Published on: 16 February 2021 in Industry

“There’s so much about a person’s identity that can be drawn from food”: Chris Chung on the making of Congee

Reading time: 4 minutes and 3 seconds

Congee, a new short film from Directors UK member Chris Chung, explores the deep ties between cuisine, culture and identity, as well as the impact of COVID-19 on the restaurant industry. 

Chris has written for Directors UK about the inspirations behind Congee, and how it got made under COVID conditions. But first, watch the full film below.  

When COVID struck I — like most of my friends in the industry — took a massive dive in productivity, and it became impossible to work. 

During this time I tried my best to stay connected with my actor friends and crew who were frustrated and equally wanted to get creative again, but it was only after a combination of supporting a friend’s restaurant after it was allowed to reopen, and watching Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci’s Big Night, that I felt inspired to write Congee.

Thao and Vanora running lines between lens changes.
Thao and Vanora running lines between lens changes.

My intention with Congee was to use food as a way into exploring questions of assimilating versus sticking to your roots, and how siblings who have grown up with contrasting experiences can see eye to eye, all against the backdrop of London during the pandemic. I believe there’s so much about a person’s identity that can be drawn from food, recipes are almost historical artifacts that are passed down from generation to generation, layered with subtleties that makes them specific to who’s preparing the dish. When I think of food even a simple as Congee, it can link back to an occasion, a memory. 

Leading up to the shoot we didn’t have any rehearsals on set. Instead actors Thao Minh Nguyen, Vanora Fung and I got together to discuss the theme and the experiences we have been facing to ensure the message and debate of the film was clear. It was also a great opportunity to get into the minutiae of the scenes and if there was anything that needed clarity. We had zero expectations of the film; the goal was simply to get creative again.

The shoot itself was great fun, and I was very lucky to be working with a crew who were patient and respectful of each other. We kept within the COVID guidelines and limited ourselves to one person per department, which instantly had Alfie Thirole, our cinematographer, drawing the short straw - but he was a champ about it and handled the camera and lights like a maestro. I was fortunate to have Crina Ene on-board as script supervisor, who was razor sharp and didn’t let anything get past her. Without Crina Ene we wouldn’t have been able to shoot this in a day. 

Cinematographer Alfie Thirole setting up wireless light tubes for outdoor police lights.
Cinematographer Alfie Thirole setting up wireless light tubes for outdoor police lights.

One of the great things on this project was the collaborative spirit. Everyone was raising the bar despite having very little resource. The passion was there, and it was inspiring to see. The look and sound of the film are two things I’m particularly  proud of, as the kitchen itself is very much a character in the film – it feels lived in, bustling with sounds and rich texture. Alfie lit the space brilliantly and Chris Francis, our colourist, did a fantastic job of enhancing what was already there and nailing the skin tones true to what the actors actually look like. We also went for a grainy Fuji-look after some tests on the recce, as we felt it would complement the textures and details in the food, characters and surroundings.

Vanora Fung running lines
Vanora Fung running lines

The experience of carrying out post-production over Zoom wasn’t difficult at all, and I think that comes from the trust from everyone having worked together for many years. I’ve also worked with Dave S. Walker (sound designer, composer) for many years over. In some instances, it doesn’t replace working in the same space together, but it’s a good workaround for when you can’t be there, even as a way to review rushes and talk through ideas whilst they’re fresh. 

We have released the short online on Vimeo and have entered it into a few festivals after being encouraged by some peers. I’ve also seen great and exciting content and ideas generated by PoC creatives throughout the pandemic, and hope to see more diverse stories out there getting the platform they deserve. 

Photos: Chris Chung.

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