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Article | FOCUS
Beyond Chinese Orchestras: the Diverse Perspectives of Contemporary Guoyue in Taiwan
A lot of Western music was introduced to China in the early 20th century, after which the concept and self-identity of Guoyue (國樂; literally "national music") gradually took shape. Additionally, the May Fourth Movement was in full swing at the time, and many intellectuals like Xiao Youmei and Liu Tianhua began advocating for a reform of traditional music, introducing Western composition techniques and orchestration, which drove the modernization of traditional Chinese music in the form of Guoyue. Some of the achievements from that time have now developed into Chinese orchestras and Guoyue educational programs found across Taiwan, becoming the most widely known form of modernized traditional Chinese music.However, modernized traditional Chinese music takes more than one form. The original definition of the term Guoyue actually included a wide range of traditional music genres, including opera, folk songs, and sizhu (絲竹; literally "silk and bamboo", traditional string and wind ensembles) music. Thanks to the efforts of different musicians, composers, and creators, these other types of traditional/Chinese music have also evolved into different modern forms that deserve attention. This article will approach this issue from three aspects, namely: (1) avant-garde experiments in traditional instrumental music, (2) cross-genre and interdisciplinary creation, and (3) international exchanges, to demonstrate the diverse perspectives of modern Guoyue in Taiwan.The first aspect I'd like to discuss is the integration of avant-garde and experimental music and Chinese instruments to create or perform new works. Performers play a central role in this genre. They commission various works from composers and assemble them into one or more concerts, presenting them as a music show. Zheng (箏; Chinese plucked zither) musician Jing-Mu Kuo held a series of recitals titled "Zheng: New Horizon" in recent years (2017, 2019, and 2020), inviting over a dozen composers (including himself) to create a total of fifteen new zheng compositions. In a milestone moment of contemporary zheng music, these compositions were subsequently compiled and published as Zheng: New Horizon—Collection of Contemporary Zheng Music.In addition to instrumental solos, many performers also form chamber music ensembles, creating a new ensemble format that differs from traditional sizhu music. 3PEOPLEMUSIC is an ensemble composed of Jing-Mu Kuo on the zheng, I-Tung Pan on the zhongruan (中阮; Chinese plucked string instrument), and Chung Jen on the dizi (笛子; transverse bamboo flute) and xiao (簫; vertical bamboo flute). They have attracted much attention recently and were invited to hold concerts like 3x3 Project, Misreading, and Catalysis: Fusion of Senses at the National Theater and Concert Hall. These concerts featured dizi and zheng played with bows, with sounds occasionally produced using objects in the environment, mesmerizing and startling listeners. PIPA-ensemble, on the other hand, embraces both old and new styles. Their concerts Lead, Nong, and Folk Song, combined ancient traditional music, contemporary classics, and newly-commissioned compositions, a marriage of traditional music and forward-thinking ideas. They also recently held a series of lectures and concerts called "Pipa Small Muscle Group" to give the audience a closer view of contemporary pipa (琵琶; Chinese lute) perspectives.The second aspect I'd like to talk about is the sparks created when artists cross over into different music genres and performing art forms. An example of genre crossover is C-Camerata Taipei, an ensemble that plays a mix of Chinese and Western music, founded by Chao-Ming Tung, Yin Chiang, and Hui-Kuan Lin. Their repertoire is a mix of Western classical and Eastern traditional pieces, and they actively commission new compositions to promote in-depth discourse and exploration regarding Chinese and Western music. For example, Chih-Liang Lin's Parallelism is one of the commissioned compositions. Inspired by physical movements involved in instrument playing, the composer observed the similarities and differences in hand movements used to play the zheng, pipa, percussions, and the cello to construct a dual combination of visual and audio experiences. Embodying both classic and novel ideas, the concert DongXi-DongXi: Exploration between the West and the East featured renowned pieces by Western avant-garde composers Luciano Berio and John Cage, as well as the world premiere of two compositions by Chao-Ming Tung and Klaus Ager, President of the European Composers' Forum, respectively.As for interdisciplinary collaboration, some think of it in terms of "addition"—adding elements of other performing arts into concerts to create a sort of musical theater. Others dive deeper into self-analysis and reconstruction, creating more organic integrations with other art forms. For instance, Gu-Fang Contemporary Art of Zheng and Goodoo Puppet Troupe teamed up to create Bloom of Zai Tun, a zheng music theater show with a vivid storyline that combines puppetry and iconic zheng music. XinXin Nanguan Ensemble's Contemporary Nanguan Land Project II—Encountering Childhood in Lize and Nanguan & A Cappella are performances created by integrating shadow puppetry and a cappella singing, respectively, injecting new energy into Nanguan (南管; a style of Chinese classical music from the southern Chinese province of Fujian) music through profound crossover exchanges and solid field research. In Eat Dirt, performed by Bare Feet Dance Theatre, music creator Tzi-Mei Li fully dismantles Beiguan (北管; a type of traditional music, melody and theatrical performance dating to the Qing dynasty) music, composing pieces through repeated deconstruction, reorganization, and transformation. The music, together with the fluid movements of the dancers, reshapes people's experience of the land.It is also worth noting that a lot of organizations, both in contemporary Guoyue and inter-disciplinary arts, have devoted efforts to cultivate young composers' ability to compose Guoyue music. TimeArt Studio's Forgotten Voices workshop invited young composers from China, South Korea, Taiwan, and the U.S. to revisit their own cultural traditions, find inspiration for contemporary composition, and co-create with performers to develop ideas into complete musical works. Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra's Cross-Culture Chamber Music Creative Workshop invited well-known Taiwanese and foreign composers such as Hwang-Long Pan, Shih-Hui Chen, Ching-Wen Chao, and Kurt Stallmann as lecturers to teach students how to compose music for traditional Chinese instruments and enhance their interdisciplinary creativity.The last aspect I wish to tackle in this article is the presentation of Guoyue on the international stage. This usually manifests as individuals or groups being invited to perform at music festivals or attend research and creative events organized by prominent music institutions. The former allows performers to express their own voices more freely and completely, while the latter incorporates different views, forming transnational cultural conversations. There are many instances of these two types of international exchanges. Here are a few interesting examples:Sheng (笙; Chinese free reed wind instrument) player Li-Chin Li has been very active in the European music scene in recent years. In 2022, she became the guest musician of the French contemporary orchestra Ensemble Linea and performed with the orchestra at the Ruhrtriennale music festival in Germany. She also participated in Tout Pour la Musique Contemporaine's research project SHENG! 2018-2023, in which she made demonstrations of improvisation, premiered new works, and assisted in IRCAM's acoustic research to enhance the visibility of the sheng in the West. Dizi and xiao player Hsiao-Feng Lin explores the traditional and avant-garde, national and world music, blurring the boundaries between different types of music and expanding the scope of traditional music. He participated in the Kuala Lumpur Experimental Film, Video & Music Festival (KLEX) with pianist Shih-Yang Lee and visual artist Yun-Yen Chuang, where they had in-depth exchanges with local artists and students and did improvised performances together. After returning to Taiwan, they held the Pearls of the Southern Island, Gazing at the Moment concert to share their experiences and insights from the festival with melophiles. In this example, Guoyue and experimental art blended seamlessly, showing its most grassroots side.Whether central or peripheral, avant-garde experimental or popular, genre-exclusive or crossover art, domestic or international, regardless of whether the artists mentioned above incorporate Guoyue or traditional music into their self-identity, they are all unsatisfied with the status quo and strive to break through the framework of the genre, delighted to explore boundaries. Such diverse musical practices infinitely expand the future possibilities of Guoyue.*Translator: Linguitronics
2024.06.14
Article | FOCUS
Starting with the Senses
Since the pandemic began, masks seem to have become people’s second layer of skin, and some may even feel strange when breathing in unfiltered air when they take off their masks. Alain Corbin, a prominent figure in the history of sensibilities, mentioned in The Foul and the Fragrant that when sanitation began to improve in France by the late 18th century, people’s perceptions and interpretations of scents and smells also started to change, and different scents and smells also began to hold various social implications. Our senses are how we learn about the world, and from wearing an alluring perfume, impressing on the skin a meaningful tattoo, or exploring tantalizing foods, humans conjure up an image of the world through the various gestures and actions we take.  Writings about scents and smells are peculiarly rare, and this is perhaps due to the unique challenges that come with describing them. Taiwanese writer, Lin Wei-Chen, published her second collection of prose at the end of 2022, and in this book titled Lemon Age (青檸色時代), the smell of mixed spices on a Thai restaurant server is described as “being covered in dazzling jewels from head to toe”; and the nonstop sneezes caused by allergy during the change of season are interpreted as prophetic for being the first to sense the changes in the environment. Captivating words are used to depict the moments when various senses, memories, and fantasies manifest themselves.Compared to scents and smells, writings about sound are more ubiquitous, as suggested by the different onomatopoeia words available, such as “gurgling river,” “chirping birds,” or “rustling leaves.” Sound seems to have formed a unique class of its own in the realm of words. Fushan & Taipingshan by French sound artist, Yannick Dauby, presents a sound narrative comprised of sounds collected throughout many years from the mountains and forests in northeastern Taiwan and also interviews with people who are familiar with the local ecosystem. The medley of sounds from that particular space-time are gathered into this collaborative work co-published with Atelier Hui-Kan, and it brings nature and life’s vitality into our ears.Some critiques have linked Cézanne’s influence on the development of Modern Art to his change in vision. In the present day, the human race’s dependence or trust on the sense of sight seems to have amplified. Chen Kuan-Yu, a critic who has focused extensively on visual images, is the author behind a project that examines the research and writings of photography criticism, with Chen re-critiquing and writing about other critical essays on photography, which he refers to as “dialogical art criticism.” The project covers various styles of photography, including war photography, street photography, animal photography, and ruins photography, and using a variety of perspectives to discuss and analyze photography, the project puts this art form that relies solely on visual experiences back under the spotlight of art criticism.  Each Modern Gallery has also long been dedicated to the research, exhibition, and promotion of photography. The gallery presented a solo exhibition of the prominent photographer, Ishiuchi Miyako, last year (2022). Born in post-war Japan, Ishiuchi Miyako’s photography focuses on the human body, documenting marks on people’s skin caused by time or war (wrinkles and scars) or remnants of things that were once attached to someone’s skin (lipsticks and clothes). The tactile sensations triggered by the sense of sight and the accompanying emotions and pain that envelop one’s body re-elucidate that photography is an art of space and time.People’s sense of taste is pervaded by socialization, as we choose to gather over meals for celebrations and make food offerings to show faith and devotion. In the exhibition, DisOrder Exhibition/in Order, the curator Hsu Fong-Ray ingeniously transformed the Hong-gah Museum and a store of the Order System Furniture Company, two completely different spaces, into the exhibition’s sites. Included in the exhibition were the lemon liquor made by Huang Po-Chih for his project, Five Hundred Lemon Trees, and other artworks, such as Snail Dishes Interview Program: Highway No. 9. by Chang En-Man. With people’s taste buds at the center of focus, audience members were invited to savor the stories of different food cultures. As we now see pandemic-related restrictions lifting and mask mandates being eased, have the human senses and perceptions remained the same as before the pandemic? Complex external stimuli allow for life’s features and substance to accrue, and if we are sensitive and attentive enough, each sensory encounter may become the next novel phenomenon. *Translator: Hui-Fen Anna Liao
2024.05.30
Article | FOCUS
Gazing at Landscapes: Visual Map of Ethnic and Cultural History
Taiwan is an island nation located at the intersection between the Pacific Ocean and the Eurasian Plate. Ethnic migration, trade and commerce, and strategic importance endow it with a unique, irreplaceable value. Combined with pleasant climate, a geography that ranges from high mountains to plains, ocean to rivers, abundant crops and aquatic foods, and historical twists and turns, these make Taiwan an excellent place for human habitation. Various regimes have ruled Taiwan at different times since the beginning of its recorded history, with different ethnic groups farming and developing the land, leaving behind a heterogeneous landscape across the island nation."Landscapes" are the product of interactions between peoples and the environment, a sensory feast amidst everyday life. Ruins and objects unearthed in different places since prehistory tell stories forgotten by texts. For instance, Modern Poetry Creation Project of Local Archaeological Remains and Cultural History in Taiwan by Kai-Wen Tsai uses modern poems to incorporate and transmit several discoveries of cultural significance in Taiwan's literary tradition: the Liangdao Man found in the Matsu Islands, which subverted our conception of the Austronesian peoples' antiquity; the Chuping Archaeological Site in Nantou, evocative of myth and legend; and the ancient pottery and stoneware excavated in Changhua's Niupu Site.Other than Austronesian culture buried underground, the Tao (Yami) people stand out among the 16 officially recognized indigenous peoples in Taiwan for their close relation to the sea. The Survey Project of Traditional Cultural Landmarks in Pongso no Tao (Orchid Island) by Ching-Hsien Wang and Tao (Yami) Traditional Residence Survey and Research by the Ding-Zi-Ku Culture Arts and Humanities Studio studied the Iraraley and Ivalino indigenous communities in Pongso no Tao (Orchid Island), respectively. Their work consisted mainly of compiling traditional place names, surveying traditional ceremonies and residence construction materials and techniques, and interviewing traditional residence craftsmen. The goal is to document the island's culture in detail to help it gain more attention. In addition to the ocean, in History Written by Forests and Mountains—'Taipingshan Literary Periodical' Research Writing Project, Yi-Fen Chung goes through every branch and leaf in Taipingshan's forests, comprehensively and meticulously piecing together the literary landscape of the forestry industry and forest resources through literary creation.Prehistory and the journey of the Austronesian peoples overlap in historical memories, lingering amidst the sea and mountains. The river of history widened its banks after Han Chinese people began to cross the "Black Ditch" to settle Taiwan in the Qing era. 'Kong-Tshu' Buildings in the Daofeng Inner Sea and Taikang Inner Sea Area by Song-Di Huang, Study Exploring the Hakka Map and Cultural Formation in the Greater Tainan Area by Shiu-Chao Lin, and Development History of Hakka People in the Laonong River Basin—Using Liugui and Taoyuan as Examples by Shiu-Chao Lin describe how after migrating from their ancestral homes, the Hoklo and Hakka peoples brought their religious beliefs and daily habits to Taiwan, adapting them to local conditions. The hard work of later immigrants to Taiwan is also an inextricable part of this land's history.Taiwan grew in diversity in the Japanese colonial era and even after World War II due to different political and economic reasons. Shared Spaces, Diverse Memories: Exploring the Cultural Landscape of the Nanjing Sugar Refinery by Yun-Ju Chen and Lost Underground Memories: Oral History Survey and Geographic Inventory of Miners in Houtong's Mining Industry by Yi-Ni Lee examine abandoned industrial sites and complexes to gather the stories of diligent blue-collar workers, whose arduous work propelled Taiwan's economic development and gradually built the progressive zeitgeist. In Urban Imagination and Reconception: Representation of 'Cities' in Taiwan's 1960s Films, Yen-Hsuan Huang shows a different perspective, reflecting on urban imagery in cinema: is it as beautiful as most imagine, or is it merely a financial report representing the power struggle of capitalists?Whenever you admire a sight in a corner—a tapestry of Taiwan's history, try to imagine the sweat and tears that went behind the interaction of ethnic groups and nature. Every moment, keep in mind the sustenance that the land of Taiwan provides us.*Translator: Linguitronics
2024.05.15
Article | FOCUS
Light Hidden in the Cracks
