Taipei Times: Given your parents’ experience of being blacklisted by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) during the White Terror era, did they ever worry about your safety after you embarked on this project?
Will Tiao (刁毓能): Ever since I left Washington, my career in politics, to pursue a career in Hollywood, I told them I wanted to do something about this issue, with regards to this idea of there being a series of murders of Taiwanese intellectuals, some of them in the US … that there were student spies on almost every campus. I had always wanted to tell the story for an American audience. I knew it was part of my parents’ story. I made it clear from day one that this was something I wanted to do. My father especially said that if you’re going to do something for Taiwan, then I’ll support you.
Of course we knew that doing this movie was something that would be provoking and controversial. But we were always careful about not pointing fingers. Other than Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), no other historical figure is mentioned. Never in the film did we use the terms Kuomintang or waishengren (外省人); we don’t call out any specific person … Of course we were aware that this could cause — and obviously caused — a lot of consternation among certain people, but we were always careful not to keep this in the typical blue-green divide that deals with Taiwan.
TT: How did that consternation you refer to express itself?
Tiao: If you look at the Internet, there’s attacks all over the place. People are arguing and debating and that’s part of why we did this, to make people focus on this. One time at Harvard when I was giving a speech there, a woman came in and asked: ‘What events are you talking about, is this real or is this fake, because this isn’t the history that I was taught.’ And I said, every character in this film is inspired on at least two actual, and every major event in this movie is a composite of an actual event … People get to see how impassioned the debate is. I’m happy to see that people are engaged.
TT: The movie The Killing Fields [about genocide in Cambodia] came out just a few years after the actual events. Have you encountered criticism that your movie, on the other hand, is about ‘ancient’ history, as it depicts events that took place 30 or 40 years ago?
Tiao: Absolutely. But we still see ramifications of that period today. The idea that the 1970s and 1980s is ancient history strikes me as very odd. Most people who were involved in those events are still alive today — at least those who survived. And some of those people are now in power. To not be reminded of what it was like, and what decisions were made at that time on all sides, is not only ill-considered, it’s blasphemous. There’s a reason why so many movies have been made about the Holocaust. We’re the first Hollywood movie about this subject [in Taiwan].
This is a reminder of history that is still fresh on the page and is something that needs to be understood, so that Generation Y know what their parents had to go through to get where they are today, and not forget.
Taiwan is a very unique place, it’s a place where democracy can easily slide backwards because of the specter of China. A lot of people focus on Taiwan’s economic miracle, but few focus on the democratic miracle, and to me that’s something that needed to be told.