Despite hours of press interviews , director Tom Shu-Yu Lin (林書宇) looked upbeat and cheery when we meet at a coffee shop near 228 Memorial Park (二 二 八紀念公園). After a few minutes of chatting, Lin’s slight accent reveals his upbringing in the US.
Once a young man troubled by a “split identity,” Lin returns to his teenage years with Winds of September (九降風), which hits the big screen Friday. An autobiographical story about the lives of nine high school students in Hsinchu (新竹), the coming-of-age film, Lin’s debut feature, is the first part of a trilogy produced by Hong Kong luminary Eric Tsang (曾志偉). After reading Lin’s script, Tsang expanded the project and invited two other directors in Hong Kong and China to tell stories about adolescent lives in the three Chinese-speaking lands.
Taipei Times: What was it like as a kid and teenager living in a bilingual/bicultural environment?
PHOTO: TAIPEI TIMES FILE AND COURTESY OF OCEAN DEEP FILMS
Lin Shu-yu: I spent my elementary school years in Twin Cities, Minnesota, where my dad went for his doctoral study in American literature. When we came back to Hsinchu, I could neither read nor write Mandarin. I went to the bilingual high school at Hsinchu Science Park. It was quite an embarrassing period for a teenager because when it was time for Chinese and history classes [taught in Chinese], I had to go to study with elementary first-graders. It was weird with the mini-sized table and all. I didn’t pick up all the basics from those crash courses so I had to peep at those kids’ examination papers to pass tests. Yeah, I had my first-grader friends covering my back (laughing).
TT: I read that though your father is a professor at National Tsing Hua Universtiy (國立清華大學), you weren’t a "good" student in high school and liked to hang out with delinquents.
LSY: I am a people person. Before we went to the US, I studied for one semester in Taiwan. The only thing I remember is that the teacher kept moving me around because I couldn’t stop chatting with my ... neighbor. She thought sitting me with strangers could keep me quiet. Well, it didn’t work. I can have conversations with pretty much all types of people.
PHOTO: TAIPEI TIMES FILE AND COURTESY OF OCEAN DEEP FILMS
TT: What was it like working with teenage illegal aliens for your graduation film project Parachute Kids?
LSY: I used to have an accent when speaking Mandarin. I still sound a bit different. Even in college, I felt quite out of place and would say to myself, “everything will be OK after I go back to the US.” But when I did go back, it was one episode of culture shock after another … . Interestingly, the Chinese communities were where I felt most at home when I was in the US. It is also where I met those teens. They are the minority of the minority because they are Chinese aliens without identities. They have their own world, organizations and leaders to take care of each other. Taiwan’s organized crime groups like the Four Seas (四海幫) and Bamboo Union (竹聯幫) gangs are big in California and would recruit those kids.
Fascinated by the illegal aliens’ culture, I started making a documentary about their lives and gave them DV recorders to shoot their own films. The material they gave back was both amazing and shocking. But a moral question quickly emerged as I worried that once my film was out, they might face the risk of being deported. The project was later changed to a short fiction starring those teenagers.
PHOTO: TAIPEI TIMES FILE AND COURTESY OF OCEAN DEEP FILMS
It was after Parachute Kids that I realized that my heart was with those people and places closer to me.
(The 32-year-old director returned to Taiwan in 2002 after graduating and has since worked as an assistant director for people like Tsai Ming-liang (蔡明亮), Cheng Wen-tang (鄭文堂) and Zero Chou (周美玲). Lin’s 2005 short, The Pain of Others (海巡尖兵), is based on his experience of military service and won the best narrative film trophy at Taipei Film Festival (台北電影節).)
TT: What was your earliest encounter with cinema?
LSY: When I was little, my parents would leave us at a cineplex, and we would while the day away eating popcorn, watching movies and hanging out at the mall. After we moved back to Hsinchu, I used to spend whole afternoons in the video rental shop near my home, doing nothing but reading movie introductions on rental covers.
My first awakening to cinema as an art form came with Edward Yang’s (楊德昌) A Brighter Summer Day (牯嶺街少年殺人事件). I was the same age as Chang Chen’s (張震) character in the film when I first saw it in theater. The movie was three hours long, and I remember hoping it would never end. It was a moment of revelation. My interest in understanding what cinema is began after that.
TT: Your childhood was spent in the US. Why did you choose to tell a story that comes from a Taiwanese perspective in Winds of September?
LSY: My teenage years were quite split actually. I had two different groups of friends and lead two kinds of lifestyles. I would go out and have street fights together with my buddies from a military village.