"The wind blew her down a crack in the city. There are soil and dust inside the crack. Outside though, one has to endure rain and snow. She makes this tiny crack her home, laying down roots and shooting forth branches. The water of desire nourishes her. A flower then emerges through the crack." —From Desire, Taipei Prose Creation Project by Ping-Gui LiangThis group of women hide behind veils of shadow, only appearing faintly in the dim light, tending lonely souls lost in the darkness. Light the Night brought a large audience's attention to Japanese-style hostess clubs and projected people's fantasies about the adult service sector onto the TV screen. Surrounded by lavish settings and exquisitely dressed women, merry customers raise their cups as they indulge in make-believe love. Viewers also sink into the illusory and transient pleasure of hostess club culture.Harsh Reality Behind a Veil of NeonWearing dazzling outfits, some hostesses even adopt a "no touch" policy, confident in their looks and talents. Earning a high income by working only a few hours appears possible. In reality, most hostesses choose this job due to difficulties encountered in life or unfortunate events from the past. The documentary The Lost Days was shortlisted at the Women Make Waves International Film Festival. It relates the childhood of director Kawah Umei, the separation of her parents, and her relationship with her mother, who left by herself to work at a Japanese-style hostess club in Taipei. Perhaps it was nearly taboo to discuss the occupation of one's mother in society of the time. No one dared to touch on the topic. That's why at the age of 30, Kawah Umei began to use filmmaking as a way to dialogue with her former self and her mother, a kind of self-confessional journey.Most workers in the host and hostess entertainment industry are women. Nonetheless, there are still a few host clubs and gay bars, and drag shows have risen in popularity in recent years. Television presenter Chia-Chia Peng was invited to perform the role of the female protagonist Li-Ching in the musical The Last Night of Beauty Karaoke written by Jie Zhan. Despite the actor is biologically male, the script centers on a woman. Thanks to Peng's profound grasp of the female psyche, he manages to portray Li-Ching as a charming, gentle mama-san (a woman in charge of a hostess club) well-versed in the ways of the world. He also brings some comic relief and allure to the play. Li-Ching divorces her husband upon discovering he has an affair and sets out to the northern city of Keelung, where she works as a hostess to make a living. She eventually starts her own business, the Li-Ching Karaoke. As a woman, she acts as the emotional pillar of many people, casting away her loneliness to support her friends and customers. She is a kind and steadfast motherly figure. Even when complaining, her words might seem rude or vulgar at first, but are spoken in a nonchalant voice and concluded with a giggle.Desire, a Side Effect of Urban HistoryThe hostess clubs on Linsen North Road and teahouses in Wanhua District are the most well-known venues for adult services in modern-day Taipei. Li-Ling Yang grew up in Wanhua District, known historically as Bangka. Yang turned her memories from Bangka into the novel Cha-Cha-Cha of Lovely Flowers in Bangka (艋舺戀花恰恰恰). Fact and fiction dance together in this story of murder—who is that prostitute, the most mysterious and gorgeous in all of Bangka? As shrouds of mist clear up, grief and injury are revealed. History, power, and desire intertwine to build the novel's fantasy world, but this intricate web also tells the truth of Bangka's past.It was around the reign of the Daoguang Emperor in the Qing era that first Bangka and then Twatutia became the largest commercial hubs in northern Taiwan. As a matter of course, taverns and brothels came to abound in these areas. Geisha culture was imported from Japan to Taiwan in the Japanese colonial era, leading to the birth of Taiwanese-born geisha entertainers. The Korean war erupted soon after the retreat of the Republic of China's Nationalist government to Taiwan. Taiwan then signed a mutual assistance treaty with the United States and U.S. troops began to be stationed in Taiwan. Thanks to preferential treatment by local governments and the abundant financial resources available to U.S. soldiers, adult-rated clubs and bars sprouted up like weeds in Taipei. Fang-Yu Shih's Sedan Chairs, Ox Carts and Vespas: Four Centuries of Love in Taiwan traces the changes in romantic views across four centuries of Taiwan's history, from Dutch Formosa to the Internet era, including the evolution of prostitution in Taiwan.Women who provide sexual services have went by many names in the past, "yujos", "geishas", "comfort women", "attendants", "waitresses", "tea girls", "liquor house girls", "bar girls", "licensed sex workers", and so forth. Their identity and social position has also varied with each era. Artist Orlando Mengwen Huang has long been interested in gender equality studies. In her solo exhibition and research project Herstory under the flying flag, she explored the role of women who served their nation by offering their bodies, from the Japanese colonial era to the post-Cold War period in Taiwan. We might never know their real names; their pseudonyms are all that's left. Their trade was associated with moral dirtiness and lechery in the past. Their true identities and contributions have been forgotten by history despite their sacrifices for their country.Female Body as Political CapitalA survey across history will easily show us that subduing the female body has often been a means for the "other" to reach their goal, beyond the social or political sphere. Comfort women easily come to mind when discussing women's historical sexual exploitation. This was a form of sexual slavery instituted to provide Japanese soldiers with a sexual outlet. Most comfort women came from Japan or Japan's colonies across Asia. Inred Liang wrote the script The Dress of Queen Mary inspired on the Japanese comfort woman Yokohama Mary. Fictional and real-life Mary only wished to be a regular girl, a plain Jane who would marry and have children like every other woman. Never did she imagine that history would scar her for life. She would wear a white dress and puff her face with a thick layer of white every day, nonetheless, pining for her lover from the past. Silence was her means of resisting such cruel, cold-blooded reality.World War II also gave rise to an incident dubbed "Tokyo Rose": Japan hired female English-speaking radio broadcasters to make propaganda that would demoralize U.S. troops in the Pacific. In sweet, sultry voices, these women would narrate wartime incidents, tell stories, and play popular music, all to glorify the Japanese government. Ting-Jung Chen's solo exhibition Harmonielehre is based on this historical happening. The piece If She Is Not Sitting in the Room assembled popular songs sung by women in 1930-70 that served as political propaganda and turned them into an immersive visual and aural space. The Chinese title of the exhibition, "諧波失真" (xiebo shizhen), means "harmonic distortion" and refers to the physical phenomenon where audio waves are rendered inaccurately due to incomplete transformation of a signal in the process of sound amplification. The most astonishing thing is that such shortcomings and distortion make listeners feel a sense of warmth and ease when manifested in the vocalization of women, creating false contentment through alteration and deviation.Back to the Present to Contemplate the FutureTeahouses in Wanhua District were at the center of heated discussion during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021. In June 2022, the last legal brothel in Taiwan, Tientienle, closed its doors due to waning business in face of the pandemic. Taiwan's sex industry can now be said to be entirely underground and illegal. Located in Datong District, Taipei City, Wenmenglou is a city-designated historic site with great historical significance to Taiwan's sex industry. It began operating as a museum in May of the same year. According to Reminiscence: 2021 Guidebook for Wenmenglou, Old Brothel and City-Designated Historic Site on Guisui Street, Wenmenglou was built in the 1930s during the Japanese colonial period and eventually became a bordello around 1941. It is most iconic for its role in the movement against the illegalization of sex work in 1997—it served as the base for those fighting to protect the rights of sex workers. Guisui Street, where Wenmenglou still stands today, used to house a large number of brothels. The recognition of Wenmenglou's historical value also shines a hope that in the future, widespread prejudice against sex and sex workers can be dispelled, thus promoting gender equality and sex education.Many traditional adult service venues have fallen prey to natural selection and perished in recent years. Yet this should not be misunderstood: sexual desire will not vanish alongside legal restrictions imposed. This type of behavior will continue to take place under the radar. Ping-Gui Liang's Desire, Taipei Prose Creation Project describes the five most popular divisions of Taiwan's sex industry from a second-person perspective. The writer takes readers into the dark alleys of the city from the perspective of a male customer and a procurer, not shying away from that dimmest of lights. The male protagonist in the story seeks information and contacts relevant people through social media sites and platforms. Business owners and sex workers have also developed unique online jargon in order to dodge law enforcement officers, and their workplaces have attack and defense strategies to deal with police searches. The forms of sex work evolve constantly with the times. What hasn't changed is its enduring position as something out of public sight, unable to be faced positively. The absence of clear labor laws in the sex industry also places workers at greater risk of unreasonable treatment and exploitation. Even if the law stipulates that prostitution is permitted in "special zones", implementation has been bumpy, to put it mildly.The fight for gender equality in present-day Taiwan is not a clamorous struggle as before. It seeks peaceful and rational communication instead. This is highlighted by our exploration of more complex modes of gender, sexual preference, and gender identity. It teaches us that our conceptions will very likely shift with the passing of time. People's way of satisfying their sexual desire is also transforming, yielding all sorts of new methods and tools, such as social media, dating apps, and so forth. These are already a matter of personal choice, an extension of one's free will, as we seek to maintain a balance between daily life, emotions, and desire. The differences between people sometimes give rise to stereotypes inadvertently. It cannot be helped. Our duty is to contemplate how to avoid the distortion of facts that leads to radical, prejudiced views, either in our day-to-day or inside the digital world. Understanding will enable us to accept the diversity and complexity of life in this world.Further Readings"Questioning Ideal and Reality Amidst Distortion and Deviation: Harmonielehre Ting Jung Chen Solo Exhibition", NCAF Online Magazinehttps://mag.ncafroc.org.tw/article_detail.html?id=297ef7227cc60ebf017cdebdbda50001A Cliché Play Tailor-Made for Actor Chia-Chia Peng—Revisiting Nostalgia in The Last Night of Beauty Karaoke, NCAF Online Magazinehttps://pareviews.ncafroc.org.tw/?p=74274*Translator: Linguitronics
2023.09.08
Article | FOCUS
Logging in: the Immersive Experience (beta)
Our everyday life is a comfort zone built on a long accumulation of habits, interpersonal network, spaces of our daily life, ways of moving, financial status, and cultural environment, whereas theatre and exhibition spaces (or similar ritualistic visits to specific places) offer a possibility for us to experience the unordinary.  The MRT Daqiaotou Station is located at one end of the historic Dadaocheng area and close to the hustling and bustling Yangsan Night Market, while between them is where DaQiao 1988 – An Immersive Outdoor Theatrical Performance Project by The Double Theatre quietly took place. The participants were requested to download an app on their phones and follow the guidance to certain locations for the stories of Daqiaotou to unfold. Through the headphones and the chosen scenes, the tour performance reconstructs what the community was like in 1988 in terms of its inhabitants/immigrants, industries, and local clans. The actors on-site remain silent like the ghosts haunting the area as they reenact the slices of the past events, either leaving mysterious traces or solving clues. At the end of the performance, the actors recite the transcribed interviews of the local in a plain and non-acting tone, shifting the spectators back to the present time with a gap of two decades and to what they began as, an outsider indeed.   Apart from being a major arterial road, Jianguo Expressway is more associated with the nearby Zhongshan Girls High School, Jianguo Brewery, Holiday Flower and Jade Market, and the nostalgic old-style Japanese bars by the citizens, while the space beneath the expressway takes up different functions, including markets, parking lots, taxi drivers’ club, gas stations, etc.  Neither on the bridge nor under the bridge is the place for one to stay, but the curatorial team of OFF-SITE think otherwise to base their Bridge Hole project here. Following their previous residential research supported by the NCAF’s “Production Grants to Independent Curators in Visual Arts,” the curatorial team invited artists to present project-based creations (“all kinds of relational practices and art interventions”), aiming to stimulate possible or unexpected reactions to the existing spaces and communities under the bridge. The works include FAMEME’s earworm Rub a Dub Charlie's Angel in the Tub as a response to the taxi drivers’ club, the “pān-toh” feast (the Taiwanese traditional catering implicative of a sense of community) at the market’s Fude Temple with food provided by an old stall for both the artists and other vendors to dine together, the fictional urban development plan Jianba Secret Love which devises a luxurious future for the downtown area as an ironic contradiction with the leftover spaces here, and many other projects, taking place in its closing hours, transforming the market space and objects here into a different exhibition to create a mixed experience – aurally, visually, and physically evoking a bizarre and lingering sense of “intrinsic foreignness” (after all, it is a market, not an exhibition space!) as the audience walk around the place.     Unlike the abovementioned projects taking place in public spaces, Housing Things: Compilations, Gatherings, and Practices Shared in An Art Space curated by Tsou Ting, with the grant from the “Curator's Incubator Program @ Museum” project, went to the old military kindred village in Fuzhou, where a small group of local residents scatter to share the neighborhood with The 9 Art Practice Space and the NTUA Art Village. When it comes to the living spaces and the houses of the area, the artists are outsiders who temporarily own the spaces; when they face the spectators, the artists on the other hand become the host to welcome and treat the guests with their artworks, while the spectators in terms walk into the familiar but yet strange spaces (the residence now taking up the role as an exhibition medium), like a carpeted comfy living room/gallery, to experience the switch between the private sphere and public spaces as well as the hospitality without the real host.   In Home away from home – an interdisciplinary multinational collaboration among Taiwan, Germany and Vietnam by Polymer DMT, supported by the NCAF’s The Rainbow Initiative, the spectators are divided into groups and led into the stage settings, which reconstruct different spaces of the life of the Vietnamese immigrant communities in Germany and Taiwan, such as the cramped bunk-bed accommodation for migrant factory workers in Taiwan, the long desks in Mandarin classroom, the restaurants and street juice stalls run by the Vietnamese immigrants in Germany, or the pure white space expressing warmth and love for baby delivering. Every setting has a “host,” taken up by the immigrants or migrant workers, whose real-life stories are shown in a short documentary or staged as live performance, while the spectators are thus allowed to face-to-face encounter a chapter of someone’s life (a real person rather than an actor or character) in an intimate but yet objective way. When they return to their seats, the visible scenes (as revealed voluntarily) what they have just experienced shift from the previous semidocumentary status to be gazed onstage again.Sometimes, the immersive experience can be alienating through its implicative physical surroundings. Such a perspective drifting above the reality when one is “logging in” creates an ambiguous space as seen in the projects/programs on Chito APP, which continuously evoke the most private and unique memories corresponding to specific moments.  The increasingly popular Chito APP is an application designed by Jimmy Chang and has been widely used in audio and sound walks in recent years since Jimmy launched its first project Those Days When the Young People Gathered at the Legislative Yuan, followed by works by Actorship and Uncertain Studio as well as a series of programs under the 2022 Human Rights Arts Festival.  Every work features a different experience and use of multimedia in accordance with its topic and narrative, while the script also activates different real-time physical senses, such as the assurance when someone is being alone but connected to the phone, the novelty when a familiar space is given different lens, or the scare when someone accidentally gets into a strange space by mistake.  Auntie & Uncle by Actorship, an art and creative project for older adults supported by the NCAF’s Inclusive Arts project grant, is one of the examples using Chito APP as its medium to base its performance structure on Ximending, where it took place. After taking performance classes and workshop, the senior amateur actors staged several scenes from the famous Shakespeare plays, and the video of the scenes would be unlocked in certain ways with clues from the place or the plot, such as: you had to choose the photos containing lions to unlock an episode of King Lear at Golden Lion Cantonese Restaurant, enter the corresponding fortune stick number to listen to the scheme of Lady Macbeth (now in charge of the Divine Empress Temple), go to Fengta Café for the story of Romeo and Juliet, or the old-established Lautianlu Braised Food for The Taming of The Shrew (now the Lady Boss of the shop), etc. The localized Shakespeare stories are like a friendly greeting to the audience. When the performance is over and the audience is not wearing the headphone anymore, they can feel a new connection with the place and keep it in their memory.    Meanwhile, Taiwan Historical Trails Sound Narrative Project – Road to Kavalan 1.0 by Uncertain Studio chose the northeastern Lungling Trail between Tsaoling and Shihcheng to develop their storyline, inviting participators to take the trail and imagine how the ancestors followed the same trail (a part of the longer one) to build new settlement in the wildland of Kavalan (the ancient name of Yilan). The ancient journey of the pioneers is not enacted by the information from the script, but how your body reacts to the spreading spider webs, the silver grass almost as tall as a person, the sometimes steep and narrow path and the tension caused by the unknown (the notice “the beehive has been removed” at the starting point of the trail seems to suggest the possible threat of bees along the way), and the videos unlocked at the assigned locations, meanwhile perfect for a short break, become the rewards for your hard work and physical effort.  For today’s travelers/spectators who no longer bear the burden of new settlement, the trail itself as well as its landscape and soundscape clearly make a gift derived from the project.     Open the google map and enter a location, you can easily find the ways as a pedestrian and know the space through MRT stations, roads, streets, or bus stops. We pass by the leftover spaces under the bridge, the old streets separated by traffic lanes, or the neighborhood outside the tourist map, seeing these “spaces” as spectacles in our gaze, whereas they are also “places” where other people live their lives. With all these different topics explored in different formats, it is still impossible to know whether we know more about someone, some ethnic group, some space, some place, or some issue – so let us keep trying and keep logging in! *Translator: Siraya Pai
