Filmmaker Maso Chen (陳志漢) recalls an audience member yelling at him after a screening of his first documentary many years ago.
Moving Lord Chiang (移蔣公記) followed a group of old soldiers who went to great lengths to protect a statue of former president Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) by relocating it to their military dependents’ village in Taoyuan.
Chen showed the film to much fanfare, but didn’t expect a furious viewer — who hated Chiang — to confront him after a separate screening at a university.
“I realized that the film set off such raw emotions in people because it told a true story. At that moment, I felt that I really wanted to continue making documentaries — although I try to avoid getting screamed at,” he quips.
Chen’s first full-length directorial effort The Silent Teacher (那個靜默的陽光午後) opened last month. It revolves around a deceased woman who has donated her body to a medical school for dissection. Chen says the most satisfying thing about making a documentary is the impact it has on the viewers.
“It brings the viewer into a world they’ve never seen before,” Chen says. “I don’t explain every little detail. I treat it more as a story that guides the viewer to the unknown, which contains many aspects they can explore. I don’t know what changes it might bring, but I’m sure it will affect them somehow.”
The first step, however, is to get people to appreciate the craft. Chen says he once surveyed people in Taipei’s Ximending about their thoughts on documentary film.
“I got all kinds of strange answers,” he says, “but almost nobody ment ioned that it could be a story of a human being.”
“The general feeling I got was that they didn’t think documentaries were enjoyable to watch. They’re dry. They put you to sleep. They are something to watch on TV, not in a theater,” he adds.
Chen says he has put much thought into what people like to watch through studying popular films such as Cape No. 7 (海角七號).
“The key is to make documentaries that people can understand and relate to,” he says. “From the very beginning, directors need to learn to strike a balance between what they want to film and what people want to watch.”
For The Silent Teacher, Chen made the story about an ordinary person. He chose Lin Hui-tsong (林惠宗), a swimming instructor whose wife’s body was being prepared for dissection at Fu Jen Catholic University.
“Of course, there’s something intriguing about this person,” he says. “Lin would visit his wife’s body every month and talk to it. That’s unusual. Other than that, his daily life is pretty normal. He likes helping people and he’s involved in a lot of activities. That’s what people can relate to.”
Chen says the story rarely unfolds as planned, but knows he has a good story if he can show character development.
“I was worried because Lin is such an optimistic person,” Chen says. “He didn’t appear sad and I was concerned that he had already gotten over his wife’s death. But the day before the dissection (and the last time he could talk to the body), he broke down in tears. Now that’s a significant change.”
Chen is especially interested in life-and-death subjects, and is currently working on a project that involves filming a family that has a relative in palliative care.
“When people face death, their true self emerges,” Chen says. “Even their ugly side is palatable... I think it’s beautiful.”