Chu-Chen Hsiao and Her Lonely Southern Railway
Hui-Chen Huang
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 Mainstream
Chu-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 Glory
The 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 Ease
Other 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 History
When 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 Us
Chu-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 Many
In 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.
[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