2023.08.30
Article | CASE STUDY
From a Muggle in Documentary Making to An Experienced Fighter in International Pitching: A study on the NCAF’s Creative Documentary Film Project in the Case of XiXi
In the beginning of 2022, I received a message from the National Culture and Arts Foundation (NCAF) inviting me, along with other professionals, as observers on their grant project, the Creative Documentary Film Project, and asking us to write down our observations on each case as assigned from a different and non-institutionalized perspective reflecting on the artists and the ecosystem they inhabit. The invitation was certainly a rare and interesting opportunity for a writer like me, not only with an academic training in anthropology but a lasting curiosity about the production of documentary and filmmaking. Since long time ago, my work had been mostly about selecting films for festivals or writing film reviews, while the intersection between filmmakers and me only took place in the final stage of its production process or after its completion when the films were ready to be submitted to festivals. Consequently, I was less familiar with all the possible difficulties in its making. The mission to write about it thus becomes a precious practice which does not expect an one-sided analysis and observation but encourages a dialogue between the observers and documentary makers.  I was paired up with Fan WU, a documentary maker around my age. We had met before, and the first time was in a documentary workshop organized by Taiwan Women’s Film Association, where we were in different groups and working on different documentary subjects, so we did not have a chance to know each other more. After that, we took on different journeys in life and career – Wu went to Europe to study documentary making while I joined the teams of Taiwan International Documentary Festival and Taipei Film Festival as a film selector and critic. Although we both remained in the film circles, but certainly in different positions and indifferent stages of filmmaking. When Wu finished her studies and returned to Taiwan, I was about to move to Holland, and our paths crossed again in some casual occasion with our common friends. We had a brief conversation, asking about what happened in life and about the future plans which were still in a vague shape.  After that, I knew her mostly through her work, such as how she founded Svemirko Film with her graduate school friends, produced the documentary Last Days at Sea (2021) which I liked very much, wrote a solid article “Walking with the Unknown – A Realization on the Road from a Muggle in the Documentary World” for the NCAF Online Magazine, and many more. When she was not making documentaries, she was still doing documentary-related job, and her concerns extended to include how we could improve the environment for documentary making. Perhaps it was her sociologist background which had broadened her vision to investigate the whole production ecosystem, while her experience in Europe had given her access to introducing international resources to Taiwanese documentary making.  The fact is: most of the Taiwanese documentary makers are the lone warrior in their own battlefield, taking on multiple roles from production to public screening without the necessary teamwork especially in its breeding stage, the most crucial among all. Their sources of funds are often limited, mainly from the government support, and strictly regulated to avoid the overlap between the Ministry of Culture, the NCAF, Taiwan Creative Content Agency (TAICCA) and Taiwan Public Television Service Foundation (PTS Foundation) in one single project — not to mention these four major institutions in terms of the government financial support have their respective rules. In an immature industry in lack of investment or sponsorship from the private sectors (or they may have a specific interest when it comes to investing a documentary), independent documentary makers are not left with many choices when looking for sufficient resources and support domestically. What matters the most is the lack of experience sharing – on the one hand, there are not enough platforms of openness, transparency and stability for documentary makers to exchange their ideas; on the other hand, the TV and filmmaking industry in today’s Taiwan pressures the documentary makers to learn to survive before really thinking about how to find a balance between the commissioned commercial documentary projects and their own creations. None of it is easy.  XiXi, the documentary feature project in production, is such an adventure of the director WU, starting from her experience as a Taiwanese documentary maker to challenge the limitations of the domestic documentary production system, to extend the international documentary-making network and to connect with the resources of the global documentary scenes. My observations, meanwhile, started when WU finished most of the shooting and focused on her another trip to France in the summer of 2022 for some pick-ups, and the article was completed when she was still editing the documentary.    The main subject in the documentary is an improvisation artist from China, the free and untamed XiXi, who travels from one European city to another like a nomad, performing improvisationally in the streets. The documentary continues to depict how she deals with a failed transnational marriage, the loss of visitation rights, her immigrant status and many other real-life problems, while it also touches upon the unsolved family issue with her mom and its lingering impact on her relationship with her daughter Nina like a Karma passed down. As the director as well as a friend being part of XiXi’s life journey, WU saw XiXi, a female artist from the same generation, as her “window to freedom” – it was in 2018, when WU finished her studies and returned to Taiwan, trying to set free from the conflict between her real life and the dream in art/filmmaking. XiXi had a soul of an artist living fully in the moment with total abandon, which was something WU had been longing for but did not have the courage to follow.   However, when WU started the documentary project and used it as an “excuse” to pursue a life of freedom in France, she found XiXi suffocated by the bitter reality.  XiXi is a documentary on the Chinese improvisation artist XiXi and how her untamed artistic soul has a clash with the social reality. (Courtesy of Fan WU) From the first draft we have of XiXi, we not only see the story of the nomad artist but also how WU, another artist with the same defiance and abandon running in her blood, tries to find an answer. In her eyes, XiXi is the embodiment of both her dream and fear, but just like that the Moon has two sides, and its light and dark sides coexist to manifest each other. Through her documentary project, WU seems to join in the journey of XiXi to search for the answers for all the troubles in life.  Since 2018, WU has presented her documentary project XiXi to different international film festival pitch events, forums and workshops to physically experience and experiment how an independent documentary maker can find a way to deal with the limitations in practice. She finds the strength from the global documentary-making communities as she finds her own voice, making it clear that the act of documentary making may create a space to more extensively connect the individuals scattered around the world.  Fortunately, WU has relatively more experience in international pitch events and workshops with her XiXi than most of the Taiwanese documentaries, including Docs Port Incheon Asian Documentary Project Market in Korea, Doc Edge Kolkata in India,  the workshop AsiaDoc with an emphasis on documentary script-writing, the incubative CIRCLE Women Doc Accelerator for female documentary makers, DOK Leipzig Co-pro Market in Germany for co-production, DOCS-IN-PROGRESS (Cannes Doc) in France, the art-in-residence workshop at Yamagata Documentary Dojo in Japan, and Rotterdam Lab in the Netherlands again in early 2023. Other pitch events in Taiwan include Taipei Film Academy–Filmmakers Workshop organized by Taipei Film Commission where she attended as a film producer and the editing workshop under the NCAF’s Documentary Partnership Project where she participated as the director of XiXi. Fan WU in the editing workshop under the NCAF’s Documentary Partnership Project. For WU, all these domestic or international pitch events and workshops provided different kinds of support to the production of XiXi in their respective ways. The exchange with the professionals in the industry brought new and exciting ideas to the content, contributed to the establishment of a functional work model and network, optimized the résumé of the project to make it more attractive, as it might also lead to the practical financial support. It is how you find resources and discover different possibilities for your project.  However, it does not mean that if you attend more international pitch events, you will get better reward. Quite on the contrary, it can be very time-consuming as it requires a lot of preparation from submitting your application to really attending it, and you often receive a huge amount of unfiltered advice about your project. If you fail to find a balance between external opinions and internal needs, you may easily suffer a blow to your confidence and get confused about which direction you should be going. Therefore, the documentary makers need to figure out what they really need in each stage and which pitch events or workshops provide it, asking questions about the mentor list (what network can you develop from it?), format (does it have a more intensive or looser schedule? Who are the other participants you expect to see in the same event?), and its role in the industry (what it emphasizes? Is it about script-writing, pitch and development, editing, post-production, or market fit?), which can help you to make a useful decision to select the right events.  Up till 2019, WU had accumulated a significant amount of footage for XiXi, including the video diary made by XiXi of her relationship with the daughter taken since 2011 apart from the shots of XiXi by WU. At that point, she had already made the decision to turn XiXi’s story into a documentary feature and brought the project to several international pitch events, but it was a battle “out of her league,” said WU, for that she was not sure about the best way of its storytelling. Therefore, AsiaDoc Creative Documentary Storytelling Workshop could be what she needed, as it certainly did. At AsiaDoc, WU went through the process of organization and composition together with the guest mentors from teasing out the materials she had, developing a timeline, and to constructing a possible storyline built on the materials. The footage for XiXi includes the video diary made by XiXi since 2011 of her relationship with the daughter Nina and their growth. (Courtesy of Fan WU)     Her experience at AsiaDoc greatly inspired her to reidentify her position in the film, such as the relation between the camera and the subject, between the documentary and its director, or her relationship with XiXi. In the initial stage of her shooting, she refused to be filmed and took on the role as an objective outsider instead to document XiXi’s life, but the mentors at AsiaDoc asked the crucial question concerning the problematiques of her work: “why do you always put XiXi and her daugher on the frontier (of shooting) whereas you cowardly hide behind a camera? You do have your questions in mind and try to investigate by making a documentary, right?” In documentary making, the camera is not only the “fly on the wall” while the director has to futher think about their relatioship with the story and subject (person), asking questions such as “why they story needs me to tell it.” From this perspective, documentary indeed requires a dramaturgical training and thinking. After AsiaDoc, WU began to conceive several scenes and invited XiXi to join in the process together, where their interaction in front of the camera was filmed. She also tried to script her first-person narration as a voice-over of the video. In spite of her lack of courage/intention to make such atemtps before, they did work very well when she gave it a try as if finding the missing piece to make the documentary more alive. Stepping out of the comfort zone was not as difficult as she had expected – with a smile on her face, WU shared with us this recent realization and her newfound courage which she had gradually learned in pitch events and workshops. From a director hiding behind the camera, she now also becomes the subject in front of it. XiXi is not just about XiXi’s story, but a journey of both WU and XiXi to explore the meaning of life and to make inquiries.  From the first draft we have of XiXi, the documentary is not just about the story of XiXi but how WU, another artist of an untamed spirit, makes inquiries. (Courtesy of Fan WU) International pitch events and workshops are not only the places to creatively inspire documentary makers and to give advice on developing a production model, they are also the impotant means to look for possible international collaboration and financial support. Apart from prive investment and sponsorship, the sources of funds for documentary making in Taiwan mainly comes from the four major public institutions — the Ministry of Culture, the NCAF, TAICCA, and PTS Foundation – with strict regulations that there cannot be an overlap to fund the same project, while each institution has its own rules and the amount of money is never enough. Reasonably, WU has her eye on international funds to make her XiXi happen.  The problem is, being a Taiwanese usually means that you will not have many opportunities to apply for the funding and grants in Europe (see “Walking with the Unknown – A Realization on the Road from a Muggle in the Documentary World” by WU), while being an emerging director without a convincing résumé also makes it more difficult, if not impossible, to directly jump into the market and seek investors. If you are thinking about international co-production, you should make sure that a certain percentage of your funding comes from domestic resources, otherwise you may get yourself into trouble with the negotiation with international producers who usually have deeper pockets. The political situation of Taiwan is another issue since some countries and regions do not include Taiwanese artists in their “co-production treaty” concerning the collaboration between local and international artists. With the Filipino producer joining in the co-production of XiXi, WU was looking for another producer from Europe to make its financial structure more stable. Despite her effort from 2019 to 2021, French producers seemed to show little interest in her story taking place in France, while many other European producers backed out after learning the fact that several major film funds in continental Europe (such as IDFA Bertha Fund, Hubert Bals Fund and World Cinema Fund) were not applicable to Taiwanese directors. Eventually, it was a Korean producer whom WU had met at Docs Port Incheon completing the team and stabilizing the financial structure. As a result, XiXi would have its post-production in Korea, and team welcomed the film composer and colourist recommended by the Korean producer. By doing so, WU also expanded her collaboration network to work with different people.   The Importance of Documentary-Making CommunityLooking back on the international pitch events and workshops WU has participated in with her project XiXi, WU does not only have practical reward in production but also in the establishment of artist communities. Her experience in CIRCLE Women Doc Accelerator in 2020, a newly formed workshop centering on the training and development of female documentary makers, proves the significance of having fellow artists as companions with mutual support. Documentary making is a long and lonely journey, while most of the documentary makers fight alone in the battlefield built on their materials, gradually and unavoidably struggling with confusion and self-questioning, not to mention the possible blind spots in one’s thinking. It is the advantage of communities, like a safety valve to function and to get the artists out of the crisis when needed. CIRCLE Women Doc Accelerator divides its courses into three stages, in which you can share your project with mentors and colleagues (fellow artists in the same annually-held workshop) throughout the year and mutually push the discussion on each project forward.   In documentary making, the camera is not just the “fly on the wall,” while the director has to further think about their relationship with the story and subject (person), asking questions such as “why they story needs me to tell it.” (Courtesy of Fan WU) The experience in Yamagata Documentary Dojo also provided WU a safe and undisturbed environment for documentary making. Although it switched to online activity in 2022 due to the pandemic, the organizer’s careful arrangement still provided a positive space for WU to receive useful feedbacks for editing, where she was at. The guest mentors at Yamagata Documentary Dojo mostly had a background in editing, so they could effectively help the production team to deal with their materials and gave practical advice on the content. The composition (both the members and mentors) and atmosphere of the workshop were also key factors to create a positive environment, as it avoided a teacher-student hierarchy and tried to encourage all kinds of dialogue between different production teams, rather than close-door group discussion or mass lecturing. Yamagata Documentary Dojo develops a delicate small-scale community and offers a safe and open space for all participants to exchange ideas.  In 2021, WU was selected by the NCAF in its Documentary Partnership Project, where she worked with the assigned editor Lei Chen Ching, having her project to be “taken care of” and her messy ideas put in order. The purpose of the partnership project was to provide an environment for documentary makers to return to the essentials, which were the materials, footage, subject (person) and story, rather than being disturbed by the marketing concerns, which should have come much later. Meanwhile, her experience in DOCS-IN-PROGRESS in 2021 was a different example. It did not really bring inspiration for the content but increased the visibility of XiXi in the market since the project was selected in Marché du film de Cannes.  