lives that we often wrestle with. My initial development for the film concept begins with a mixed feeling of running away from my past and the urge to have an intimate connection in this new place as an immigrant. These daily emotional struggles inspired me to narrate the solitary journey of a young woman as she navigates between isolation and intimacy.
Stream-of-consciousness is an unconventional form of narrative literature, often absent in today’s cinema. It exposes the inner workings of the character to the surface that plays a vital role in driving an emotional journey through a nonlinear collage of memories. The film explores the inevitability of memories that define the protagonist’s identity.
It achieves this with free camera movements through contrasting times and spaces, resulting in a conflation of the past and present.
GHL: Your first film, Calm Down, Anny, also used a name as part of the title. Tell us about the significance of these.
HC: The film title “calm down, Anny” is an inner monologue that the character uses to console herself, as the film revolves around mental pictures and voices from the past lodged in her head.
As for the film “Danny, Danny”, I picture it as how we whisper to someone close, we often repeat their names. I also think of it as what we call our pet- we repeat and usually talk intimately. Both titles are like short dialogues that revolve around the film themes.
GHL: Having been in the Bay Area for a few years now, what do you miss most about Taiwan?
HC: I miss the home-cooked meals from my mother and the Taiwanese local street food the most. Ba-wan, Hsinchu meatballs, shaved ice, hot pot…, sometimes I even dream about the food. The Taiwanese foods I tried in the bay don’t taste the same as [they do at] home, and some of the dishes are not even listed on the menu. But [I] think of it in a good way: because of this, I became a better cook and learned to cook more Taiwanese dishes.
GHL: It’s hard to match the food in Taiwan, but I’ll have to show you some of my favorite hole in the wall spots in Cupertino and Milpitas! In the meantime, could you tell us about your work as a multimedia designer, in particular your piece that was displayed on the Salesforce Tower in the spring?
HC: I exhibited my recent work, Virus Ball, which began with an invitation from [the artist] Jim Campbell. Jim collaborated with local bay artists, hosting exhibits on the iconic Salesforce Tower public light sculpture [in an exhibit called] (Day for Night) once every month.
During my collaboration with Jim in March 2021, I worked alongside a contemporary artist, Narges Poursadeqi, gathering film archives from 1960’s San Francisco that translated moving images into constellations of floating kaleidoscope circles.
The kaleidoscope circles collide and divide with behavioral patterns, similar to the 2020 COVID–19 virus. [and] symbolizes the residents of San Francisco during the lockdown.
Watch a video of Virus Ball
GHL: What are you working on now and where can we find your work next?
HC: My short film Danny, Danny will screen at the Las Vegas Asian Film Awards (also known as LVAFA) which will be held this year from July 26 to August 1.
There are two projects I’m working on. The first is a short documentary, set in the context of the current rise in hate crimes against elderly Asian Americans. I am filming Asian communities as they learn Yongchun martials arts for self-defense.
GHL: How has that been for you, seeing the increase in assaults against older Asian Americans?
HC: It’s unbearable to watch and process the emotions that [affect us] by the media. Filial piety is common in most the Asia cultures. I grew up close to my grandmother. And I often Facetime and chat with my grandparents to see how they are doing.
My grandmother treats everyone like family, and there is no social differentiation in her eyes. Her behavior influenced me and became part of me. These factors motivate me to make my next relevant short film. I truly hope we could have more love and care for everyone.
GHL: Could you tell us what’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned in the course of making this documentary?
HC: At first, I questioned my intentions on kick starting this project, considering I’m not Asian American, it was a sensitive topic. I began questioning if I was the right person to tell this story, but as an eager learner of cultures, I took the bold step to expose the harsh realities of living as an Asian American in the United States.
Many sweet and fortunate surprises unraveled the production went smooth and harmonious… I even met a team that eventually volunteered to hop on and assist me with this project.
Oh, how students generously shared their learning motivation! [There were] many experiences I [will miss]. In the end, it was a rewarding and educational journey.
GHL: And what’s your other project?
HC: The other project is a short documentary film about the sustainable, vegetarian lifestyle of three generations of a family who run a tea master practice in Chiayi, Taiwan. The film captures how they maintain the traditions from growing organic tea and bringing it to market. That one is in post-production right now. I hope to submit both films to festivals next year.
GHL: How can we follow you on social media?
HC: You can also find my work on my website, Annilyze.com.
You can purchase a screening ticket to watch Danny, Danny and other films at the Las Vegas Asian Film Awards, here.