Interview with Mai Nakanishi, Director of Swallow

Mai Nakanishi is a long-time horror film enthusiast. After founding and directing the Scream Queen FilmFest Tokyo and working on a wide variety of films in various roles, she made a splash with her debut film Hana (2018). It stood out as an expertly crafted minimalist horror film set almost entirely in an apartment in Busan and given depth by having a subtext about motherhood and career pressure. The film was screened internationally at over 30 festivals worldwide, from Osaka Asian Film Festival in Japan to Fright Fest in London, and won Best Short Film at the 2018 Monsters of Film in Sweden and the Goule D’or Directors Award at the 2019 Portland Horror Film Festival. 2022 sees the release of Swallow, her sophomore film, another international production and one that has a feminist slant.

Swallow is another short, one that sees the career rivalry between two actresses leading to a macabre banquet which one believes holds the promise of providing food that can sustain her youth. Underneath a layer of body horror lies a satire of our beauty-obsessed world and the pressures which drive women to pursue youth and good looks at any cost. Expertly shot, this Taiwan-set film features an exquisite horror atmosphere of lavish sets drenched in red and a gripping character study brought to life by excellent dialogue and performances. 

Nakanishi generously allowed me a chance to watch her latest work and interview her about her fascination with horror, life after Hana, the making of Swallow in Taiwan during Covid conditions, and much more.

Thanks for allowing me to watch Swallow. It has won an award at the Tampere Film Festival 2022, a Special Mention in the Generation XYZ competition, so congratulations! I was really impressed by HANA and was eager to see what you would do next. Horror films are your chosen metier. What inspired you to become a filmmaker and why focus on the horror genre?

I actually started my career in film business with experiences ranging from marketing, programming and acquisitions of films for pay-TV broadcaster and international sales and acquisitions for film distribution companies. I’ve only been involved in filmmaking since 2013, where I had the opportunities to work with international genre stalwarts as a producer, assistant director and assistant production designer and before I knew it, I was directing Hana. I’ve been a huge of fan of the horror genre since I was small. There are many great horror films containing hidden subtext and relevant social commentary beneath the thrills and scares which fascinate me.

Your films focus on women. In 2013 you set up Scream Queen FilmFest Tokyo, an event designed to promote female filmmakers in the horror field. Can you explain the different perspective that women bring to horror and any recent titles directed by women that have stood out to you?

Women have been dealing with horror forever and I think women are equally creative when it comes to making great genre films. I’m very happy to see many of the directors whose films were programmed at Scream Queen FilmFest Tokyo had their feature debut in recent years: Natalie Erika James with her film Relic, Prano Bailey-Bond for Censor and Rose Glass with her A24 horror Saint Maud, to name a few. And just by looking at the above film titles, you know what I mean by women being equally talented at making good horror films. It’s so exciting to see women genre filmmakers flourishing behind the screen and I hope there will be more opportunities for women filmmakers in the future.

My recent favourite genre film directed by a woman is Hatching by Hanna Bergholm. It portrayed a toxic mother-daughter relationship and pains of being an adolescent with a soul-baring sensibility. It’s a beautifully crafted body horror which plays into some of our most visceral fears which touched me on so many levels.

You made your debut with Hana, what was the reception like?

Hana has been received very well. It’s been to around 40 international film festivals, winning a best short film award in Sweden and the US. It was quite unexpected as the film was made on a shoestring budget.

Why set Swallow it in Taiwan?

Initially, I was planning on shooting the film in Korea but unfortunately the project got cancelled. Then a Taiwanese producer told me about a short film grant for Taiwanese filmmakers. I shared the script with her and we decided to team up to submit for the grant. But because the setting had to be in Taiwan, I knew I had to make a big change to my existing script. Purely by chance, I had the opportunities to visit Taiwan to participate in film festivals which gave me boundless new inspirations which led me to write a whole new story which became Swallow.

How familiar were you with Taiwan before the shoot?

Before going to Taiwan for the shoot, I had only visited there for short trips but my grandmother grew up in Taiwan during colonial rule and she has shared with me her found memories so I always felt a sense of closeness to Taiwan.

While watching Swallow, I must admit that I made some nascent links between its story and Fruit Chan’s short Dumplings as it touches upon similar subject-matter about the pursuit of beauty/youth. However, Swallow goes in an original direction. It appears to combine the Japanese kishotenketsu four-act structure with a narrative involving Taiwanese film and culinary culture and possibly the supernatural. Where did your ideas come from and how long did it take to write this film?

Since I wanted a “unique delicacy” to be the key element to tell a story about human obsessions and extreme desires, Fruit Chan’s short Dumplings was definitely one of my references! I really liked the combinations of grotesqueness and dark humour in Dumplings so I tried to portray the story through a satirical gaze as well.And it’s so interesting what you pointed out about the structure of the story! Actually, I didn’t have any particular story structure in mind when I was writing the script but I wanted to give enough “set up” and “development” for the audience to sympathize with the main characters and give viewers a deeper view into the story so perhaps that’s why the story seems to be told in four parts.

The idea for the film came to me when I visited the Huaxi Street Night Market in Taipei. There was a small restaurant which specializes in “unique” dishes which are believed to be good for skin irritation and liver problems and naturally, it aroused my curiosity to write a story around it. I’ve always been fascinated by how far people would go to achieve beautiful and youthful looks. So I wanted to make a film that delves into the horror of the blind pursuit of beauty in today’s appearance-focused word and re-imagine the human nature of “consumption”. So Swallow was a perfect playground to explore those subjects.

Can you talk about the production a little? Like Hana, the framing and flow of the shots feels like it was done with great precision and it looks absolutely great. What was the budget and did you use storyboarding and extensive location scouting?