Director Fan WU attending the online discussion of the NCAF’s Documentary Partnership Project.Film Proposal Writing Has Its Unique Universal FormatWU has once mentioned that “film proposal writing has a unique universal format in the industry.” With all these international pitch events and workshops she has attended with her project XiXi, and the numerous funds and grants she has applied for, she laughed and said that she did not even remember how many proposals she had to write. For WU, proposal writing is a useful process to restructure your thoughts and work. On the one hand, she really depends on writing to develop her cinematic language; on the other hand, proposal writing demands a kind of structure that can facilitate the creative process to prioritize the materials and to give a functional narrative in documentary making. If the documentary makers can give their project a clear outline, and to help others to better imagine “something” which is still in its incubation stage, they will have more chances to target the specific support they need when they pitch. It is like a preproduction on paper before the creative idea is made into a movie.   Such a strategy, admittedly, is the result of today’s TV and film production mechanism, but if the artists need its resources, it is necessary to learn the mindset of the industry, to know how it operates, and to speak its language. XiXi is in the editing stage now, which started in the spring of 2022 as WU and the Columbian editor Anna, her graduate school friend, worked remotely. WU first selected the most important materials based on her judgment, translated the subtitles, and sent the footage to Anna for editing, followed by their daily update and discussion via emails. Usually, since they were in different time zones, WU would send the notes to Anna and receive her reply on the next day. Their remote collaboration had continued in this way for a while, until last summer when WU took a trip to France for more footage of XiXi and soon went to Columbia to work with Anna closely. At that time, the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund came in as an immediate help which they urgently needed it for the editing of XiXi. Speaking of which, WU recommends “Sundance Documentary Fund Proposal Checklist” to any documentary maker troubled by how to write a good proposal, where they can find all the information a proposal requires, concerning the sections it should include, as well as the detailed description and the appropriate length of each section. The structure it suggests is a great help to documentary makers to continuously polish their project.   The following year is a crucial one to XiXi.  WU plans to attend a couple of rough-cut workshops which may help her to bring the cinema language closer to her ideal, as a preparation for the post-production stage. If everything goes well, she will submit XiXi to international film festivals next year. As she spoke about the long journey she had with XiXi, WU admitted that she would not have made it by herself if without the support of her team. To have a documentary community is very important, especially when documentary makers usually work by themselves, so she hopes that the case of  XiXi can offer her fellow Taiwanese artists a different strategy to make it work, with a confidence that a non-issue-oriented project like the one she has, which touches upon very personal experiences and thus risks of being rejected by the mainstream, still has the possibility to grow and develop. This is what the story of WU and XiXi tries to explore and make us to see – can we have such an unrestrained freedom and courage to live as we are and create as we live in spite of the unescapable social reality? The project of XiXi, tenacious as it is, claims a collective effort to open up a space for arts and its multiple different faces. *Translator: Siraya Pai
2023.08.11
Article | CASE STUDY
Home, Under Construction – A Decade of Waiting, ‘After Passing Away’
Su Yu-Ting became interested in writing and doing interviews when she was in high school, and following her interest, she later studied in the Television News Division at the Department of Journalism of National Chengchi University (NCCU). In addition to learning about the production process of television news programs, she also worked as an assistant at the NCCU Audio Video Lab. Deeply influenced by Prof. Kuo Li-Hsin and her other teachers, Su began to study extensively the documentary format’s potential and criticality. Unlike many of her peers who aimed to work at television news stations, after working on some public sector video projects and also at a documentary channel and a cartoon channel, she wanted to break free from the constraints of being an employee and wanted to gain more control over her work. She then began to work as a freelancer and took on production projects from Da Ai Television, the Environmental Protection Administration, the National Science and Technology Council, and Yahoo. However, the efficiency-driven and profit-oriented type of projects made her feel somewhat perplexed and exhausted. Su then saw the documentary, The Man behind the Book, about the literary writer, Wang Wen-Hsing. Wang’s unhurried yet profound work inspired her to write the following wistful words on the first day of 2012: “I want to be a good communicator, to spread good stories and ideas; I want to be a good documenter, someone who painstakingly documents this epoch.”In April of the same year, Su met Yang San-Eii, a person who stays outside of conventions and remains true to himself. To fulfill her new year’s wish, she traveled to the small town of Fangliao in southern Taiwan to document this man whom the locals thought was strong-headed and stubborn like a “Woodman.”Yang’s father was falsely accused in Taiwan’s White Terror Period and was imprisoned at the Tucheng Detention Center. It was a time of extreme poverty, and the seven children in the family all relied on their mother’s work to survive. A year after their father’s detainment, their mother died from exhaustion caused by overwork. Yang San-Eii was only 13 years old at the time. Their neighbors were afraid of getting involved and did not interact with Yang’s family, which led to Yang’s “lone wolf” mentality of doing things on his own. He spent the first half of his life as a vagabond, drifting from one place to another, having little contact with other people in his hometown.Yang’s “lone wolf” mentality is also apparent in the way he works. “Woody Daddy” (一冊木造技研所) is Yang’s “family business” and specializes in only one type of work, which is to build a family house out of wood using only mortise-and-tenon joints. Yang understands very little Japanese, but referring to the Kanji characters and the illustrations in a book on timber-frame houses by Japanese architect Ikuo Matsui and along with some fundamental skills he had acquired in his younger years working on construction projects, Yang started to draft design plans, sand down wood, and drill and polish wooden joinery, and at this point, he was already on his 8th year of preparation for this house. Su’s original plan was to spend about 5-10 days documenting this story for a television station’s green architecture documentary program; however, Yang was unable to give a clear schedule on when this house would be completed. The circumstances made it unfit for the television program. The master’s demand for his house could not be gauged by the modern way of measuring time, and the documenter had to learn how to apply the same temporal logic in order to understand what was in front of her. Since it was impossible to turn this story into a television program, Su then decided to make a documentary. She had to wait around and film whenever possible, which required countless trips back and forth down south and up north. Like the rings on a tree trunk that show the accrual of nature’s changes, the footage captured by Su piled up in gigabytes and then terabytes. Yang continued to build the house, and Su continued to document it; however, the one thing that stayed unchanged was the completion date of the house remained unclear. “Within the scope of the world’s history of architecture, he’s someone who will never be thought of as a Lu Ban-like figure (Lu Ban is the god of carpentry and masonry in Chinese folk religion). In Taiwan, where society pays emphatic attention to a person’s work, education, money, and quick success, Yang appears kind of crazy and foolish. However, with more understanding gained on his dedication, hard work, determination to the craft, and devotion to research and development, which were observed from the discussions he had with artisans of ritual king boats on their waterproofing techniques; his use of oyster-shell ash on walls for better breathability; and him asking an apprentice to send a message via social media to the Japanese wooden-building expert, Ikuo Matsui, to invite Mr. Matsui to Taiwan to give him advice on the house he was building (which a positive reply was received), Yang’s actions seemed so farfetched but also quite exciting and uplifting.” After Passing Away film-still. After years of anticipation, the beam-erecting ceremony is finally carried out by a religious priest. The beam is lifted using a hoist cable made by Yang San-Eii.  (Courtesy of Su Yu-Ting) However, both Yang and Su were confronted with the same dilemma: Without a sufficient budget, the materials, workers, and machinery required for the construction had to be put on hold; on the other hand, in order to capture high-quality footage, it was imperative for Su to hire a professional camera crew, and considering the conditions of weather and other uncontrollable factors, the money required for making the documentary was quite hefty. Su applied for as many grants as she could, which included grants from the New Taipei City Documentary Film Awards, CNEX, and the National Culture and Arts Foundation (NCAF), which generated mixed results. In 2013, her short film, Woody Daddy, was selected by the CNEX Annual Theme Project, which marked an interim progress for the documentary on Master Yang’s story. However, the short film format was inadequate in fully recounting Yang’s story, and Su also had to fight hard to obtain the rights to use the footage she had captured and to further develop the film. She learned a great deal about copyright issues from the free legal consultation service offered by the Taipei Documentary Filmmakers’ Union. As a reminder, she urges her colleagues to pay thorough attention to the terms listed in any contracts that they sign, and it would be wise to have an attorney review the terms prior to signing. The different experiences led her to transition from being a simple creator to becoming someone who’s more knowledgeable about film production. She then took on both roles of director and producer in her other documentary series, Happy Birthday and Our Happy Birthday. Although it was a necessary step for her to put on multiple hats due to resource constraints, it also opened up more possibilities for her to think about the needs of film production from different perspectives.For example, although the Birthday series wasn’t a large-scale production, it, nonetheless, still involved comprehensive steps that included the creative process, project proposals, grant applications, showcases, fundraisings, screenings, and the film release (for further details, please refer to the interview on NCAF’s Audiovisual Media Grants - Research Project: “After Completion – A Study on Taiwanese Documentary Film Release and Marketing Experiences”). The project was also a learning experience for Su, as she observed and made comparisons along the way, and with different references gathered, she then began to contemplate on a better way to tell Master Yang’s story.  “In the short film, Woody Daddy, Master Yang was the focus of the story, which showed this devoted odd man and his determination to uphold this traditional artistry. However, with more time spent with them, I began to grow more familiar with Master Yang’s family, and other storylines then gradually became more apparent.” “The emotional ties between the members of the family made Yang San-Eii’s story even more special. His wife has always stayed by his side, and despite the occasional complaints and frustration, through communication and acceptance, she continues to support her husband to fulfill his dream.” Their relationship reminded Su of the film director Ang Lee and his wife: “She didn’t support Ang Lee because of who he had later become. Love is never an investment, and this is also true for Yang San-Eii’s wife.” After realizing that the achievement of the protagonist was made possible through the support of his entire family, the focus of the ensuing filming was consciously also placed on Yang’s wife, daughters, sons-in-law, other family members, and also his apprentices. There was a scene when Yang was working on the rooftop, and his wife had carefully climbed up the shaky wooden ladder just to remind him to be careful. The exchange between them seemed quite ordinary but was full of understated but deep emotions. After Passing Away film-still. The love that Yang San-Eii’s wife has for him is shown through her daily chatter and nagging. (Courtesy of Su Yu-Ting) After Passing Away film-still. Yang San-Eii’s wife, Hui-Chuan, is his greatest support and also the most hard-working supervisor. (Courtesy of Su Yu-Ting) “His wife’s eyes were full of concern, hope, and also various mixed emotions. I really like that particular scene. It shows that a home is not just the work of a single builder but also involves those who are there to extend their support.” With the schedule of the filming extended, the construction of the house was still unfolding at an unhurried pace; however, the story of the family was changing. Yang’s eldest daughter was originally pursuing a career in sales, hoping to make money to support her father’s dream of building the house, but she had at this time transitioned to work in the theater field  as a production stage manager. Her husband then began to take part in Yang’s project, seeking to incorporate ideas and thoughts from the younger generation in order to create more opportunities for the house-building project and to generate some income, including pitching fundraising proposals, social media management, media exposure, etc.  Influenced by her father, Yang’s younger daughter, who studied interior design in school, also has her own ideas on what makes an ideal dwelling place and has decided to live, work, and raise her own family in a city. With more in-depth involvement in their everyday life, the bickering and quarrel between the family then naturally became a part of the footage captured. “I was no longer only pointing my camera at this self-taught house-builder but was focusing on these three women who, throughout more than a decade, have cried and laughed all because of this dream of his.” Slowly but surely, Woody Daddy then transformed into After Passing Away. After Passing Away film-still. Yang’s youngest daughter, Ching-Wen, was influenced by his father and now works in the field of interior design. She greatly admires her father’s unique approach to building the house with his own hands but doesn’t think she is capable of taking over. (Courtesy of Su Yu-Ting) Because of the extended filming period and the process of developing the short film into a feature-length documentary, the budget required skyrocketed. Su had twice applied for NCAF’s documentary grant but was unsuccessful the first time in 2013. She then tried again in 2020 and was selected by the jury committee this time around. When asked about her thoughts on the different outcomes for the two grant proposals she had submitted, she said she wasn’t quite sure about the direction of the film when she submitted her first proposal. She hadn’t spent enough time with the subjects she was filming, and the story, at that time, also focused more on the life of one individual person and the craftsmanship side of house-building. A few years later, she had accumulated enough footage for After Passing Away and was much clearer about the direction of the story. The various developmental trajectories of Yang’s family members were also clearly shown in the film trailer, allowing the audience to better connect with the story. At this point, the film had also reached the post-production stage, and while making the presentation for the grant, Su was much more certain about what she was doing. The filming and production costs in the first few years were paid for with the income Su was making from other jobs, and when the NCAF grant was approved, a more sufficient budget was allotted for the post-production, which gave her a chance to fulfill some minor dreams she had for the project, including inviting Ken Ohtake, a Japanese musician who has collaborated extensively with some Taiwanese independent bands, to compose the music for the documentary. On the one hand, this decision was made because of Yang’s fondness for the Japanese culture, which he was drawn to due to how the artistry of wooden houses is preserved in Japan. On the other hand, Ken Ohtake’s music was what Su had envisioned After Passing Away would sound like, with the melody of his acoustic guitar used to express the long and repetitive process of building the house, the passing of the seasons, and the family’s delicate emotional connections.The inspiration behind the lyrics of the documentary’s theme song, also titled After Passing Away, came during the post-production when Su tried to imagine if she were Yang’s mother, what would she say to him knowing that she was about to leave her 13-year-old son behind? Su wanted to write in Taiwanese, which is Yang’s most comfortable language, but she felt that was not very good at it, so she then reached out to Taiwanese songwriter Ong Chiau-Hoa to help with the lyrics. The song aptly captured her thoughts, with the unique rhythmic charm of the Taiwanese language also showcased.  “But this ruthless world, makes living harder than leaving.” This line in the song shows a mother’s tender love for her son, and hopefully, after the long house-building journey, the song can bring some comfort to this man who has spent his entire life searching for a “home.”   