Fri, Apr 22, 2011 - Page 16 News List

Movie review: From the flames

The Cloud Gate fire in 2008 prompted Tung Tsu-hsien to help fund a six-film documentary series on some of Taiwan’s greatest literary figures

By Ho Yi  /  Staff Reporter

Lin Jing-jie, The Man Behind the Book.

Photo courtesy of Fisfisa

When Lin Jing-jie (林靖傑) turned his lens on novelist Wang Wen-hsing (王文興) for a documentary project, he felt like a novice standing before a martial arts master. He tried to enlist help from other authors in tackling the star of the film, but most “declined the offer with an awed look on their faces,” Lin said.

Those reactions are understandable. Wang, now 72, has earned a reputation as Taiwan’s most abstruse modernist author, despite the fact he has only two major works to his name: Family Catastrophe (家變), which was published in 1973 and is regarded as subversive and groundbreaking in content and form, and the two-volume Backed Against the Sea (背海的人), which was published 25 years later.

The Man Behind the Book (尋找背海的人), Lin’s film about Wang, is part of a six-film series titled The Inspired Island: Series of Eminent Writers From Taiwan (他們在島嶼寫作—文學大師系列電影), for which five directors documented the lives and work of six literary figures, including poets Yu Kuang-chung (余光中), Yang Mu (楊牧), Chou Meng-tieh (周夢蝶) and Cheng Chou-yu (鄭愁予), as well as female writer Lin Hai-yin (林海音).

The ambitious project was born of a fire in 2008 that engulfed much of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s (雲門舞集) studio in Bali (八里) District, New Taipei City. The blaze prompted Pegatron Corp (和碩) chairman Tung Tsu-hsien (童子賢) to take action to preserve Taiwan’s artistic heritage. Two years of negotiations and more than NT$15 million in funding later, some of Taiwan’s most celebrated literary figures were immortalized on film.

As most of the authors were driving forces in the poetry movement that flourished between 1950 and 1970, the films offer a window into an exciting age in Taiwanese literature. The zeitgeist of the era is reflected through personal histories and anecdotes, and the documentaries serve as references and footnotes to one another, synergistically building up the bigger picture.

In The Man Behind the Book, Lin Jing-jie uses animation and theatrical performances to bring to life Wang’s novels and probe the author’s tempestuous inner world. The documentary, which is easily accessible to those who may not know anything about the author, includes interviews and commentary from young writers.

Images of the novelist writing in his cell-like study reveal why Wang produces only 35 characters a day. He lashes out violently on pieces of paper with a pen as if he were sculpting words, not writing them.

It’s telling that the film only shows Wang performing a reenactment of writing in his study; the purist says he can’t work with even the slightest interruption — in this case, a small digital camera on a tripod.

“I held myself in check a little to be photogenic. The reality is 10 times more violent than what you see in the film,” Wang told the audience at a question-and-answer session held after the film’s premiere earlier this month. “I write this way exactly because I can’t write, not even one word, but feel even worse if I don’t write anything at all.”

The affable relationship between Lin Jing-jie and Wang is the subject of envy for veteran filmmaker Chen Huai-en (陳懷恩), who spent

a year and half documenting Yu, but was

unable to observe the poet in an up-close and personal manner.

“At his age [82], Yu focuses his energy on his works and cares less about the outside world ... He thought making a documentary would be like an interview that could be done in a day. Most of the time, he would say, ‘Okay, I think that is enough for the day,’” Chen explained.

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