Wed, Apr 23, 2008 - Page 14 News List

Niu Chen-zer was once so wrong, but now he's so right

By Ho Yi  /  STAFF REPORTER

PHOTO: COURTESY OF HONTO PRODUCTION

Wearing jeans and a white T-shirt, Niu Chen-zer (鈕承澤) led me to the rooftop garden outside his study for our interview. His home, a modish two-floor apartment, is a tastefully designed retreat from Taipei’s bustling East District (東區), Funny and well-spoken, Niu talks with a sense of drama punctuated by contemplative pauses, expressive hand and facial gestures, and the occasional vulgarity.

Sometimes looking straight past me, as if he were delivering a monologue on stage, the 42-year-old actor and director declaimed at great length about his life, personal problems, and his new movie What on Earth Have I Done Wrong? (情非得已之生存之道). The film, produced and directed by Niu, is a semi-autobiographical tale starring the versatile director himself and is his first feature-length production after years of experience in acting and directing soap operas for television.

Taipei Times: The project (What on Earth Have I Done Wrong?) started out as a political satire in the form of a mockumentary. When and how did you decide to change it to a semi-autobiographical work?

Niu Chen-zer: [Long pause] The film doesn’t come from here [points to his head], but from here [points to his heart]. It is not a meticulously calculated result, but a thing life pushed me to do. To put the whole story in a nutshell, my life crumbled when I approached 40. The woman I loved left me; I was lost, eaten away by distress and fear. Having spent half a year being with myself through counseling and meditation, I realized that we were way too used to pointing fingers at others, to playing the role of the victim to escape our responsibilities.

When negative situations and emotions such as frustration, anxiety and depression occur, I used to just run away — and there were many ways to get away: booze, drugs and sex. It was like a festering wound.

The setback two years ago forced me to face my problems. I had an epiphany, and with this epiphany, I realized I no longer wanted to make a mockumentary that pointed the finger at others, that thought it was so intelligent it could offer a collective out for everyone. I feel it is more meaningful to share how I feel and what I have been through with the audience. On a personal level, it is a film that thoroughly destroys Doze [Niu’s nickname] so that I can face the later half of my life with a clear conscience. On a broader scale, I hope the film can also help others to reveal their own truths.

TT: In the beginning, did some people oppose the new direction?

NC: Yeah, because they didn’t know what I was up to. In fact, I didn’t know how to tell the story at first either. How could I turn my life experiences into a feature-length format and make it an interesting viewing experience rather than a pitiful self-indulgent work? It took me around six months to figure these things out.

TT: But you kept the documentary-like, oftentimes hand-held look.

NC: I have an obsession with hand-held cinematography. With a limited budget, I wanted to make the film raw and direct. [He pauses.] It was an aesthetic choice made right from the start. I also wanted to create a restless feel and a sense of voyeurism, since part of the audience’s viewing pleasure comes from peeping at the life of this bastard called Niu Chen-zer.

TT: Was being a director a dream of yours?

NC: After starring in Growing Up (小畢的故事, 1983), I had this teenager’s dream of becoming a versatile filmmaker who could tell stories that Taiwanese cinema had not seen before. Was it because by being a director one could lord it over anyone on the set and fall in love with the leading lady? Or was it because being a director was a label that would set myself apart from other people? I don’t know. But because of the dream, I showed more interest in film production than other actors did. I would hang out with the lighting technicians during the shooting of one film and with producers during another.

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