Internationally recognized in recent years, Muh Chen is considered one of the most sought-after music video directors in the Chinese world. As founder of Taiwanese motion graphics studio, Grass Jelly, top-tier music singers and groups such as Jolin Tsai, Jay Chou, Faye Wong, Mayday, and Sodagreen have all requested to work with him.
However, Chen cares little about online viewership, the revenue of his company, or the awards he has won. Instead, he is more concerned about the ability of his work to bring positivity to society, whether it can influence or inspire the younger generations, and, perhaps more importantly, whether he could help to reclaim the right of cultural interpretation as ethnic Chinese.
In 2013, three of Chen’s music videos–Cheers by Mayday, Super Girl by Elva Hsiao, and The Great Artist by Jolin Tsai–were nominated for Best Music Video at the 24th Golden Melody Awards. Cheers won the final recognition, gaining Chen immediate fame. In November 2014, the music video Play by Jolin Tsai, which was directed by Chen, became one of the top hits in Taiwan as soon as it was published on YouTube.
To date, the video has reached over 22 million views and counting. The following year, the music video won the Red Dot Communication Design Award–considered the Academy Awards of the design industry–and this year, the video was nominated in the Berlin Music Video Awards, an international recognition for which Chen is considered the pride of Taiwan. His work has also helped to gain international visibility for Chinese music video artistry and creativity.
Chen confesses that Hollywood movies and Japanese manga were major influences in his early life. When he was young, he favored these imported cultural assets over what was available at home; in his eyes, they were simply cooler. It was not until much later in life that he began to explore his own roots and discover that his own culture has a lot to offer. “I used to value things faraway and depreciate those that were near, which made me completely blind [of my culture],” he laments.
Lin Yixiou, who is a director Grass Jelly, also played an important role in Chen’s change in attitude. Lin’s ardent passion for Chinese culture inspired Chen, who then boldly started to incorporate cultural elements based on the story and style of the musical work into his videos. Thus far, he has created two well-acclaimed videos teeming with profound Chinese philosophical nuance: Perpetual War by Wakin Chau and Endless Life by Sodagreen.
For Perpetual War, Chen chose to feature black and white imagery, and transposed lyrics taken from numerous classical calligraphic texts into the music video. Another celebrated accomplishment is the epic 3D war scenes incorporating over 300 stone statues of Chinese historical figures. “History often tells us not to repeat old mistakes, but we just never learn. That’s why wars continue to be waged in human societies. In this video, I hope to reiterate to people that we must not repeat history,” he explains. To thoroughly understand the historical references of the song and to ensure each figure was properly represented on screen, Chen met with Taiwanese songwriter Zhang Dachun prior to the filming. “This is why we like to discuss a song with its creator. Zhang could explain the meaning behind his lyrics and help me connect with their reference origins,” he notes.
This year, a total of eight music videos by Chen received a Golden Pin Design Award Design Mark, including Sodagreen’s The Story. Rich in Chinese cultural sentiment, the music video depicts the six members of the Sodagreen traveling back in time through a clock owned by a Qing dynasty emperor. Newly arrived in this past world, they are carried in a carriage through classical Chinese pictorial scenes such as over a bridge; past a river, a raft, and ordinary people going about their daily lives; and through the fabled Peach Blossom Land.
The vivid tableau is reminiscent of the iconic Chinese painting, Along the River During the Qingming Festival. The video, which is animated and features puppets of all six band members created using 3D scanning technology, took nearly one year to complete, represents an unprecedented feat in Taiwanese music video history.
Initially, Chen was unsure exactly how to tackle the video for The Story. The Chinese literary capabilities of songwriter Wu Tsing-Fong are so highly celebrated that the lyrics of the song were as beautiful and as difficult to interpret as the lines of ancient Chinese poetry. In the end, Wu had to put down on paper over ten pages of annotations elaborating on the literary references in every line of the song. It was only by carefully reading this guidance that Chen was able to gradually form ideas for the video.
On a trip to Beijing, taken around the same time as his conversations with Wu, he visited the National Palace Museum where he saw the Chime Clock. He was inspired to use the clock–an embodiment of East-West integration–as the storytelling framework for The Story. “This music video represents a magical fantasy that is very Chinese,” he explains. “None of the scenes could be readily found. We had to build everything from scratch. We almost recreated an entire old Beijing. There are many incredible assets in our culture. The question is whether you can see them and know how to use them. If you carefully explore them, you’ll find that in them are endless materials to draw on.”
According to Chen, images hold tremendous influence in contemporary society–visual representations of the things around us rule the world–and because of this, he strives to imbed important social messages into his music videos. For instance, the music video for Play closes on the image of a map of Taiwan, which at first glance seem to resemble a regular map. However, on closer inspection, the viewer can see depicted a number of recent environmental disputes: the halted construction of a fourth nuclear power plant, the opposed and halted Meiliwan coastal resort development project, and wastewater pollution.
By doing so, Chen hopes to encourage awareness of the issues surrounding environmental protection and the abuse of natural resources. Another example can be found in the video for Mayday’s Tough. “To stay childlike and cherish friends around you is by no means new wisdom. We all know it, but we also too easily forget about it,” he explains. “Our mission is to remind people of its importance. Too much negative energy is being spread around on the internet today. This is how images may bring positive energy to people.”
As a Chinese creative professional, Chen points out that the advantages he has lie in the fact that he has access to Western culture and the latest thought trends while simultaneously sharing in the wealth of culture from his own background. The drawback of working in this part of the world, however, is the lack of a mature television and film industry, which affects the level of freedom he has to accurately interpret culture in a sophisticated, nuanced way.
Chen lists movies such as Mulan, The Last Emperor, and Kung Fu Panda as examples of Hollywood movies that, while based on Chinese stories, have been well interpreted and have reached great artistic heights. “If our TV and film industries were so well developed that we could produce movies that are as mesmerizing as Hollywood movies, wouldn’t foreigners notice us?” he queries. “It is only when we can mature to the same standard that we will gain a distinct identity in the world, and at that time, we can reclaim the right of cultural interpretation.”
Chinese creators are at a critical juncture, and the time is ripe for them to reclaim this right of cultural interpretation. In the face of a rapidly growing Chinese market, Chinese designs and creatively are also gaining greater international visibility. So long as creative professionals persevere, stay true to their vision, and make good work, they will eventually get noticed. To young creators, Chen says: “Never allow the dissatisfying environment to become an excuse to give up or plagiarize. In our times, everyone can criticize and label you as they like, yet the most important thing is how you view and what you demand from yourself.”
About Muh Chen
Muh Chen is one of Asia’s most highly regarded music video and advertising directors. After earning a BFA in filmmaking from the National Taiwan University of Arts, Chen founded Grass Jelly, a Taiwan-based video production company, in 2005. Grass Jelly is devoted to integrating cinematic aesthetics and digital technology and has since created an impressive repertoire of video works. In the past decade, his commercials and music videos have received domestic and international recognition in numerous design awards, including SIGGRAPH Asia Award; the Red Dot Design Awards; iF Design Awards; Design for Asia Awards; MTV Europe Music Awards; MTV Music Video Awards Japan; the Golden Melody Awards; the Golden Horse Awards; Japan’s Good Design Award; the Animago Award;
and the Golden Pin Design Award. He has collaborated with Asia’s top-tier musicians and bands, including Jolin Tsai, Jay Chou, A-May, Faye Wong, Aaron Kwok, Mayday, Sodagreen, Jane Zhang, and Wu Mochou, and has worked with major international brands including Pepsico, BRS NIKE, Heineken, Google, Mercedes-Benz, and Sony.