Liberty Times: Your film is the most expensive movie ever made in Taiwan, with production costs of about NT$700 million (US$23 million). What impact do you expect it to have on the Taiwanese film industry?
Wei Te-sheng (魏德聖): Primarily, I would like the industry to embrace the concept of working together. What I wanted to do is what happens in the movie industry in Hollywood all the time, but the concept of a Taiwanese film industry is not yet fully formed and the thinking of many people remains firmly in the past when movies were still very small-scale.
I tried to bring together the most talented people [in the film sector] and by doing so create a Taiwanese film industry, but what I discovered was that although we definitely have the people, they are scattered around the country and often compete against each other rather than cooperate, preferring to keep their area of expertise or skills to themselves rather than share with others.
The key to industrialization lies in cooperation and the hardest part [about making that reality] is integration.
For example, we initially thought that we didn’t have sufficient know-how and so we hired a [South] Korean company to help, but after seeing them working with steel wires, special effects, equipment and on action scenes, what we found was that we did have the know-how, we just weren’t able to bring the necessary people together as part of a single film industry.
Now there is much talk of integration.
Next in line is the cultivation of professionals. The crew I used to shoot [Warriors of the Rainbow:] Seediq Bale was largely composed of young people who did not have much experience, but were very passionate and refused to take a day off even when they became sick from exhaustion and overwork.
Another problem was basic catering. It was a headache for us to buy 500 lunchboxes every day we were shooting in mountain areas. We couldn’t hire our own chef because only half an hour was allotted for meals and it was just inconceivable that we would stop filming for two hours waiting as hundreds of people lined up to eat.
In the end, the stage manager bought the lunchboxes in town every day. He even made it compulsory for everyone to separate trash from recyclables, which showed impressive spirit.
An even more difficult problem was trying to meet the bathroom needs of the crew and cast. It wasn’t economical to buy diapers, so we solved the problem by digging a hole [which we called a restroom], placing a large plastic bag in it and making sure it was periodically cleaned.
Everyone who took part will tell you that working together and finishing the movie was one of the most important events in their life. It didn’t matter if they had no experience, what was important was that they tried to solve problems head-on. That’s why so many people were in tears at the wrap party — we achieved something that few people thought we ever would.
LT: In the past, Taiwan lacked movies on such an epic scale, because of the self-imposed limits of films and secondly because it was difficult to find appropriate historical subject matter. In contrast, you focused on a prominent event in modern Taiwanese history. How did you approach this epic movie?
Wei: I was not particularly interested in producing an epic, what I did care about was how we were going to interpret history. I am happy that we found a way to interpret Seediq Bale from the perspective of a hunter.
What I mean by that is the way in which the inherent way of thinking in hunter culture is the culture of “Chasing song with song” and “chasing life with life.” The chorus of the Aboriginals is the same tune chasing after the verse, and the life of the hunter is the same.
The main character[s] in the movie want to die, because they believe death will take them to the “rainbow.” They are chasing freedom of the soul in death, and are not particularly bothered about mortal existence. In adopting this approach, what could I impart to the audience other than a sense of tragedy?
Finally, I understood that there is another meaning in life, namely continuing the life of the tribe. If someone passes away, then the responsibility of preserving the bloodline of tribe and family falls to those who are left.
That was why at the end of Seediq Bale (the second part of the movie), there is a scene about the Aboriginal myth that everything must return to the fountain of life, and that we must never forget our roots.
Only by maintaining equilibrium between life and death can something be called an epic.
LT: What is it that you truly wanted to challenge with this movie?
Wei: Seediq Bale is a great story, and I uncovered a unique point of view from which to view history. The main character is caught in a dilemma in which taking action at either end of the spectrum is “wrong.” In this situation, should he do it? If so, then how? Taking this idea and looking at our own lives, most of us have at one time or another found ourselves in situations where any outcome is going to be bad irrespective of anything we might do.
In history, it is important to try to understand the motives of the people involved. If we look at a person’s action only to decide if that person was right or wrong, then we really are thinking about humanity on too small a scale.
Try to imagine being in the 1930s. If your world was made up of tribal members and foreigners and you had only traditional beliefs to fall back on when the foreigners oppressed you, what kind of choices would you make? If you place yourself in their shoes, then it becomes easier to understand why they did what they did.
With this level of understanding, it should be easier to move away from past hatreds. Especially for Taiwanese who tend to have contradictory views of history. I hope that Seediq Bale provides a certain degree of perspective, and encourages people to think about the future [in a new light].
LT: People watching this movie are likely to compare their own experiences with what they see in the film. Do you think that this could lead to some confusion?
Wei: The average movie does not need to be explained, but Seediq Bale does, because it challenges the modern values we hold dear. It requires more explanation and I encourage people to discuss their thoughts about the movies with friends.
For example, some people have complained that the film was overly bloody and objected to scenes in which women and children are killed.
Ultimately, I decided to keep those scenes because they reflected the truth and I felt it was important to face such things head on, but rather encourage the audience to consider how such brutality should be dealt with.
In the same vein, I also arranged for [the character of] Mona Rudao to sit next to the Japanese flag after the incident, watching what was going on, just breathing heavily and not saying anything. That scene was intended to convey that even the instigator of the massacre felt the paradox of his actions.
LT: There was some criticism that the film is rated ‘parental guidance’ (PG) instead of ‘restricted,’ despite the numerous killings. What are your thoughts on the issue?
Wei: I personally fought for the film to be rated PG, not because of the box office, but because I think junior high and high school students should come and watch the film. These youngsters will soon join the adult world and I think that it is important they know about the Wushe Incident, despite the fact that it is a tragedy. I also think they should watch the film with a teacher because then he or she can offer guidance if they have questions that need answering.
LT: By all accounts everyone involved in making Seediq Bale endured great hardships to see the project completed. What are your thoughts on the project now that it is over?
Wei: A lot of people have asked me why I didn’t wait until I had the money to make the film, to which I say the money might never have come, but the cast and equipment were there, so the question was whether to shoot or not. I felt that in order for this project to happen I had to first demonstrate my determination to the investors, so that they could then see what was possible with hard work and charisma. In fact, the only way I was able to finish Seediq Bale was by backing myself into a corner.
What I would say is that the Taiwan film industry, from casting to marketing, is now on the verge of a new spring. It now has solid roots from which to grow, so what are investors waiting for?
LT: After such an impassioned plea to investors, do you have any advice for young filmmakers in Taiwan?
Wei: They should not blindly pursue box office and stick to developing the stories they want to tell.
Traditionally, people have tried to give the audience what they want, but today I would say it is more important to ask yourself: “What do I want to do?”
Be serious in your approach and those who like such things will come. They are your basic fans and if you do your work honestly and not go chasing fads, they will continue to support you.
First and foremost, always ask yourself what you want to do.