My Taiwanese DP Tzu-Yang Wei did a fantastic job on the cinematography. Because of our language barriers I knew I had to prepare visual communication tools to help visualize all aspects of my vision. I prepared a detailed storyboard and a look book focusing on camera angles, lighting and tones/colours so that Tzu-Yang and I could be on the same page. I had meetings with the Tzu-Yang almost every day during pre-production to be fully prepared so the shooting went very smoothly. As for the budget, we had a sizable amount but it’s very expensive to shoot in Taiwan so there were many times when I had to face challenges. But having worked on low budget projects in the past helped me greatly with creative problem solving.

Visually, the film is a departure from Hana since there is a more ostentatious and colourful visual presentation in the middle section of the film where the “banquet” takes place – kind of like Suspiria – and there are a set of great costumes. Can you talk about your visual design choices?

I took a minimalist approach to Hana because I wanted to emphasize the emptiness of the space Hana and the mother live in. For Swallow, I went in the opposite direction and used a more vivid color palette to create a nightmarish world where the audience can experience a sense of hallucinatory terrors and madness. And I also wanted play with colours to portray characters’ internal world. I particularly emphasized the colour red to make the audience have a connection with the characters’ dynamics of emotions by using different shades of red. While the colour white in Hana was symbolically linked to physical and emotional death, the red in Swallow is a metaphor for destructive obsessions and envy which consumes the characters.

Furthermore, I wanted to make the mysterious gourmet club where the banquet takes place to look like a coven. So I made Annie, the host of the gourmet club and the two women like “Three Witches” from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”. I was a bit worried actually because I sweat the details but my art team was very collaborative and helped me to make my twisted vision come alive!

And yes, as you guessed, Suspiria was one of the references for the banquet scene and Raise the Red Lantern by Zhang Yimou being the other film for visual references.

Sound design was also interesting in how ambient noise is minimised in different sections and the Queen of the Night aria is used. Can you elaborate on your choices for the sound of the film?

The sound design and music in Swallow are by the same Korean sound design team and the music composer whom I collaborated with for Hana. And Ralph Tae-Young Choi who does sound design for Bong Joon-ho, including Parasite, gave me some great sound notes as well.

When I started writing the script, I had Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria playing in my head when I envisioned the opening scene and the ending. Rather than the story behind the music, I felt the aggressive and vengeful tone of the song fits the film and the character Mimi well. Chae-young, our music composer not only performed Queen of the Night aria but also made some amazing original music for Swallow as well. Chae-young did an excellent job to build up tension and emphasize specific moments and hone in on the emotions that I wanted to convey.

I really enjoy the creative and collaborative process of film scoring that I get to do when I work with Chae-young which gives me the opportunity to challenge myself to communicate the emotions that I want to express through music.

This was shot during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Can you talk about how it affected the production?

I was very lucky to be able to shoot in Taiwan because during that time, Taiwan had no new domestic Covid-19 cases and pandemic was very well under control. We of course followed the safety guidelines and protocols for filming during the pandemic but I don’t think following the safety protocols affected how our film set operated. So there weren’t many complications for the shoot itself. But probably, the hardest part of production was overcoming the time limit. My visa would only allow me to stay in Taiwan for 45 days (I was able to finish shooting within the given length of stay but extended my visa at the end) but I was put in quarantine for 15 days so we only had 30 days to prepare and shoot so the time constraint was quite a challenging factor in our production.

In terms of the cast, each person was perfect for the role. Han Ning had this mysterious air to her that hid a silent ferocity while Liu Dai-Ying was tonally the opposite, all bluster and excess actions. Can you talk about their qualities that made you select them and how you worked together to develop the roles?

In Swallow, the main characters are striving actresses so I wanted to set up a world where the competition is deadly fierce and women are one another’s own worst enemies. Han Ning, who plays the lead character Mimi, started out as a dancer and didn’t have much acting experience in film yet. So when we had our first video call and online audition, she expressed her concerns about acting. But through our conversations and watching her performance in Netflix’s Detention: The Series, I could feel her unique and magnetic screen presence and I was confident that Han Ning could play Mimi, a mysterious woman who is not as she appears to be. In the beginning, Han Ning seemed to struggle to build Mimi but as we had conversations and recommended films for Han Ning to watch and study, she slowly built a living and believable character and I really enjoyed watching Han Ning transform into the character. The casting of Dai-Ying Liu for the role of Xue-Lan was also done through audition and I was very impressed by how she studied and interpreted the character. So as soon as I saw her audition video, I couldn’t think of anyone else to play the role of Xue-Lan.

I’m not an acting coach but I wanted to give clear and concise directions and feedback for the actors to understand the characters better. I prepared notes for Mimi, Xue-Lan and Annie which had character descriptions and how I interpret the characters in the story.

Swallow has finished screening at Fresh Wave International Short Film Festival in Hong Kong and Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival in Korea. It is already winning awards and it next plays at the Skip City International Film Festival. What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

Its Japanese premiere is at the Skip City International Film Festival so I’m eager to know how the audience will react to the film. I hope Swallow delivers a fresh take on the themes of obsessions of beauty and female rivalry. But most importantly, I really hope the audience will enjoy this deliciously dark & twisted film. Oh and I should maybe recommend that viewers watch the film on an empty stomach!

What are your top five films?

This is always hard to answer because there are too many great films to narrow down to a short list! So I hope I can list 5 titles out of many other films that have impacted me as a filmmaker! They are: PsychoThe ShiningMulholland Drive, Oldboy and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

Swallow plays at the Skip City D-Cinema Festival, both online and also on site at Convention Hall (7/18, 13:50) and the Audio Visual Hall (7/22, 11:00).