Meanwhile, my ABT friends and I would steal our dads’ cars to have fun on weekends. Winds of September is my Taiwanese half of life. I chose this side so that local audiences could feel directly related to the story.
TT: How did Eric Tsang discover the project? Did he give you enough freedom to make your own choices?
LSY: Having invested in many films by young directors in Hong Kong, Tsang wanted to do the same thing in Taiwan and asked his daughter [Taiwan-based actress] Bowie Tsang (曾寶儀) to scout new talents for him. Bowie knows my works through The Pain of Others. We had a chat, and she sent the script to Tsang.
Tsang respects me as a director and let me do my own thing. He wouldn’t come to me and say, “I think you should do this and that.” He would tell me a story that went like “when I worked with Peter Ho-Sun Chan (陳可辛), he used to do this and that.” He didn’t try to convince me either. He just showed me there were other ways and choices.
TT: Have you seen the trilogy’s other two films?
LSY: I have only seen the DVD version of the Chinese one. Hong Kong’s High Noon (烈日當空) will be screened at the upcoming Taipei Film Festival.
You can really see the cultural differences in the ways the stories are presented and how the teenagers express themselves.
I think the biggest difference is that Taiwanese people are more sentimental and full of feelings. We tend to cherish our past and memories more.
In my film, there is this scene where students burst into tears at the graduation ceremony. The other two directors didn’t understand that. They were like “what’s with those tears? Shouldn’t they be trying to get out of there as soon as possible?”
TT: Some movie pundits have said that your accent on realism and your desire to present a history of the self are legacies of Taiwan’s New Wave. Do you agree?
LSY: As a Taiwanese director, it is impossible not to know the work of Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝賢), Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang. The biggest influence the New Wave has on me is the demand for truthfulness and realism.
On the other hand, my generation of filmmakers was also brought up watching Hong Kong cinema. Mark Gor [Chow Yun-fat’s (周潤發) character in A Better Tomorrow] and A Chinese Ghost Story have influenced us.
I’ve tried to reach a balance between the two. While New Wave cinema rejects the dramatic and pre-arranged, I am not afraid of the theatrical and am willing to tell my story through the three-act play model. It comes from my Western upbringing. In Greek mythology, you have the three-act play and heroes. But in Taiwanese New Wave, there is no heroic character you can follow through a journey.
TT: So you chose a compromise between art house and commercial cinema?
LSY: I think it’s rather difficult to define what is art and what is commercial. I tend to think that the difference is between what is personal and what is public. We filmmakers are not idiots. We know, more or less, what the public likes and wants. I have my personal preferences, my ways of self-expression and story telling. But it doesn’t mean they can be accepted by the public without translation. What I have been trying to do is to reach a balance between what I like and what the audience can accept.
TT: How much of the story reflects your real life?
LSY: I’ll say 60 percent to 70 percent of the story comes from my real-life experiences such as the fighting, stealing a bike and swimming nude.
TT: Which character in the film resembles you the most?
LSY: The author is always a narcissist, so the lead actor who takes up the most screen time is oftentimes the creator’s alter ego. Yeah, I am the character Tang. [Tang is the serious and quiet one in a gang of seven high school buddies. The story is more or less told through Tang, who is secretly in love with the group leader’s girlfriend.]
He is like most men out there. We are normal folks.
TT: So you think of yourself as an ordinary guy?
LSY:Yes, of course. I am not the handsomest, not the smartest, not the funniest or the coolest. I am average. Countless men are like this. We hope we are the best of something, but we are not.
TT: You have worked with other young filmmakers and actors such as Cheng Yu-chieh
(鄭有傑) and Huang Jian-wei (黃健瑋). Have you formed a network of mutual help?
LSY: Yeah, we help each other out. Cheng can’t do anything other than directing. But he is good-looking; he could be my actor. I can be a good assistant director, so I assist.
Another good thing about having a group of filmmaker friends is that if our films aren’t good, our friends will just come out and say, “your film sucks. You’re so dead.”
I think it is good because people are too nice to us. They are too polite to tell us which parts we do wrong. But if we don’t see our shortcomings, we can’t make progress.
TT: What do you think about the current state of Taiwanese cinema.
LSY: Since we don’t have an industry, my generation of filmmakers is in an unfavorable situation where we are pushed to make feature-length films while we are still learning the ropes. The biggest problem we face is that we spend lots of money learning how to be a director. We make lots of mistakes that could be avoided if we had more experience.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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