A scene from The island of River Flow. Photo: Courtesy of Chan Ching-ling
A scene from The island of River Flow. Photo: Courtesy of Chan Ching-ling

Chan Ching-ling had by his own estimation seen less than 10 films when he decided to become a director. “I had never thought that I could and up to the present, I still don’t see myself as one,” he says. “But creating is the best way to express who you are.”

Despite those misgivings, the 36-year-old Chan is developing into one of Taiwan’s most exciting filmmakers by turning his attention to the often turbulent local political and social scenes, and using them as the backdrop to the stories he tells.

Chan’s films look at the problems of wider society as seen through often deeply personal stories of individuals. Acclaim has followed, with the best director award from the 2013 Taipei Film Festival for his short film A Breath From The Bottom, which ties together a series of social movements in Taiwan over the past decade.

The director picked up the same gong last month at Taiwan’s Golden Bell Awards for his work on the short film The Island Of River Flow, which looks at the fate that befell toll collectors once the mechanization of highway cashiers was introduced across the island nation.

Chan started his academic career studying law and journalism at Taipei’s Chinese Culture University. He says encountering the world of Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish philosopher and cultural critic, and Hungarian Marxist philosopher György Lukács helped turn his attention toward how the media can influence the ideology and culture it serves.

“At first, I wanted to find a way to express my thoughts,” says Chan. “And the idea of becoming a creator, with a free and unconstrained lifestyle, sounded very attractive.”

Film, he says, was a natural progression.

Chan turned to the Department of Radio, Television and Film at Taipei’s Shih Hsin University and emerged in 2009. After graduation, he fulfilled his mandatory military service. And the military life inspired him to shoot A Breath From The Bottom.

Taiwanese director Chan Ching-ling likes to tell stories of real people in his films. Photo: Courtesy of Chan Ching-ling

Once, he was ordered to protect a government official after demonstrators broke into the hotel in which he was staying. But Chan recalls that he just stood there and didn’t take any action – and he couldn’t work out why.

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In A Breath From The Bottom, an ambitious cop is similarly called in to protect those attending a national conference – and he discovers that his farmer father is among the protesters.

As a filmmaker, Chan is fascinated by the decisions fate forces people to make.

“When making movies, my focus is always on ordinary people,” says Chan. “I want to shoot people’s real lives in Taiwan.”

Chan says he found that through making films he could attempt to reveal not only what was happening in his country, but why it was happening.

“I have realized there are many ways to see the world,” he says. “And every path – even the ones I was against before – has its own meaning and sense of necessity.”

And nothing in Taiwan is ever black and white, says Chan. Take the case of The Island Of River Flow, and its focus specifically on the story set against the protests made by thousands of toll collectors in 2014.

Mechanization of the system had taken away their jobs – and they felt abandoned by the government. Chan’s focus is on how one character reacts, but it sets his audience to thinking about the bigger issues these people faced – including simple survival.

“In this tough situation, what would people do – fight the situation or live with it – that’s at the core of the story I want to tell,” says the director.

Chan hopes his audiences will ask themselves the same questions.

Actor Ivy Yin Hsin in The Island Of River Flow. Photo: Courtesy of Chan Ching-ling