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Serving Up Horror: Nakanishi Mai shares the backstory of her sophomore short Swallow

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In Swallow a striving actress is invited to a private, gourmet club only to discover her competition has prepared a horrifying banquet which devours her. Writer-director Nakanishi Mai follows up her haunting and atmospheric short Hana with a tale of the horrific depths to which human rivalries will go. Though she has worked for large companies such as Kadokawa, the bonafide genre fan has also dedicated time abroad collaborating with international genre stalwarts particularly in the realm of horror movies. Additionally, she founded the Scream Queen FilmFest Tokyo in 2013, a female-driven genre festival dedicated to sharing the unique and diverse visions that female artists bring to genre movies. With Hana, her directorial debut, she herself has become an exciting new voice in horror. And as with any sophomore effort, building upon the success of the first while continuing to creatively evolve took Nakanishi on a journey of opportunities and interesting turns.

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The seeds of Swallow first germinated in a short movie script which was scheduled to be shot in Korea that was cancelled. A Taiwanese producer told Nakanishi about a short film grant for Taiwanese filmmakers and when Nakanishi told the producer about her cancelled short movie concept, they decided to partner up and submit for the grant. However, the grant stipulated the story be set in Taiwan which meant Nakanishi was going to have make significant changes to the script. But after a couple of visits to Taiwan, she was inspired to write a completely new story. As Nakanishi recalls, “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 snake dishes which aroused my curiosity and I learned that snake meat and organs are believed to be good for skin irritations or liver problems. I’ve always been fascinated by how far people would go to achieve a beautiful and youthful look so I thought that this unique delicacy can be an interesting element to tell a story about human obsessions and extreme desires.” Despite being non-Taiwanese, Nakanishi’s script not only made it passed the first round but to her surprise was selected. The ball began to roll.

Naturally, for a story set up in a world where women are one another’s own worst enemies and the competition is deadly and fierce, the casting of those women was paramount. Playing the younger actress, Mimi, is Han Ning who is herself a rising star in Taiwan. “She didn’t have much experience acting in film yet when I first auditioned her,” recounts Nakanishi, “but through our conversations, I could feel that Han Ning could play Mimi, a mysterious woman who is not as she appears to be.” Mimi’s rival, Xue-Lan is played by Liu Dai-Ying who impressed Nakanishi with her interpretation of the character so much Nakanishi cast her from her audition video. Finally, playing the owner of the gourmet club, Annie, is none other than Taiwan veteran actress Vera Chen. “I wanted to make the gourmet club look like a coven–like a gathering of witches,” Nakanishi explains, “Annie is like the head witch.” When she met with Chen online to discuss the character and what she wanted for the role, she knew Chen was the right choice for Annie. “Her screen presence and performance really helped me to tighten the tension in the scenes.”

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Liu Dai-Ying plays Xue-Lan, the rival to Han Ning’s Mimi | © SWALLOW Film Partners

With her grant-winning script ready and her cast in place, the time came to make her movie. But that was back in autumn of 2020. COVID-19 was still creating havoc with the entertainment industry in one sense, but generally throughout the world, the pandemic was nowhere near coming under control. Principle photography was postponed to 2021. Then the virus variants posed further complications. “I must say, coping and keeping up with the ever-shifting pandemic situation was not easy at all.” Fortunately for Nakanishi, Taiwan had handled the pandemic much better than most countries through stringent testing and other preventative protocols. But shooting under safety guidelines did not adversely affect the way their film set operated. Interestingly enough, the tight schedule in combination with safety protocols proved to be the biggest hurdle. “My visa would only allow me to stay for 45 days, but I was put in quarantine for 15 days so we only had 30 days to prepare and shoot.” Moreover, she only had two-and-a-half days to shoot at their two main locations. As she explains, “The condition [of the grant] was that a certain percentage of the shooting had to be done in Kaohsiung City, but one of our locations was in Tainan City about a one hour drive from Kaohsiung. We had over 30 crew members plus the actors so transportation was challenging.” On their second day of production they worked through the night and yet still ran out of time necessitating a few shots getting cut. Nevertheless, the production wrapped shooting within Nakanishi’s visa limit and she thanks her supportive team for that: “[W]e achieved a great accomplishment under difficult circumstances and I’m grateful for the hard working cast and crew.”

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Director Nakanishi Mai on the set of Swallow

With Swallow completed and set to world premiere at the Kaohsiung Film Festival, the experience once again reminded Nakanishi of the importance of cinema, both the movies themselves and the process of creating them. “I had so many memorable experiences that I will never forget – 15 days of ABSOLUTE [sic] isolation under strict quarantine; working with passionate Taiwanese filmmakers who made me feel welcome and comfortable despite our cultural and language differences. It made me re-realize that film is indeed a universal language.”

The 2021 Kaohsiung Film Festival runs from October 15-21. Visit the official site for more information here.