The singer who performed the song was another dream come true. Su invited the talented singer Yujun Wang to sing “A Hundred Years Later” and shared the emotions and the story behind the lyrics with Wang. Wang then gave a heartfelt performance of the song at the recording studio, which moved Su to tears, and Ken Ohtake, the composer and guitarist, also exclaimed, “This is it!” After Passing Away was further enriched and made more complete due to the music, the singing, the emotions, the artists’ moving performance, and the recording engineering, which superbly enhanced the documentary. Su is also grateful to the film’s executive producer, Mr. Liao Ching-Sung. She had participated in an editing workshop led by Liao, and because of Liao’s advice and guidance, Su, who was without a clear direction at the time, was able to see a bright beacon of light. She then decided to discard the first three edits that were made and tried to reexamine the chaotic footage she had on hand, and together with a new partner she had working with her, they then restarted the editing process. After the workshop, she also mustered up the courage to ask Liao to continue to mentor her and was surprised to receive a positive response from him. Liao had agreed to act as the film’s producer despite his busy schedule and also accompanied Su and the editor to sort through the footage again and try to feel the message that the footage was conveying. They were asked tirelessly by Liao, “What were you trying to convey when you shot this scene?” The editor, Lin Shi-wan, patiently processed over 150 hours of footage, and they then discussed each scene, one by one, with notes and sketches covering an entire wall. (Su even went out of her way to convert the guest room in her apartment into an editing studio!) They moved around different scenes and made countless edits and adjustments. Together, they then slowly took in and condensed everything to produce a new version of the film. Su Yu-Ting editing. The countless footage made the editing process quite daunting. (Photo by Chen Yu-Ching) “Through After Passing Away, we can see the transformation of Taiwanese families after the turn of the millennium,” said Liao.With Liao’s support, Su was able to feel more confident to steadily continue with the editing, mixing, color correction, and other post-production tasks for the film. The feedback received after several small screenings was also quite positive, and some friends who had seen the previous version also commented that the film felt like it had gone through a great transformation, and they were looking forward to seeing After Passing Away on the big screen and for it to reach a wider audience. Invitations were always sent to film distributors, members of the media, and film critics, hoping they would come to see the film, write reviews, and help distribute or promote the film.  “But people seem to always be so busy, and sometimes things would feel like they were heading in the right direction on the phone, but we wouldn’t hear back from them after the link of the film was sent over to them. Maybe they just have a lot of films to watch, and the documentary is long and not very thrilling or eye-catching,” said Su. She then decided to try submitting to film festivals. In September 2022, great news came her way from the 27th Busan International Film Festival: After Passing Away was nominated for its “Wide Angle Documentary Competition,” which meant an international premiere of the film! This was Su’s second nomination at the Busan International Film Festival, and her first was for Our Happy Birth Day. This time she was able to attend the event and calmly observe the film festival from the perspective of a film producer. Because of the festival’s large scale and wide selection of films, it was hard to tell if it had a particular preference, and she wondered why After Passing Away was selected that year. From the audience feedback received from the world premiere held at Busan, she then learned, “The subject of ‘home’ is something that everyone cares about, and the story of ‘home’ and ‘house’ can transcend beyond languages and resonate with people.” A woman in the audience shared that her father was also a carpenter and had built a house for her family. Unfortunately, they were unable to keep the house due to maintenance difficulties. Thinking back to the 10 years she had spent filming the project, the Yang family had to stay in the leaking attic of a restaurant or in a makeshift tent at the construction site, as they waited for their father to build the house. They had minimized their material desires, overcome challenges in life, and even put up with gossipy neighbors. After countless mistakes and do-overs, the dream house finally came true. “Failure is normal, but this success is well deserved,” said Yang. The director couldn't help but get choked up when she was responding to this audience member. Su also noted that the viewers in Korea were quite enthusiastic, and some even came up to her outside of the theater after the screening to ask for her autograph and photos and to ask for more information about the film. The feedback received was greatly encouraging to Su, and it was truly rewarding to see the audience enjoying and expressing interest in her work. For this story from a small rural town in Fangliao, Taiwan to resonate with an international audience, this was a diplomatic exchange that required no use of fancy words. After they returned to Taiwan, After Passing Away was shortly selected for the Kaohsiung Film Festival and was the top audience-choice film that week. Director Kuo Liang-Yin once said, “The audience-choice award is the best award to receive for a director!” And indeed, it was. To be screened in film festivals allows a documentary to gain more exposure, but there are many different film festivals in the world, and which film festival to submit to and when, where to host the screening, how the promotion should be executed, and how to compete for awards, these details won’t just take care of themselves simply because of how heart-moving a film is. Su is still learning about these different aspects. Taking on both roles as the director and producer, the things that she needs to consider often contradict one another, and tasks need to be delegated between the director and producer.  “Ideally, a producer should start to work with the team in the planning stage and begin to seek out resources at that point; otherwise, in the post-production stage, it becomes very difficult to edit and look for resources at the same time. With limited time and energy, it is impossible to consider the different factors involved at that point; it becomes much more challenging.” Is it possible to secure the resources needed at the planning stage? Based on Su’s observations of most film distributors, they tend to take an observational stance when it comes to new directors and new projects, and it’s rare to get their attention at the planning or preliminary editing stages of a film. However, at the later stage of editing and toward the trial screening stage, any changes made would likely increase the project’s cost by a lot. At this point, without the needed funding and the time to make changes, film festivals then become the only possibility available, and if lucky and your film is chosen, the distributors would then be more willing to negotiate. However, the filmmaker is working alone in this process and is mostly betting on luck, but this way of doing things shouldn’t be the norm. Using the documentary, A Holy Family, as an example, Su explained that the filmmaker of this documentary had entered into a 12-year contract with the production team, which turned the relationship into a collaborative partnership, and additionally, with international financial support that was initially secured, they were able to raise the pre-production standards for the film and to seek out more resources for further development, which allowed for better filming and post-production processes, which then opened up more opportunities for the film to be selected by film festivals and more sales income made from international royalty. As a busy mother who was also juggling the post-production work of After Passing Away and other freelance jobs, Su somehow managed to muster up more energy to initiate an event series where entrepreneurial and innovative endeavors were shared. This 5-part event was called the “Ark Project” and took place between March and July 2021, and during the meetings, vegetarian food was offered, with entrepreneurial and innovative experiences shared, and old and new friends freely interacted with each other (there were even prize draws!) The speakers invited to the event were not limited to documentary filmmakers and also included website designers, poets, entrepreneurs, social activists, etc. As described by Su, “Each content creator has a dream, which is to have their creative works be seen by more people. In this era of excessive audio-visual content, we sincerely invite you to come and share your entrepreneurial, creative, interactive, or fundraising projects, and let’s join together to work hard and take our creative works to reach further…We won’t be talking about how to get into the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival, venture capitals, or editing techniques. We will focus on creative work, talk about life, and discuss what you usually don’t want others to see, which is what really happens behind the scenes.”  Su was asked by some friends whether she was overburdened by the editing process and was wishing to hop on an ark to escape from the overwhelming flood-like footage in front of her. What sort of sparks would ignite when cynical social activists cross paths with yuppie venture capitalists? Would successful elements of social activism and venture capitalism be noticed through the sharing of such experiences? Hopefully, this ark would continue to sail forward and nurture new breeds of talents.   It is inevitable to be confronted with different “people” issues when making a documentary, and without an understanding of how to deal with people, it would be difficult to probe deep into the inner world of the film’s subjects and to gain their trust, and it would also be hard for the filmmaker to realize what they are seeking to respond to by making the documentary. After Passing Away is no exception. Without Yang’s extraordinary determination and stubbornness, it would be impossible for him to continue to build this house for 18 years. However, when facing his own family, his stubbornness is also sometimes hurtful. The documentary ends on a gentle note with Yang lovingly looking at a new member of his family. New life is added to the family’s story, and it continues to evolve. With the post-production completed and the documentary openly screened, the natural progression for any documentary at this point should involve expanded social outreach, with the ideas and philosophies of the filmmaker and the subjects documented shared with as many people as possible. However, life is often not quite so predictable. This wooden house and the legendary tale of its construction were covered by both the print media and online news outlets which turned it into a hot destination in Southern Taiwan, and it sparked various imaginative thoughts and expectations from various people in society. Having endured an extended period of hardship, the family’s house was finally finished, but they were also confronted with new problems. Some of the issues that unfolded in reality took place beyond the camera and did not make it into the film, so was only the good side shown to the audience? After Passing Away film-still. Yang’s eldest daughter, Chi-Shu, uses cultural and creative-oriented tactics to pitch proposals to help her father Yang San-Eii realize his dream.  (Courtesy of Su Yu-ting) Su explained that the interaction with the subjects being filmed when making a documentary is a long and extended process. It is integral for the director to remain true to their creative vision and to also respect the subjects’ willingness to be filmed. The signing of a “Filming Consent Agreement” is demanded by some documentary commissioners, which would confirm the subjects’ willingness to be filmed. It is also recommended by lawyers that the consent form should be signed at the initial stage of filming. However, Su mentioned that even with a consent agreement signed in the beginning, if a subject has a change of heart during the filming, it would still be impossible for the director to force the subject to follow the terms listed in the agreement. A documentary is a real story, an extension of life, and even with a legal agreement signed, it still doesn’t mean that everything will happen accordingly. In order for the subjects being filmed to accept the filmmaker, the process involves more than just a singular point of view, and it is also not about which side to take; more importantly, a documentary is not a tool; it requires thorough and trustworthy communication. What about when an audience disagrees with the filmmaker’s perspective? Su believes that it is impossible to have everyone in the audience to share your point of view. Creative work is not a service that aims to please everyone. The making of After Passing Away originated from her own anxieties about finding a dwelling place for the family she has made in the city. After seeing different types of houses, she then met Master Yang by chance, which then opened up this visual document about the Taiwanese people and the notion of “home,” which shows people’s obsession with home, a story of a family’s bond, and also many open imaginative thoughts about what makes a place home.  A big tree grabs tightly onto the land with its complex roots, as it aims to stand tall and thrive. After Passing Away is also about a unique and complex ongoing story that is deeply rooted in this land. In the words of Yang San-Eii’s eldest son-in-law, Yu-Chien, “Home is a forever ongoing project.” As a filmmaker who had accompanied the family on a part of their journey, Su said with great sentiment, “Images are highly illusive, but they can also realistically present people’s lives. I have the ability to express and communicate. If this ability is used for the pursuit of money and fame, I will never feel content. If it is used for the preservation of what’s kind and good, to defend against evil, and to seek the truth, the passion within me will continue to burn and fill my spirit with great strength.” *Translator: Hui-Fen Anna Liao
2023.07.17
Article | FOCUS
Realism, Documentary, Photography – A Profile on Publishing  
The development of socially relevant realist photography in contemporary Taiwan has its own zeitgeist factors, and one of the most important and far-reaching influences occurred amidst the rapid changes before and after martial law was lifted in Taiwan, when society was filled with burgeoning movements that instilled a sense of mission in photographers to witness, expose, and document what was happening. “Seeing” became a mainstream proposition of photography at the time, which led to the peak of reportage and documentary photography in the 1980s, making photography not only an extension of one’s sight but often also an act that attempted to intervene in reality. Due to the environment that they were in, many photographers born around the 1950s and 1960s also worked in news media outlets as photojournalists in the 1980s and 1990s. Although they all had their own unique visual styles, they were, nevertheless, all impacted by what was happening at the time, and to various degrees, they also inherited the genre of realist photography’s socially oriented consciousness and ways of thinking.From the projects selected for the grant category of “Publishing - Print Publications” offered by the National Culture and Arts Foundation (NCAF) in the past ten years or so, we see many photographers have been reorganizing their works with the intention of reviving Taiwanese society’s visual memories from the late 20th century. Amongst them, Bachimen: Representing the 2% of Hope and Struggle (八尺門:再現2%的希望與奮鬥, 2013) published by the Nanfan Chiayuan Co., Ltd. is a project that stands out. The book is a recompilation of Guan Xiao-Rong’s well-known investigation report on the rights of the indigenous people in Bachimen, Keelung and includes numerous photographs and texts. It first appeared in the press in the mid-1980s and was later chosen as the cover story of the inaugural issue of Ren Jian Monthly and then published in installments in the magazine’s subsequent issues. This opened up the public’s awareness for the problems, including economic, land, and cultural oppression, faced by people of indigenous descent. This recompiled monograph also includes records of Guan Xiao-Rong’s return to Bachimen in 1996 and 2011. Ren Jian - Documentary Photography in the 1980s (人間現場—八〇年代紀實攝影, 2016) is a compilation of the 33 photo features shot by Tsai Ming-Te during his time working as a photojournalist at Ren Jian Monthly. Tsai was in his 60s when this book, his first monograph, was published; however, many of the pieces included have long been considered impressive and familiar visual records of Taiwan’s development in the 1980s. The book is a testament to the assertive action taken by those at Ren Jian Monthly to be at the forefront of reportage photography at the time. Chuang Cheng-Yuan’s A Disappeared River (2017) extends from documentary photography’s distinctive thematic format and topics of concern and includes visual documents captured by Chuang of urban indigenous people over a period of 20 years since 1994, with field research done on the Amis people living in the Zhongzheng Public Housing in Xindian District, New Taipei City and investigation done on their indigenous tribal lifestyles and cultural changes in the midst of modern urban development. Shen Chao-Liang’s Taiwanese Vaudeville Troupes (2016) was shot between 2005 and 2016 and documented unique local touring performing groups, depicting Taiwanese grassroots culture’s festive rituals and the lives of the troupes’ singers and dancers outside of the dazzling show stage. Different from the other abovementioned books which are divided into sections and employ a traditional reportage narrative format, this book demonstrates a continual pursuit toward a contemporary way of treating thematic documentary photography. The Party Is Over (2014) is Hsu Tsun-Hsu’s photography work from his time working as a journalist which began in the late 1980s. The book shows his attempt to shift the focus away from news events and includes, instead, the various peculiar people, things, and events that he saw at the scenes of various social events and affairs. The work shows a satirical personal style, and the humorous use of the line “the party is over” suggests that after the heightened commotion experienced in Taiwanese society (with photography also included) at the end of the century, the energy from social movements and reportage photography gradually dissipated with the change of political power in 2000. Hsien San-Tai’s Salty Mists In Memory of Penghu (2020) shows his hometown, Penghu, from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s and uses a prose-like visual approach to recount how the local land, people, and culture have changed along with the passing time. It should be noted that photographer Chang Chao-Tang contributed to the photo-editing of these three books, Taiwanese Vaudeville Troupes, The Party Is Over, and Salty Mists In Memory of Penghu, which shows Chang’s prominent influence on this generation of photographers. In reviewing the publication of photography books, we can find some contextual links to the development of photography in Taiwan, with some interesting insights and references for understanding the formation of our own visual culture also gained. Perhaps we can also think of these documentary photography books as documentaries on the development of “documentary.” Extended Reading At the Edge of the City – Traces of Life at Bachimen https://youtu.be/eISbkmRpgY8Using the Camera to Document Life: There is a Story Behind This Photo – Photographer, Tsai Ming-Tehttps://youtu.be/-zID_DFt_LgPhotographer, Chuang Cheng-Yuanhttps://youtu.be/bmH0DGXl7hMHsu Tsun-Hsu, The Party Is Over, Photo Book Eventhttps://youtu.be/6gcLB8GFnR0Warmth of the Land, Mr. Shen Chao-Liang | TEDxYilanhttps://youtu.be/mk2xAXx4FOUPhotobook Hour: Hsien San-Tai x Chang Chao-Tang x Salty Mists In Memory of Penghuhttps://youtu.be/66G26DvTBYc*Translator: Hui-Fen Anna Liao
