“Nothing is ever like in the movies, “ Lulu (Aviis Zhong) tells Mason (Gijs Blom) in “Dead and Beautiful,” upon the latter realizing that neither of them have turned into ash as they make their way into a swimming pool. After their friend Ana (Anna Marchenko) takes them to the jungle for a weekend excursion where they come into contact with the Arovi tribe, they believe they’ve been rechristened into vampires, seemingly immune to death and burdened by a slight bloodlust, but hardly able to depend on what popular culture has taught them about how to conduct themselves properly as creatures of the night. In this languid thriller from David Verbeek, it isn’t all that much different than their lives before heading into the woods, looking for adventures as wealthy and bored twentysomethings who take turns trying to get a rise out of one another as they sequester themselves to exclusive clubs and penthouses of high-rises their parents own in Taipei.
While not entirely a departure for Verbeek, a filmmaker originally from the Netherlands who has himself resettled in Taiwan with a filmography , the film is a subversive spin on the genre as it considers a generation left aimless in a culture that suddenly has billionaires in its midst after years of Communist rule in China and have employed Taipei as a personal playground, continuing a sordid tradition of outsiders encroaching on the natives’ land when the indigenous tribes previously were made to give up their territory to European settlers centuries earlier. Although this history is lost on Lulu and her gang, who seek out fun wherever they can find it without regard for the damage it does, it isn’t on the writer/director, who gives both the characters and his story sharp teeth by envisioning the apathy and ignorance of the burgeoning bloodsuckers as what’s extracted from a society over time as economic disparity grows and legacies of wealth grow unchecked.
After premiering earlier this year at Rotterdam and becoming a favorite at genre festivals such as Fantasia and Fantastic Fest, “Dead and Beautiful” is making its streaming premiere on Shudder and Verbeek spoke about the inspiration behind the film, relocating the production to Taipei from China where he had originally pictured it and embracing the natural elements.
You’ve long been moving between the Netherlands and Asia to make your features. What’s been the attraction?
First of all, I’m a gigantic fan of a lot of Asian filmmakers, so it was really the cinema that pulled me towards that world. But equally so, it was very much just that in China, things were changing so rapidly that I thought it was really interesting if society is changing very quickly, how do people on a personal level keep up with that change? They’re a phenomenon and [there’s this] generation gap, like between my generation and their parents. Their parents were growing up in Communist China and now their offspring growing up in a very, very modern and very capitalist world, so that has also really inspired me to tell stories about that — a really good solid subject in a really interesting cinematic environment.
Thinking about “Dead and Beautiful,” did that idea of this new generation immediately lend itself to the notion of vampires?
It’s interesting how the subject of this film took shape over the course of many years because, at first, we wanted to shoot this in China where I was living at the time. There were lots of things in the news there of this rich second generation [indulging in] illegal car races with Lamborghini and Ferraris, and there were high profile incidents in the media where a villager had been run over and killed in those car races, so there was really this social debate about, “Why are so many people that are from this new generation of wealth behaving this way or socially irresponsible?” They were even called vampires in the press, like, “You suck other people’s blood. You exploit other people.” So there is this terminology and the idea spontaneously arose [about], “What if we would do something where you see this very typical generation of Chinese nouveau rich not really knowing what to do with all their wealth, and literally one moment they wake up and be the metaphor itself as a social satire?”
It was only after I tried to make the film and found financing for it that we were stopped by the Chinese government who said that, “You cannot make a ghost story in Mainland China for a Chinese audience” [because] vampires are technically undead, so they are ghosts. So it couldn’t be a real vampire film, and I started to think about, “Well, wait a minute. In history, [there’s] some characters like Marie Antoinette, who was playing farmer in her castle garden with her elite friends” — there actually has been this phenomenon throughout history that the elite sometimes need to engage in a certain kind of role-playing in order just to escape the boredom of their plentiful lives, so maybe I could turn it into something like that. It’s actually a form of entertainment for them to play vampire, and it’s even more exciting if most of them don’t know about it, so that’s how one thing built on another.
