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Interview with Director Jenny Teng - Clermont-Ferrand film festival
Friday 6 February 2015, by
What inspired you to make The Lobster’s Dive? Why did you choose that title?
The idea came to me from a Zen tale. A Chinese emperor offers his daughter’s hand in marriage to he who can find a vase at the bottom of a lake. Thousands of suitors dive into the lake, some so deep that they end up drowning.
The son of a poor chef in the kingdom understands that instead of diving, he has to climb a tree. He finds the vase hidden in the branches and wins the daughter’s hand. The lobster is a symbol of wealth, which is in contrast with the main character: he doesn’t even have the means to pay the rent. But it is with that crustacean that Tamo has the chance to become a chef.
The Lobster’s Dive takes place in Paris, but in Chinatown in Paris. Did you have a particular knowledge of that universe, or did you discover it while making the film?
I tried to inject elements from that Zen tale into a context that I am very familiar with. Having grown up in the Chinese restaurant where my father was a cook in the middle of the 13th arrondissement of Paris, I observed the ballet of orders from the kitchen. My father and other natives from China and Cambodia actively prepared the dishes to be served in the dining room.
The thirteenth has always been a neighbourhood of immigrants, and not necessarily Asian. The architecture, which seems chaotic at first glance, is a passion to film. In a very confined area of underground labyrinths, we see the cohabitation of 30-storey towers and markets selling products from all over the world.
In The Lobster’s Dive, your main character has just arrived in France. Could you have made the film with a young Frenchman of Chinese origin as your hero? In your opinion, are there many immigrant workers in the kitchens of Paris?
Parisian restaurants survive thanks to immigrants. A young Frenchman of Chinese origin would not have corresponded to that reality. The film would have asked different questions, about living with a double culture, the conflict with the preceding generation lacking mastery of the French language, and the place he holds in society as a result of those problems.
How did you go about casting?
I worked with Lucas Delangle, a former directing student at La Fémis. We mixed open casting and professional actresses like Yilin Yang and Clémentine Baert who play respectively the roles of Yin and Angélique. The suitor of the latter, Wang Langmen, is also a regular actor. I met him on the set of an art video shot by Pierre Huygues. Tamo is played by Chen Guan, a young director I met through a circle of young Chinese cinema-lovers and who previously had only made one appearance in a short film. Mickael Daï was introduced to us through Stéphane Batut who had met him during a casting session for Gare du Nord. He plays the candy seller.
In The Lobster’s Dive, your characters are particularly attached to the Yunnan region. Are you familiar with that region in particular? Why did you make that choice?
I went to China for the first time three years ago. That’s where my ancestors and my grandparents were born before migrating to Cambodia. They are from a region south of Guangdong close to Canton. The voyage was a disappointment compared to the fantasies I held of the wall and of the emperor since I was a child. When I saw Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian, I discovered in the descriptions of the artisans and the Yunnan myths a world yet to be destroyed by economic globalisation, a world inhabited entirely by magical thought.
The Lobster’s Dive is a film about challenge and perseverance. In your job as a director, do you encounter particular challenges and stubbornness?
I don’t know if it is a question of challenge or stubbornness, but it requires patience, endurance and good health.
The Lobster’s Dive was produced in France. In your opinion, what does French short film production have that the others don’t?
I don’t have extensive knowledge of the short film. As a student at La Fémis, I haven’t dealt with the official financing circuits. It seems to me that we are lucky in France given the number of short films and the many festivals that give them a chance to be seen. It remains to be seen if the selected films are the most interesting with regard to their form given the concern of effectiveness imposed by the short film format.