2023.07.31
Article | FOCUS
In Relation to Mountains
Taiwan's government announced in 2019 the opening of mountains, lifting the host of hiking restrictions and allowing nature lovers to explore further secrets within the heart of the island. The post-COVID-19 era led to a boom in domestic travel and many people began to engage in hiking activities. We couldn't move as freely as before, but this pushed us to live with more care, appreciate each moment with family and friends, and attach importance to the land they live in. It also meant more opportunities to show concern for, document, and behold the environment we grew in and examine our connection to it.The Beauty of Mountain ForestsMountains account for 70% of Taiwan's geography, endowing it with plenty of forestry resources. One of the three largest tree plantations since the Japanese colonial era is that on Taiping Mountain. The historical background of the area is expounded in the Historical Context of Writings on Mountain Forests—Journal of Taiping Mountain Literary Studies Research and Writing Project by Chung Yi-Fen. It documents the unique landscape literature inspired by mountains during Qing dynasty rule, the Japanese occupation period, and the post-World War II era. Chou Li-Chun's (Hedwig) novel Mountain Spirit (山神) tells the story of a mountain warden, what we usually call a "mountain ranger". We might simply imagine them strolling through the mountain in an idyllic manner, yet there's much to do beyond that: manage recreation areas, maintain forest trails, prevent illegal logging, care for seedlings and wildlife, and so forth. They stand at the front line, our deputies in protecting the mountain forests with utmost respect and humility. Theirs is a life of devotion, a dance to the beat of nature.The Struggle of Mountain ForestsChronicles of Jiaoban Mountain Over a Century by Yung-Sung Chien Lee (Thomas) deals with changes in the lifestyle of the Atayal indigenous people over a hundred years. It touches upon the modern understanding of indigeneity, shifts in living environments, and even the brutal acts committed during the Japanese colonial era, in order to self-reflect and ponder on cultural changes and extinction and ethnic identity. Llyung Topa: In Search of the Defense Lines Against Savages and Survivors of the Topa Settlement Massacre (拉流斗霸──尋找大豹社事件隘勇線與餘族) published by Walkers Books recounts the struggle of the indigenous inhabitants of the Llyung Topa Federation against, first, the Han Chinese settlers, and later, the Japanese colonial government and its indigenous pacification policy. By revisiting the "defense lines against savages" from the past, we unearth stories of blood mixed with tears.The Roads of Mountain ForestsFor most of us living in the flat lands, there is nothing special about going back home every day, but for indigenous individuals, it is often an arduous trip that could take days. Ting-Yuan Wang's A Century of Taroko: Finding the Road Back Home (百年太魯閣:尋覓歸鄉路) traces the course of the Liwu River, Tkijig in Seediq language, to discover a series of major events until reaching the "headwater". It is more than a study of the historical background. It encompasses interviews to community elders and includes passages from historical documents and legends told by elders, helping us understand the past and ancient culture, as well as journey through a century of events in the mountains of Taroko. Anxi Zhang's The Vanishing Line: In Search of the Bunun's Old Takebanuad and Isbukun Settlements (消逝的中之線:探尋布農巒郡舊社) is a survey of the remains of the Takebanuad and Isbukun settlements of the Bunun indigenous people on Mt. Guntai, or Ludun-bukun or Uhais in the Bunun language. It documents their present status, the roads used by the Japanese colonial officers to control the inhabitants, and the settlements nurtured by the Jyunda, or Aul misnabukun, river basin. The later Revisiting Guanman—On the Road Back to the Bunun Take Vatan Settlements (重返關門:踏上布農丹社歸鄉路) by Anxi Zhang goes even deeper inside the mountain, exploring the history of the Guanman old trail, which starts in Zhushan Township, Nantou and finishes in Yuli Township, Hualien. In the past, it was home to the cluster of settlements called Take vatan by the Bunun people. The book allows Bunun individuals from later generations—who did not get the chance to live in that environment—to find back their roots, and also reveals the glorious past of the Bunun to mountain lovers.The Emotions of Mountain ForestsIn his book Indigenous (山地話╱珊蒂化), Yi-Hang Ma turns those beautiful yet ephemeral memories we all cherish into subtle, unsettling accounts of fragmented time. The changes encountered when growing up, quest for identity, and conceptions of family are a sort of reminiscence that serves as prelude to the many questions posed in the text. People feel loneliness. What about mountains? Liu Chen Chun's The Mountain I'd Share With You (我所告訴你關於那座山的一切) is a forthright encounter with the self. It would seem that in order to take a good look at this world, it is necessary to first satisfy the physiological and safety needs proposed by psychologist Abraham Maslow in his hierarchy of needs. Is this really a prerequisite for seeing oneself and facing one's most profound emotions and minutest thoughts? We might take different paths when setting out on journeys, treading the mountains, and expressing with words—even drag each other down at times, but we all arrive at the same destination. We only have to walk ahead with courage.Further Readings"About Salizan's Carrying a Mountain With a Headband", NCAF Online Magazinehttps://mag.ncafroc.org.tw/article_detail.html?id=297ef7227b067884017b4dcb054b0008"About Liu Chen-Chun's The Mountain I'd Share With You", NCAF Online Magazinehttps://mag.ncafroc.org.tw/article_detail.html?id=402888376e6f05ab016e8bb3db8c0006*Translator: Linguitronics
2023.06.30
Article | CASE STUDY
From Gunshots to Completion: Bringing People Together—Chronicles of the Production for And Miles to Go Before I Sleep
The first project name for the documentary And Miles to Go Before I Sleep was "Nine Shots", alluding to the violent death of absconded Vietnamese migrant worker Quốc Phi Nguyễn—after realizing that a police officer had arrived to arrest him, Nguyễn attempted to escape and fell victim to 9 consecutive shots. The name indicates clearly what the production and interviews in the documentary wish to convey: the attitude and behavior that most Taiwanese demonstrate towards migrant workers. That is what prompted an entry-level police officer to pull the trigger 9 times on Nguyễn.Director Tsung-Lung Tsai's desire to make films related to the judiciary, human rights, new immigrants, and migrant workers dates from long before this film. From news reporter to investigative journalist and author of in-depth and research features, step by step, his time working in the media endowed him with a strong sensitivity towards news and social tragedies. It was seminal to his way of interpreting society. This solid set of skills, a keenness on specific subjects, and the ability to dig deeper into a topic or its background, as well as his concern for incidents, people, and their conditions, led him to create a series of documentaries after switching careers: Taipei Licensed Prostitutes, Formosa Homicide Chronicle 1-2, Marriages on the Borders, Oil Disease: Surviving Evil, and so forth. Tsung-Lung Tsai's works prompt viewers to look closely at social issues and their protagonists, beyond the often fleeting and unreliable media reports within our reach.Creative ShiftThe experience accumulated both as journalist and documentary filmmaker have made Tsai a distinguished figure in the realm of investigative documentary filmmaking. Sharing his life with his wife, new immigrant Kim Hồng Nguyễn from Vietnam, in their adopted home of Chiayi caused a shift in his creative outlook, nonetheless."When I served as the director for documentaries of PTS (Taiwan Public Television Service), work was very formulaic—submit a project proposal and go do the filming. Filmmaking was radically different outside the system, after I left PTS. It was not so premeditated. I could follow my intuition more."Leaving the production schedules and approaches of a TV station meant entirely new possibilities in terms of field research subjects, preparation, and production time. Tsung-Lung Tsai mentioned that at the time, Kim Hồng had already started to entertain the idea of making documentaries based on her own life story and culture. Tsai felt that playing a supportive role in a production from her "insider" perspective as a new immigrant could be an interesting process. It was in this manner that Kim Hồng Nguyễn finished her two documentaries, Out/Marriage and See You, Lovable Strangers.After moving to Chiayi, Tsai and his wife co-founded Khuôn viên văn hoá Việt Nam1 (Vietnam Cultural Hut in Chiayi), a home for migrant workers to gather and hold activities during holidays and weekends. Tsai gained a chance to frequently interact with Vietnamese immigrants and migrant workers in his daily life, engaging in mutual conversations and discussions. Combined with his understanding of Vietnamese migrant workers as relayed by his wife, Tsung-Lung Tsai shared:"The depth with which I got to know new immigrants was considerably different from that I experienced in My Imported Wife, when I was working at PTS... It was more like watching news or shining a light on topics I believed were worthy of attention at the time. That was my motivation to approach these people. Now, it is the opposite: I come across them in my day-to-day."During filming in Vietnam, Tsai asked the elder brother of Quốc Phi Nguyễn to stand in front of their childhood home to take a shot of his back, a symbol of his younger brother's reality as a migrant worker.These immigrants and migrant workers are not just a group representative of certain issues anymore. For Tsung-Lung Tsai, they're people made of flesh of bones, with dreams, life stories, and a wide range of emotions, part of our surroundings and everyday life. It was with this kind of perception and interactions that he assisted Kim Hồng in completing See You, Lovable Strangers, a film centered on the human side of Vietnamese migrant workers. Some people commented during screenings that the documentary could have focused more on the systemic faults and brokerage issues. But Tsai believes that See You, Lovable Strangers is about the stories of people like us. It was never intended to emphasize systemic and structural problems."The point of departure for films made by my wife and I is daily life, people's stories. I've done enough films about systemic problems or research and interviews in the past. These serve a meaningful purpose, of course. Nonetheless, I have since come to increasingly believe that perhaps we cannot use reason to deal with everything. The emotional side is very important, too."Reason and emotion are not mutually exclusive. Films can achieve a balance of both. That could be the ideal for many filmmakers. In this regard, Tsung-Lung Tsai brought up his previous experience filming Formosa Homicide Chronicle 1-2. The films center on the judicial system and miscarriage of justice. It naturally requires a lot of logical arguments and gathering of data. But Tsai stressed that the emotional side, people's stories, could not be missing. A documentary that only presents cold logic will fail to catch viewers' interest. The ratio of reason to emotion is still in favor of the former in Formosa Homicide Chronicle 1-2.The films produced alongside his wife after moving to Chiayi, however, mostly focus on people and their life stories. Those who appear in these documentaries are also part of their everyday. They often listen to the experiences of migrant workers and immigrants in daily conversations, how they left their homes and moved to an unfamiliar land, and the unfair or differential treatment, even discriminatory behavior, they've had to endure in Taiwan. This transformed his point of view on the lives of migrant workers and new immigrants:"If we want to influence people with our documentaries, the emotional side cannot be sacrificed, even if a balance between reason and emotion is not possible. I am progressively aware that merely amending the law or adjusting the system will not solve the issues encountered by migrant workers. Prejudice and discrimination, or even chosen ignorance, of migrant workers are present in our day-to-day...Sometimes, they relate how their supervisors or co-workers treat or talk to them with disdain at work, often using abusive language. Seemingly small matters speak volumes of the views of the Taiwanese on migrant workers, how they're alienated. Even colleagues who are blue-collar workers, too, don't see them as equals. In this kind of circumstance, trying to convince them or amend a system or law to prevent this from happening might not accomplish much."This taught Tsung-Lung Tsai that trying to dispel prejudices, or even hidden or outright discrimination, through systemic or legal changes would essentially be ineffective. We should first look at the mindset with which Taiwanese individuals or the entire society view these immigrants and migrant workers. The first step is to elucidate the problem and present it clearly.OpportunityIn August 2017, absconded Vietnamese migrant worker Quốc Phi Nguyễn was shot 9 times as a police officer tried to arrest him. The first thought that crossed Tsung-Lung Tsai's mind when he saw this piece of news being broadcast on TV everywhere was, "Was it necessary to fire 9 shots? Would that officer have done the same if the fugitive had been Taiwanese?" This question motivated him to further understand the situation. The tragedy of Quốc Phi Nguyễn ignited tensions between migrant worker associations and the police force, making them hostile to one another. Voices in support or opposition joined in the heated argument on values like human rights and equality.The response he'd received after the screening of See You, Lovable Strangers prompted Tsai to contemplate including systemic problems in future productions. What happened to Quốc Phi Nguyễn put into relief the attitudes of many Taiwanese towards migrant workers. Aside from Quốc Phi Nguyễn, Bảo Trân Huỳnh was another migrant worker who fell off a cliff and died when escaping from the police. The stories of these two men served as windows for Tsai to address the wider topic of migrant workers. From the very beginning, Tsai didn't set out to simply talk about isolated situations. What he wished to achieve the most when making this documentary was to simultaneously discuss the overall system and the attitude of Taiwanese people towards migrant workers through these incidents."When I saw the news about what happened to Quốc Phi Nguyễn or Bảo Trân Huỳnh, I think I had a better understanding than most people. It was on this basis that I thought to myself, 'if I don't take the opportunity to discuss some relevant contexts through these individual incidents, there might not be a better chance in the future'."Cameraman Hao-Zhung Zhan and the crew filming the problem of migrant workers-turned-illegal loggers in the Alishan Mountain Range.Key PointsBy a twist of fate, Tsung-Lung Tsai managed to get the video file from the body camera (bodycam) worn by the police officer at the scene of the Quốc Phi Nguyễn incident. Screenshots or excerpts of the bodycam footage had been shown as evidence in several court hearings in the past. Seeing the entire 30 minute-long video from the bodycam forced the director and his production team to bluntly face the interactions between Quốc Phi Nguyễn, the police officer that fired the shots, and everyone in their surroundings, including government workers that accompanied the officer, paramedics, and even bystanders—the way they treated Nguyễn as he was lying on the ground, bleeding to death from gunshot wounds. These images have tremendous power. It is hard to resist the impulse to cover one's eyes. Getting through the sequence can shake viewers to their core. The team even discussed whether or not to directly make the stirring footage public. That would speak louder than any explanation or metaphor decrying the discriminatory and differential treatment.But in the opinion of director Tsai, taking the bodycam footage out of context would most likely exacerbate the hostility between the two parties involved. It might turn into a conflict between an individual migrant worker and a cop. Appropriately including the footage in the documentary could help the audience realize that the problem is not entirely a needed overhaul to the system and the law, but might be rooted in the collective psyche. This is what the documentary wants to point out."That is how we think of migrant workers. This incident only sets off those attitudes. One aspect of the happening is that the officer fired 9 shots. Why did he do that? Other than his nervousness, there is a mental state that backdrops the moment. Perhaps he has a negative impression of migrant workers and never attempted to understand them. The two groups of policemen that arrived at the scene later did not give importance to life despite their seniority. Even government officials did nothing to improve the situation. After Quốc Phi Nguyễn was shot, bystanders shouted derisively, 'Try to fight back now'. That is our collective psyche."From Individual to SocietyYet what is a so-called "proper" context that can connect the incident, bodycam footage, and central story?Firstly, an individual occurrence is juxtaposed with the overall environment. The main thread of the story in And Miles to Go Before I Sleep deals with Quốc Phi Nguyễn, but Tsung-Lung Tsai also overlaps layers of experiences: occupational injuries endured by migrant workers and attempts to escape those terrible working conditions while being chased by the police. A complete picture of this incident is gradually painted by including the perspectives of all those involved, migrant workers, firefighters, senior police officers, lawyers, unlicensed taxi drivers, mountain rangers, immigration officers, and so forth. Everyone is given a voice as news images then lead to their personal interviews. Whether the migrant workers are staying legally or absconded, they oftentimes toil under harsh work environments and poor working conditions. It is them that support Taiwan's modern buildings and transportation to our world-leading electronics industry. While posing to the world as a bastion of freedom and human rights, Taiwan chooses to ignore migrant workers' labor rights, right to survival, and human rights through ruthless arrests and unfair treatment. A multitude of migrant workers' associations have called Taiwan an "island of slave workers" from early on.With this multitude of incidents and news excerpts weaved together, the audience slowly goes from the Quốc Phi Nguyễn tragedy into an entire overview of migrant workers' life and work in Taiwan. Systemic deficiencies and structural problems become apparent, but the chief reason we cannot overlook is still the way many Taiwanese behave towards migrant workers and deep-rooted discrimination.Incidents blend and intertwine with four sections of the bodycam footage in this context, lending strength to each other. The beginning of the bodycam footage enshrouds the