In one scene in A Lean Soul (削瘦的靈魂), an 80-year-old Qidengsheng (七等生) brings out one of his paintings and claims that along with Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, it is the only other work in the world that can explain the mysteries of life. In another scene, a friend recalls him saying that he stopped writing because he’s already penned the greatest work in the world.
Qidengsheng makes such statements with such a genuine, matter-of-fact face, and perhaps it’s fitting that a former classmate describes him as a caterpillar who never turned into a butterfly.
At the same time, his pen name refers to someone of an extreme lower status or quality, showing that it’s not all just bravado or delusion. Not that Qidengsheng would care what you think anyway. He was hated by his classmates in university and his novels at one point were despised by his peers and blasted by critics for being too decadent, unrealistic and immoral. One columnist even alleged it was people like him who would cause the downfall of the nation.
Photo courtesy of FisFisa Media
Helmed by Chu Hsien-Che (朱賢哲), who won a Golden Horse for his 2001 documentary Pick of the Litter: Stray Dogs in Taiwan (養生主－台灣流浪狗), A Lean Soul is the first release from the third batch of films from the “The Inspired Island: Series of Eminent Writers From Taiwan (他們在島嶼寫作—文學大師系列電影)” project. It was launched in 2009 by Pegatron Corp (和碩) chairman Tung Tzu-hsien (童子賢) to introduce post-war authors to a younger audience.
The series has covered 13 writers so far, first looking at better-known literary giants such as Kenneth Pai (白先勇), Yang Mu (楊牧) and Yu Kuang-chung (余光中) before moving on to more obscure but still influential ones.
Out of these subjects, Qidengsheng was notoriously reclusive, and few were confident that he would agree to the project. Chu admittedly had never read any of his work before coming on board, but as he pored through the tomes over the months, he was shocked that such a talent was buried for so many years. Noting that it was impossible to speak to Qidengsheng without understanding his work first, the two evidently were able to establish some connection.
Photo courtesy of FisFisa Media
Qidengsheng, whose real name is Liu Wu-hsiung (劉武雄), says that he has never been happy, from when his father forced him, aged six, to beg for money until his 2018 interview. As the film shows, he’s almost entirely consumed and driven by his writing, and maybe he would have made more of an impact if he didn’t put out his best work during the Martial Law era, when everything had to be patriotic and politically correct.
Like his writing, reality and fiction blur into one another in this slow-paced, artsy documentary about the life, relationships and ethos of the eccentric and enigmatic writer. The lines presented from his novels, sometimes in first person and sometimes in third, seem to all be referring to his personal experiences, and coupled with surreal black-and-white scenes and animations, they bring the film to life so it’s not just talking heads (there’s practically no found footage).
Perhaps only through this treatment can the audience really get a glimpse of Qidengsheng’s complex personality lurking within his misunderstood soul. The story drags a bit as there’s no real tension or drama, but serves as a good introduction to those who aren’t familiar with Qidengsheng’s works and provides intrigue in why they are worth checking out.
Was Chu able to show the real Qidengsheng? Only Qidengsheng would know, and he reportedly declined to watch any of the film before he died last year. The film would probably just appeal to those who are really interested in Taiwanese literature and history, and they would have to watch it and read his work to find out for themselves.
A Lean Soul 削瘦的靈魂
DIRECTED BY: Chu Hsien-Che (朱賢哲)
LANGUAGES: Mandarin and Taiwanese with English and Chinese subtitles
RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes
TAIWAN RELEASE: In theaters
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