Was moving to Taipei inspirational? The whole idea of living above the city and the way you employ color and light really draws on the environment.
Yeah, I had already shot some other films in Taipei, so I was very aware of what this society felt like and also what the issues are here and I adapted the film to be in Taiwan rather than China, because there is no censorship restriction here, but I took that “they’re not really vampires” idea from the censor as a free inspiration. That’s when the story morphed into also being about an aboriginal community being disenfranchised from their land and it got even deeper.
We really wanted the film to have those very big environments, but there were a lot of things related to very, very rich people that we would want to have in China, like these massive villas or a gigantic airport as a symbol of a very new, flourishing society, and Taipei isn’t really like that. Taipei is more subtle. Rich people don’t like to show off that much. The airport is older, so we had to really think about, “How are we going to do this to make it look like that?” The answer was to use a live environments that are not really what we pretend them to be, so the airport is actually a very newly built music and opera house down South in Kaohsiung, and in CGI, we just enhanced it a little bit and then added some details to make it like a terminal. Same for Lulu’s villa. We couldn’t really find anyone or any privately owned villas that were that spectacular here, so we actually used a congress hall that was actually built half a century ago to inaugurate a president, the founder of Taiwan and the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial. We’d use a specific part of that building and turn it into a privately owned residence for production design.
Also, we used anamorphic lenses that have a wider scope and reflect the light, so we had that wide aspect and very narrow depth of field and the point that’s sharp is very little and there are more particles as in lens flaring and those type of things. We used those wider establishing shots that I really like, that were in “Full Contact” [as well], but we mixed that with a more handheld style though we’re also very close to the character.
Was there anything once you got this ensemble together that you could get excited about after seeing their group dynamic?
There is this one sequence where the five of them are walking down the street and they’re all in full costume for the first time. That worked better than I could have imagined. And even before when we were doing the wardrobe tests, way before shooting, once I just took my own camera and shot a video of them walking through the same district in full get-up, I really got a sense of how stylish this could be, and also how the actors as a group were very striking visually. But it really also a matter of very precise casting. I was very careful to choose the right people for the right role in the group. For example, the character of Bin-Ray is [played by Philip Juan] in Taiwan, a very unknown actor, and in the film, he is someone that’s new to the group and is here to prove himself, so that dynamic was the same on set as what you see. And Gijs [Blom] who flies in, he’s actually becoming a celebrity right now in a few films that are very big on Netflix at the moment, so he was in that moment of “I’m a rising star,” and that is also what you feel in the narrative of the film.
Was there a particularly tricky day on set or something that you were happy to overcome?
There were lots of very tricky things. Taiwan is a very wet climate, so we had a lot of rainy days and a lot of night shoots because almost everything had to be night. And that’s very hard because the whole 60-person crew goes into permanent state of jet lag when we were up all the time at night. The plus was while we were shooting the part out in the woods, it was raining constantly all night long and it slows everything down. It was cold, and chilly and windy and very uncomfortable for days on end, but if you see the ritual in the forest, it worked out well. You almost feel the uncomfortability of it, so maybe it had a reason.
What’s it like to get to the finish line?
It’s an ongoing process. It took so long now with the pandemic and I couldn’t physically travel to many of the festivals it played because of travel restrictions, so recently we’ve shown the film at the Taipei and the Kaohsiung Film Festival and I was there and really happy to see the film on the big screen. It really impacted me. I felt the performances in a lot of the scenes with the actors were just phenomenal from when I saw it that big, so that was a very pleasant experience. But I really wish I would have more of it, to be honest. Now is really the excitement, so you can ask me this question again in maybe two months. [The film has] been finished for more than a year, but now it’s going to be coming out on Shudder and I’m very excited to just really get a sense of how a massive audience reacts to it because now many people will see the film.