audience in an uncertain mist, with the veiled facts being revealed one after another. This narrative thread composed of incidents, news reports, and interviews complements with the bodycam footage to portray the reality of migrant workers in Taiwan from a rational perspective.Quốc Phi Nguyễn is the protagonist of the other storyline. It begins at his hometown, from his childhood to adulthood, family, and why he chose to pursue work in Taiwan. His Facebook posts expressing his feelings serve as off-screen commentary to help the audience get to know Nguyễn the man. The documentary is the story of a real person. Tsung-Lung Tsai said bout this approach:After absconding from his employer, migrant worker Quốc Phi Nguyễn led a group of Vietnamese friends to build houses for Taiwanese people around Zhubei, Hsinchu County."How can this documentary help you visually and emotionally realize that migrant workers are not tools, but human beings, with families and dreams. We often say that one should pursue one's dreams. That is why they came to Taiwan, to make their dreams come true."This narrative thread centered on Nguyễn's life story is interwoven with footage from the body camera. The news reports about migrant workers' occupational injuries and interviews offer yet another different perspective from the bodycam footage. As we become acquainted with Quốc Phi Nguyễn through images and videos, it is impossible to regard that migrant worker from the bodycam footage, virtually naked and lying on the mud, as simply a blurry face and dismiss him with a label. Viewers cannot pretend to ignore the struggle and pain that overwhelm his body after being shot so many times. Likewise, we will no longer treat migrant workers as merely animals or pieces of flesh instead of humans, stripping them of their human rights. This personal narrative combined with the bodycam footage act on the emotional level, arising empathy in viewers while also eliciting psychological shock.The bodycam footage alone can shake one profoundly. The rational probe and emotional empathy resulting from And Miles to Go Before I Sleep make it difficult for the viewer to watch from the sidelines or feel it is a distant happening. Even more so for Taiwanese viewers—we cannot pretend we have no hands in the matter. The documentary catches us unawares, forcing us to bear the guilt of this tragedy alongside all of Taiwanese society. The cruel yet authentic images of the bodycam footage are painful to watch. Tsung-Lung Tsai hopes that this pain can bring about tangible actions and power for change. This is the primary intention of And Miles to Go Before I Sleep.Narrative Adjustment and BalancingAnd Miles to Go Before I Sleep set out to interweave narratives from two different perspectives since the very start. One is that of Quốc Phi Nguyễn, the perspective of a departed spirit (roaming in the shadows); the other is that of Tsung-Lung Tsai, director and researcher of the incident (finding the pieces of the puzzle). Being able to obtain the bodycam footage and Nguyễn's social media posts chronicling his emotions increased the amount of materials available on the protagonist. The overall narrative structure thus had to undergo considerable adjustments. The pieces of the puzzle in the documentary consist chiefly of interviews to Li-Ching Lin—blue-collar worker and writer, senior police officers, and other interviewees. Albeit unseen, the director collects these fragments and attempts to piece together a host of systemic issues and uncomfortable truths. The structure built on these two pillars can be discerned in many aspects of the film.In the opening sequence, when Quốc Phi Nguyễn's family members are interviewed, we are shown the director and cameraman sitting opposite to Nguyễn's family, filmed by another camera. They are about to start the interview. Tsung-Lung Tsai mentioned that this arrangement intends to represent the perspective of the departed spirit, looking on all the research and interviews. This is also meant to create certain distance, so that viewers can shift between subjective and objective viewpoints to get a better understanding of the matter.In the interview, Nguyễn's father expressed that had it not been for his deteriorating health that prevented him to continue attending court, he would not have settled the dispute through conciliation."It is as if he was standing next to us as we conducted the interviews and research. To put it in stronger terms, perhaps all our effort will amount to nothing... As a researcher and journalist, this process is also being observed. The perspective of that spirit is like a bird's-eye view for me, taking in the entirety of the matter."Another effort to balance the narrative can be seen in the interview to the police officer's family. The media often framed the death of Quốc Phi Nguyễn as a polarizing event, with both sides finding fault with each other. But there's more to the narrative planning of And Miles to Go Before I Sleep than the migrant worker killed by 9 shots and the problematic migrant worker system that backdrops this incident. The statements by the involved policeman's family member and interviews to senior police officers broadened our perspective to show us the situation and challenges faced by junior-rank police officers and the police administrative system, as well as the scene of the act.In one post-screening Q&A session, Tsai was asked why he did not interview the involved police officer himself. Tsai answered that personal factors played a role in the death of Quốc Phi Nguyễn in addition to social ones. But the documentary's mission is not to deal with these personal factors, but to position this incident in a social context. Therefore, if the replies of the entry-level policeman who fired the shots do not contribute to our understanding of the structural problems, this might unintentionally place too much emphasis on this individual officer instead of shedding light on the more essential issues. That would also turn the narrative into a conflict between two disadvantaged parties, a more black-and-white situation. In the interview, the officer's family member expressed the other side of the story quite clearly, so interviewing the officer himself would not add any significant content to the film.Furthermore, when discussing the problem of absconded migrant workers in Taiwan, it is easy for fingers to start pointing at each other, especially with regard to problems in the brokerage system. In And Miles to Go Before I Sleep, director Tsai included remarks by a broker stating that they, too, are subject to pressure by businesses, employer demands, and commissions. This statement is perhaps too simplistic and idealized, failing to fully depict their responsibilities and duties, but it is enough to give viewers some awareness of the brokerage problem, so that they are able to grapple with the messy web of problems in this gargantuan system.Migrant worker advocacy groups organize a migrant workers' parade every two years, with their main request in the last years being to abolish the brokerage system.Bringing People TogetherWhen the Quốc Phi Nguyễn incident took place in August 2017, Zhi-Lung Zhang, in charge of in-depth documentaries for news program PTS IN-NEWS, also attempted to document and perform interviews on the matter. He began researching news coverage and ended up finding Nguyễn's hometown and family in Vietnam. He also got in touch with Nguyễn's younger sister, A-Tsao, who is also working in Taiwan. As an old colleague, Tsung-Lung Tsai asked Chang to keep the footage and data to serve as preliminary research materials for And Miles to Go Before I Sleep. Also with the assistance of Zhi-Lung Zhang, he managed to contact Nguyễn's younger sister and gain the opportunity to travel to Vietnam and film his family.At the same time, Tsai recruited some senior-year students to help with collecting a wide range of information for preliminary research, including news reports, incident data, and footage of migrant workers in Taiwan. Emma Lee joined the team in the film's planning stage. Another later recruit was Elvis Lu, with whom the director was not familiar at first, as well as cameraman Hao-Zhung Zhan—an old partner of Tsai's, film editor Hsuan-Kang Tsai, and music producer Min-Chieh Shih. They made the team of And Miles to Go Before I Sleep an assembly of renowned industry figures.The crew filmed the 2019 migrant workers' parade, with Elvis Lu as cameraman and Hsuan-Kang Tsai as executive producer (the documentary's film editor).Maybe this is related to the cumulative experience interacting with young students and artists as a professor in National Chung Cheng University. Tsai remarked that from the initial conception of And Miles to Go Before I Sleep, he looked forward to adopting different creative approaches to develop the project, such as collaborative filmmaking. Every member who joined the team did so for more than just fulfilling some specific technical need of the film. They consciously contributed their specialized skills as part of a creative collective, sharing opinions, discussing, and finishing a work together."You could say I approached them quite early. I later had an idea: a documentary is not enough. In order to change the mentality and values of Taiwanese society, it must be a diverse artwork. For instance, the film editor can use materials to make their own shorts, and the music producer can take these theme songs as their own independent music. And Miles to Go Before I Sleep is a work we completed through joint collaboration. We're calling it 'documentary' for now. Songs, short films, or even plays—they can turn it into whatever they wish. It's like shooting arrows in all directions, but they share a common theme, that is, migrant workers."Everyone who joined the production of And Miles to Go Before I Sleep was able to bring their expertise into full play. That might be the reason why no matter whether it's the narrative, ideas, images, or music, these masters in their fields engaged in dialogue and inspired one another, giving birth to a superb, powerful film that doesn't fail to impact viewers.Annotations[1] Khuôn viên văn hoá Việt Nam was co-founded by Vietnamese new immigrant Kim Hồng Nguyễn and her Taiwanese husband Tsung-Lung Tsai in May 2017. They have long devoted attention to issues of new immigrants and migrant workers in Taiwan, as well as the education and culture of second-generation immigrants. Their aim is to build a space for cultural exchange that transcends stereotypical perceptions of Vietnamese people, such as cuisine and performances.https://www.ydachangemaker.tw/post/1465-yue-zai-jia-wen-hua-zhan。​​​​​​​*Translator: Linguitronics
2023.06.16
Article | CASE STUDY
Chu-Chen Hsiao and Her Lonely Southern Railway
My first formal meeting with director Chu-Chen Hsiao was on December 2. It also happened to coincide with the opening day of the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival 2022. It is perhaps best to begin this article with that fateful happening.A glance at the list of past Best Documentary Feature winners of the Golden Horse Awards will reveal that Chu-Chen Hsiao's name has a special significance. From the early days on, virtually all nominees or winners had been government-funded film studios, such as China Film Studio and Taiwan Film Studio, as well as the Forestry Bureau and Ret-Ser Engineering Agency. Across more than 30 editions of the Golden Horse Awards, Hsiao was the first Taiwanese director to win Best Documentary Feature as an individual, two years in a row! That was for the documentary films The Red Leaf Legend in 1999 and Grandma's Hairpin in 2000. This is a record that no one has surpassed ever since.1 I originally wanted to begin the interview with this topic to break the ice. I thought it'd be a casual and fun conversation starter, but when we met in person, her actual response on this achievement differed radically from what I expected. Surely she was the envy of many with such accomplishment, but personally for her, it was a source of much anxiety rather than pride.After her win with The Red Leaf Legend, all the talk was about what topic this young creator would choose for her next work. That attention opened the door to many filmmaking opportunities and someone even offered a large amount of money to her, asking her to make a documentary on a famous war-horse of the Tangwai movement (a political movement of opponents to the then one-party rule of the Kuomintang over Taiwan). It was the year 2000 and Taiwan was for the first time ruled by a new party. Contrary to the decades prior, a Taiwan-centric perspective was on the rise at the time, with many media outlets reporting on the topic. However, Hsiao decided to swim against the current and shine a spotlight on a group of old veterans that'd been forgotten by most."Perhaps I am a rebel soul indeed. Everyone wanted to erase this group of people from memory and cast off the historical burden. This further convinced me that it was necessary to make a documentary on the topic. It's not because I myself am the daughter of a war veteran. From the point of view of contemporary history, these soldiers have lived in Taiwan ever since the end of the Chinese Civil War—they are part of Taiwan's history, whether they fit in or not." When talking about the reason why she filmed Grandma's Hairpin, Hsiao recalled the following.Going Against the MainstreamChu-Chen Hsiao's "rebelliousness" goes way beyond merely opposing uncritical mainstream thought.It was a historic low for the Taiwanese film industry when The Red Leaf Legend scored its victory. That was because under the influence of multiple politico-economic factors, Taiwan slowly lifted its restrictions on foreign films in the 90s. Hollywood commercial films took the market by storm. With a large portion of viewers being lured away, the yearly output of Taiwanese films dropped drastically and so did their box office earnings; their annual market share was down as low as 0.2% at a point. That was the case even for the Golden Horse Awards, where Chinese-made films gradually started gaining a foothold.Purely 16 a film carnival was born out of this dire economic situation. Co-organized by Chu-Chen Hsiao and several other friends, including now renowned film professionals like Te-Sheng Wei, Wen-Tang Chen, and Hung-Ya Yen, only locally-made independent films were screened at the festival. It manifested a strong independent creative spirit disproportionate to its small scale. It can even be said that Purely 16 a film carnival was a courageous stand against trends at the time, reflecting the creative personalities of its co-founders.Senior figures disapproved and were pessimistic when Hsiao turned down the large sum of money and filming opportunity proposed to her. Yet she remained intent on listening to her voice within and made her work a response to those who criticized her.Hsiao was only 28 when Grandma's Hairpin won her a second Golden Horse Award. Most classmates and friends her age were still enjoying the pleasures of youth, but she couldn't—she'd witnessed more woes and tragedies than any other of her peers, death and parting of the human exodus from China to Taiwan upon the Nationalist regime's loss. It was precisely because she documented these stories that she gained such great recognition as director. The acclaim, however, made her increasingly apprehensive of the world. She felt incredibly lonely and even considered stopping to make documentaries.The memory is still vivid even today. Whenever she visited those she'd filmed at the veterans home, she saw the condition of these dear seniors deteriorate by the day. She thought to herself that despite she'd immortalized their stories and even reaped success as a result, there was nothing she could do about their hardships and regrets. What's more, she felt puzzled and didn't know how to deal with this helplessness."I witnessed so many things at a young age. The life stories of those I filmed or the waning of Taiwan's film industry—everyone's enormous struggle to survive and move up the ladder raised in me a lot of questions about humanity, life, and even the idea of country, but no one around was able to discuss these matters with me", she remarked.Guilt, Not GloryThe ability to think profoundly is often one of the characteristics that sets outstanding artists apart.The Red Leaf Legend and Grandma's Hairpin launched Chen-Chu Hsiao into fame, but simultaneously put a huge burden on her shoulders. Many documentary filmmakers have to deal with the guilt of reaping success from others' stories and the powerlessness and self-doubt of being unable to change reality with their work. This prompts some to give up or try a hand at other creative genre. To overcome this hurdle, it is necessary to set out on a personal quest for an answer—there is no ready-made solution.The answer to Hsiao's unease was found in the Buddhist teachings.She was on the verge of giving up on documentary making. By a twist of fate, she was invited to film a documentary on Dharma Master Cheng Yen, who had just received a Presidential Culture Award. Listening to Cheng Yen speak about the Lotus Sutra while making the film and learning about the sacred text's views on the world taught her different ways to acknowledge and understand her wariness and anxiety. She then went on to serve as a volunteer at Cheng Yen's Tzu Chi Foundation in disaster rescue work at home and abroad for a long time. Members of film circles at the time were bewildered upon noticing her absence from film-related events and the hiatus in her film output—it was as if she'd suddenly vanished from this world!Her volunteering experience was life-changing, but it is barely ever mentioned when discussing her films and creative oeuvre.The years she spent as a disaster rescue volunteer helped her reflect on her role as a filmmaker. She came to discover and face her limitations. As human beings, our understanding of the world is very restricted. "I" is frequently what artists think about the most: How do "I" see the world? How do "I" express myself? How do "I" create works that are thrilling, outstanding, or transcendental? There tends to be too much ego in their minds.That overemphasized "I" becomes so tiny when everything before one's eyes is suffering and torment.From that moment on, she decided she did not want to be a creator or artist, but she no longer refused to tell other people's stories. She would just follow the flow. She was now able to both let go and carry the burden of those things that used to trouble her in the past.Following the Flow and Feeling at EaseOther than continuing to make documentaries in the last several years, Chen-Chu Hsiao has produced retrospective works on several significant films from the history of Taiwanese New Cinema: Our Time Our Story: 20 Years' New Taiwan Cinema and Face Taiwan: Power of Taiwan Cinema. Hsiao has also made a series of outstanding television series for Tzu Chi Foundation's Da Ai Television. Additionally, she began teaching film-related courses at National Tsing Hua University. Her life came to spin around filmmaking, and it has been so until the present.With time comes maturity, yet Hsiao's creative impetus hasn't stalled a bit. This year (2022), she accomplished yet another mind-blowing feat, finishing two films, including On the Train, a National Culture and Arts Foundation (NCAF) grantee and nominee for the Busan International Film Festival 2022.In contrast to speaking of her past exploits, she is quite relaxed when discussing her latest film.Director Chu-Chen Hsiao documented drivers' stories aboard the train, but beyond that, she was searching for a life answer.  (Courtesy of Chu-Chen Hsiao) When asked why she chose railways as the theme for her latest documentary On the Train, her reply was simple: She herself is a hardcore traingoer. Chu-Chen Hsiao is a Kaohsiung native. She lived there until high school graduation, when she moved to Hsinchu for studying at National Tsing Hua University. She had to rely on a lengthy train journey to move between home and school at the time. Afterwards, her parents moved to Hualien and the train became nearly the only way to go back home.For her, space-time on a train is unlike any other. One is usually surrounded by strangers. One sits at an intimate distance from other passengers, even when traveling alone, so there is no choice but sharing some emotions and "little secrets" with other passengers in the closed train cabin. It is common to hear soft whispers of love at times or the heated argument of some passenger with their call on speaker, even people confiding something to someone on the other end of the phone while adding "I'm only telling this to you and you can't let anybody else know"—they're entirely oblivious to the crowd of strangers sitting around them.Since she had to travel by train quite often, there were plenty of opportunities to observe incidents and changes that took place either on the train or around train stations. In particular, the two experiences that left the deepest impression on her are connected to death.She related how once, someone in the same cabin had a sudden heart attack. The person couldn't breathe and their heart stopped. Luckily, the friend she was traveling with happened to be a doctor and quickly proceeded to perform CPR on the afflicted passenger. Hsiao rushed across the cabins to reach the train driver and several other passengers also left their seat immediately to help as they could. In the end, the train stopped at a minor station for the passenger to be sent to a hospital on an ambulance. The other experience was when she took a train from Hualien late at night. Hsiao felt exhausted and quickly began dozing off, but soon after, the train made an emergency stop and she was thrown forward and hit the seat in front, per physical law. The sudden braking caused the entire train cabin to shake and startled passengers' screams could be heard coming from all directions. For a brief moment, she thought the train had derailed and was about to turn over. Fortunately, the train then began to slow down and it was announced that the reason of the incident had been someone lying down on the train tracks. The journey had to pause for nearly two hours and passengers could only wait on board for the situation to be solved. Despite the train began running again, the journey afterwards felt very bumpy. The driver kept stepping on the brakes. One could feel their nervousness and unease; they were like a rookie on their first time behind the wheel. The only thing she wanted to do then was to run into the driver's cabin and sit by their side to keep them company. She could easily imagine the tremendous fear and stress the driver must've been under after the incident, alone in the dark, with nothing in sight but two tracks extending limitlessly.Retracing the Tracks of HistoryWhen riding a train, people don't notice much except the train station and whether it's beautiful or not, the scenery outside the window, or the nostalgia of train meals. We rarely ever think about or get to see the driver or maintenance workers that take care of railways across the island. Many railway employees go unseen by passengers, yet they work so hard for everyone's journeys and life schedules to go according to plan.Taiwan has a profound and intimate connection with railways. There are countless fascinating stories to unearth either from the perspective of history, development of settlements, or everyday culture. Yet if we comb through existing dissertations or relevant records, trains and railways serve merely as a backdrop in the majority of scripts, including in many Taiwanese movies. This is common imagery across films, such as Dust In The Wind and A City of Sadness. These have memorable scenes featuring trains and railways, but very few works document or discuss railways and the lives of railway employees."Trains are an excellent point of departure. You can practically write a chapter on Taiwan's history by looking at railway culture and the context of railway development", she remarked.History is central to most of Hsiao's past oeuvre, whether the protagonists in front of the lens are men whose lives are fraught with uncertainties despite being members of a legendary baseball team in their youth, or veterans in the dusk of their life that were driven away from their hometowns by war and never able to return decades since. What she sees from behind the lens is not people, but rather, the flow of history roaring behind these individuals. On the Train might be themed on railways, but it is the same at the core.Director Chu-Chen Hsiao only wanted to document the shifts in the South-link line at first, but ended up stepping into the world of frontline railway staff.  (Courtesy of Chu-Chen Hsiao) When asked about her strong interest in history, she replied that maybe it is due to her incompetence in mathematics since an early age. She never considered pursuing a career in the sciences for this reason. It could also have been that she inherited her father's love of books. She would spend all her spare time reading as a child. She probably went through every page in the books from her hometown's small library. Her conclusion was that she loved history books best—they show us that history repeats itself and that the success or failure of history's actors and history's revolutions have reasonable explanations.When taking the Joint College Entrance Examination, Hsiao's number one choice was National Taiwan University's Department of History. However, she shared, her math grade was too low and back in those times, one had to respond essay questions on the Three Principles of the People. Her final grade fell short and she was scolded badly by her teacher. In the end, she opted for National Tsing Hua University's Department of Economics. She said it was because when doing research on the department, she saw a lot of social analysis and macroeconomic studies—close enough to history. It was only after enrollment that she realized it required lots of accounting, calculus, and statistics credits, in other words, math, just what she fared worst at!"The result was that my university grades were terrible. I only cared about student publications and participating in feminist movements, constantly picking quarrels with school", she remarked.Trust Is the Fuel That Propels UsChu-Chen Hsiao is quite straightforward and jovial in conversation, without much flourish or formalities. It is perhaps because of this character that she comes across as someone approachable and trustworthy. That is a natural advantage for a documentary filmmaker.When filming On the Train, one of her greatest challenges was the scarcity of archival footage on the South-link line. Later on, she became acquainted with Ming-Cheng Liao, Section Chief of the Duoliang Section Rerouting Project, during the filming process. In a conversation, Hsiao learned that Section Chief Liao had been personally involved in the construction project for the South-link line. This is not the only surprising coincidence Hsiao encountered. She lived a series of similar happenings throughout the filming process. For instance, she also discovered that one of the persons she'd been filming actually came from a family of railway employees. The experiences of three-generations amounted for a touching story. In fact, many of those filmed enthusiastically introduced Hsiao to more individuals that had participated in the South-link line's construction. It was thanks to such goodwill and trust that she had the chance to document so many heretofore unheard stories of the railway line.Only with a tiny bit of hope, Hsiao asked Section Chief Liao whether he had kept some photos from the time of the construction, and he only casually agreed to go search for some back home. Never did she imagine that after some time, he'd come back and personally deliver two large bags filled with photos from the construction period of the South-link line.With utmost care, she carried the two bags with precious pictures in her arms and estimated how long it'd take to scan them all. She was worried that the task could not be completed in a day. It turns out that Section Chief Liao gave her a moving reply, "These photos I keep in my house are just memories, but if I hand them over to you, they can turn into history."Section Chief Liao gave her more than just pictures. To her, they were fragments from the lives of many people and pieces of the priceless puzzle we call this land's "collective memory".The items collected by retired railway employees, those train scrap parts, bear witness to a bygone era.  (Courtesy of Chu-Chen Hsiao) Railway networks were extremely dense on the island of Taiwan for a period in history. Trains would carry not only people but also lumber and metals. With the land dressed in fine, intricate lines of rail tracks, one could even have called Taiwan the "kingdom of railways". As time moved on, however, these industries began to wane and so, the trains and numerous railway lines fell into disuse. Furthermore, after the 90s, Taiwan's transport policy focused in substituting railways with highways. People from younger generations might find it hard to imagine the central role that trains played in the past. The lives of the working class were also deeply affected by the shift. From train stations and waiting platforms to train cabins, these are filled with memories, both sweet and sour, reminiscences cherished by people regardless of the emotion.One can observe this in Hsiao's documentary: crowds of people competed to buy tickets and board the last trip of the now-defunct ordinary train with blue exterior. Even if many of those passengers were past their prime, their eyes were shining with excitement when sharing memories from their youth on the train with younger companions, as if they were transported to the past. It is not scenery that flashes before passengers' eyes from outside the window—they're reliving their youth.The Railway Encircles the Island, Why Choose the South-Link Line?The railway encircles Taiwan, why the South-link line then?Hsiao recalled that in the beginning, even the Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) asked her the same question. Why choose to film the South-link line, that few people pay attention to, instead of the more state-of-the-art North-link line? This kind of response made her feel that not even TRA shows appreciation for the South-link line. It fails to recognize the importance of this railway line.The South-link line was the last railway line to be completed in Taiwan. The rest began to be planned and built during the Japanese colonial period leveraging Japan's technical prowess. From onsite surveying and route measurement to the construction stage, a Taiwanese team completed all the necessary tasks for the South-link line. The process began in 1980 and the line began operating in 1991. It has the highest altitude among all of Taiwan's railway lines and it crosses tall, craggy mountains with relatively less settlements along the way. Not only did this make construction work more challenging, but it also significantly increased the difficulty of delivering supplies across such long period of time.The South-link line was also Taiwan's last railway line to undergo electrification, so it preserved many expansive railway sceneries that were only possible with legacy facilities. In comparison, railway lines that were electrified early on had their sights spoiled by messy, intertwining cables hanging from forest-like electric poles.What matters most is not why Chu-Chen Hsiao chose the South-link line; we should simply feel lucky that she did, because a lot of the breathtaking sights along the South-link line have now vanished behind the electric poles and cables. On the Train preserves that untainted beauty for posterity.The sights of the tracks in the documentary are now just a memory.  (Courtesy of Chu-Chen Hsiao) Perhaps it is because she's older that filming is no longer merely artistic creation for her: it is about keeping records for this land we live on, so that we may look back on them and develop a closer connection to our homeland. This was her original goal when deciding to make this documentary, but not everyone shared her ideal in the initial stage when seeking production funding. In the review committee meeting for certain grant, a reviewer stated that, considering the consecutive safety incidents that have occurred in Taiwan's railways in recent years, they'd be concerned that the documentary is interpreted as publicity on behalf of TRA.Documentaries are fated to encounter this problem: they are always expected to be filmed from a critical perspective. This expectation almost certainly exerts a great influence on a documentary's performance in Taiwan. In the beginning, documentaries were controlled by political organs, serving as tools to promote their ideology. When the Tangwai movement gained momentum in the 80s, they were weapons for the people to protest against authoritarianism. In more recent times, many documentaries are created for the purpose of bringing attention to people at the bottom of society and the underprivileged. This evolution has made it nearly impossible to separate documentaries from politics and social issues. Some viewers still hold this stereotype of documentaries.Hsiao felt deeply frustrated about the reviewer's worries. She knows that documentaries don't necessarily have to be about criticism. They are products of the art of filmmaking and thus should be open to all sorts of possibilities. This is the principle she keeps in mind every time she reviews grants or acts as judge for a film festival. She firmly believes that there is merit if a documentary extensively revisits and criticizes the railway safety incidents from Taiwan's recent history, however, this is not the story she wishes to convey. The shifts and disappearance of railway culture are the closest to her heart. They are the traces of a bygone era and an important part of collective memory in Taiwan. This is what makes them precious cultural assets that won't fail to move audiences when compared to critical documentary films."Cultural identity" has become a hot topic in Taiwan in recent years. Hsiao believes that it is imperative to first be acquainted with the shifting appearance of the land we live on and its historical footprints in order to discuss our cultural identity. It cannot simply be born out of thin air, with people ignorant of these facts. She puts these beliefs into practice, too. It is conspicuous in her oeuvre. From Face Taiwan: Power of Taiwan Cinema to On the Train, she constantly attempts to present the changing faces of Taiwan through film, simultaneously expressing her care and recognition of this piece of land.A Person's Solitude Dispels the Loneliness of ManyIn On the Train, the story is not told from a single person's perspective. It features a large number of individuals. The protagonists range from railway employees and train passengers to train connoisseurs—even the train itself is a major character. The huge size and racing speed of this central character made filming the documentary even more challenging.Chu-Chen Hsiao admits that the railway is the toughest theme she has tackled to date. It was particularly tolling on her body. She laughed as she mentioned how glad she is filming started five years ago. If she had to embark on this project today, her body might not be able to withstand the strain, no matter how strong her will is. She had to squeeze herself into the already narrow driver's cabin to get shots of the train driver. She could only enter a gap of around 50 cm behind the driver, so she had to give up larger devices in favor of a compact camera and her mobile phone. Through a three-hour ride, she had to stand continuously behind the driver, with barely any chance to even move her legs.Filming railroad maintenance workers was an entirely different trial. She had to go film after the last train departure and before the first journey the next day. Maintenance workers perform repairs and service the rail tracks in those five to six hours before daybreak. Besides working through the night, they must race against time to ensure the train can operate safely and punctually. These tasks are both physically and mentally taxing.As for the breathtaking mountain and ocean landscapes along the train route, she had to seek advice from train connoisseurs and reach remote areas without cell signal to take those shots. They had to dispatch a number of cameramen to stand by for half a day at various small train stations where no passengers would even alight or board, only to film seconds-long shots of the train passing by. If the result was unsatisfying, the cameraman had to wait for another half day or simply come back another time. Even cutting-edge drones were unable to keep up with the train's speed—by the time they identified their objective, they'd already have missed the chance to film the best sequence. All these circumstances made staff deployment a delicate task and pushed the production costs through the roof.The film crew was deeply moved at seeing the phrase "Have a safe trip" made from scrap parts of the train head.  (Courtesy of Chu-Chen Hsiao) Even with the NCAF grant, there were still more than NT$1 million in production budget to be covered. At the moment, Hsiao has taken on the expenses herself to finish the film successfully and meet the 2023 deadline of the screening project. On the Train has begun online crowdfunding in the hopes of bringing this distinctly Taiwanese railway story to more people through audience support.I remember how by the end of the interview that day, Hsiao brought up that as she was writing texts for the purpose of raising funds for the project, a phrase stood out that she especially wanted to feature on the poster: "A person's solitude dispels the loneliness of many." This encapsulates Hsiao's feelings from seeing the arduous effort by many railway employees these years. The train driver sits alone on the tiny driver's cabin, carrying travelers on a holiday or itinerants on their way home back and forth across the rail line. It is the solitude of railway staff that fulfills people's yearning to move and meet, dispelling passengers' loneliness.This phrase could also be used to describe Chu-Chen Hsiao herself.With camera in hand, chasing the stories of Taiwan's railways day and night, she also dispels the loneliness of cinemagoers through the artist's solitude.Annotations[1]Director Hao Zhou also won Best Documentary Feature two years in a row in 2014 and 2015, albeit these were in the name of a company.*Translator: Linguitronics
2023.05.29