Interview with Mi-Sen Wu

Our guest today is a Taiwanese film director Mi-Sen Wu. In this interview he talks about his artistic projects, political views, moving to another country and new exciting beginnings.

–  ‘Fish in Tears’ is your first film and ‘Au revoir, Mon Pays’ is your twentieth and last one for now. Has your way of thinking about the cinema changed since you started? 

It remains almost the same for me. The means of production have changed over the years, and we have had to change tools constantly, from analogue to digital. In film school we used to shoot projects with 8 or 16mm film stock, later we started using more expensive, professional equipment and working in more complex teams. But I always like to go to the core of my belief, asking myself the most essential question: ‘Why do I have to make films?’. And this is the hardest part – to keep asking yourself, no matter how the world and the industry have changed. My mentality still remains the same: I always try to tell stories in an authentic, vivid and honest way. And the most difficult thing is to formulate or situate yourself as a storyteller in some particular context. For example, when making a documentary, you always have to ask yourself what kind of distance you need to keep from your characters or interviewees. Am I too far or too close to my characters with my own obsessions? We often abuse others’ misfortunes or consume their miseries in order to create the story, forgetting the fact that we are all human beings who live, breath and struggle with the problems.  When telling the stories, you have to think about other people’s senses. Also, I came to the conclusion that the more films you make, the more stories from everywhere you desire to tell your viewers because you always discover something new.  Briefly, the most important thing is not only to tell stories but to keep asking yourself why does it have to be you, not somebody else to be this storyteller?


– What was the most important lesson in your life that has had a positive effect on your films? How did that happen? 

Usually people consider the aftermath of life lessons to be positive but ignore the fact that they are mostly from negative events in their lives. The loneliness reveals your deeper emotions and feelings. You start creating when you are heartbroken and hurt. However, I don’t think it is a positive experience even if later you find it very practical or useful. In other words, what you call “positive effect”, in my case, are all the lessons that I gained a great pain from. We always have to pay for it in terms of burden of memories, passions and despairs… I had a lot of misfortunes and catastrophes which you could call “important lessons”.     

– Nowadays  there is a huge gap between entrainment and artistic cinema and while most of the people choose the first one, most of your films, like Van Gogh’s Ear, are mixture between documentary and fiction. Being purely artistic on one hand they clearly express your political and social position on the other hand. How did you decide to work in this particular genre? 

To be honest, the reason why I decided to be a filmmaker and went to study at the film school in the United States at a very young age was because I had a chance to work for TV Commercials as a Production Assistant. I thought filming was a ‘pretty’ industry to work in with its splendid environment. I felt that we could create perfect pictures and get things right on the screen when the real world was not like that at all. I enjoyed the atmosphere and traveling a lot to various interesting places instead of sitting in the office all day long. For a young person it was a dream job. So at first, I was not too ambitious about expressing my thoughts and views. I merely wanted to be in the entertainment business, making commercials and earning some money.  It was all about vanity.

But after I started seriously studying film history and filmmaking, I discovered a whole new world. The real world that I could recreate in my films. I had to tell so many things because the reality ruled by the system was totally vicious.  I realised that I was too naive to think about life as I did before.  It didn’t convince me anymore to do such kind of films.  I decided that instead of trying to make people laugh when there are so many problems in our society, I would rather tell real stories. However, these stories can be entertaining and positive as well. So back to your question, for me the genre of the film doesn’t really matter, as long as it suits my stories.  On the practical side, it is very hard to make a decent documentary because you realise that your idea can become a fabrication while you are searching for the truth.  I always pay great respect to independent documentary filmmakers – they are modern gladiators and protectors of the humanity.    

First time I met you, you showed one of your films in front of Canadian viewers. Why did you choose ‘amour-LEGEND’? What does this film mean for you?  

I realised that this film despite of being created twelve years ago, still represents well the destiny of the island of Taiwan and its people in a meticulous way.  The plot of the film takes place in South America but I shot the entire film in Taiwan. Not for the sake of limited budget but there are certain messages I wanted to send: This is the way how I perceived Taiwan and its unknown past, the lack of national narrativity.  And there are reasons for it.   

Although the spoken languages were Spanish, English and Japanese and the story of the film took place in small fictive island in South America and the actors were from Japan and Hong Kong, I still insist it is a tale of Taiwan. This film was criticized in Taiwan for not being Taiwanese enough because there we have some establishes clichés and views on modern Taiwanese culture.  And I am always being questioned why my leading actors are always Japanese.  My answer is simple: I don’t think that we have clear image of a Taiwanese male represented in cinema.  So for me, when a Japanese actor plays a role of Taiwanese male, it disorients sense of the character and this is one of the qualities I have observed from the reality.   

 – Our views change as we mature and learn. If you had the opportunity to go back in time and change something in any of your movies, then which movie and what changes will you do? 

I have never re-edited any of my films because a movie has its own life and in real life you cannot change what is already done. Nothing is perfect and I appreciate every mistake and defect of my work. Also, on the set, you already have better chances rather than in real life but still you cannot do endless quantity of the shots in your pursuit of perfect picture because people get tired. Some filmmakers do several versions of their films: for TV, for theatrical release or even for film festivals. But I always have one single version because, as I said, movie has its own life and you cannot have multiple lives, faces or souls. And then, it is always good to keep things imperfect as because when you go back in time to them, you might realize that you are even better and capable to make better films.   

 – You won honors at the international film festivals, like Pusan International Film Festival, “New Currents” section, Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival, “New Chinese Beats” section, Göteburg International Film Festival, Chicago Film Festival and you also won Best Film from Golden Harvest Award twice time in your career. What role these honors and awards play in your life? What do they mean to you? 

I think everyone wants to be famous but this can mean different things for different people. Recently, I got an award from Golden Bell Awards. It is like Emmy Awards in the States.  I don’t watch television, there are a lot problems in the system of television in Taiwan; it could track back to the martial law period in Taiwan. But at the same time, it is the way of sending the true messages to the audience.  So I have very mixed feelings towards the fact that I received those awards from television.  Finally, I went on the stage and accepted that award, but I still keep asking myself what it really means to me.  I remember that at very young age I have already got many awards and I have always felt uncomfortable or uncertain about that. However, sometimes it can be very useful because it is a sort of dialogue with the audience. You create things and you get the responses and it is marvellous.  Also, it unleashes some of your anxiety of being a filmmaker.         


– Can you tell us more about your upcoming project(s)? 

I guess I have to give some credits to myself because I was brave enough to make the decision to move from Taiwan, my homeland and to settle down here in Montreal. After I had finished my studies in New York, I had to choose whether to work in the States or to go back home. At that time we were still influenced by the moral principles that you had to live where your parents are. So in 1995 I went back to Taiwan. Since I have left North America for so long and I had been living in Taiwan for almost 20 years now, I had all my connections there and I lost most of my connections in New York. Why I am saying goodbye to my country now? … You will get the answer in my latest works “Au revoir, Mon Pays” and “10-10” that will be released next year in October. I am going to build my career here even though it will be quite difficult to start everything from the very beginning. It will be a challenge for me but  I do not regret anything. Another project is a narrative feature film “Between You and Me”. In Taiwan every young man must go to the army. The film is about a man his late 40s. His name is Sam. He has been serving in the military service for 20 years, constantly trying to escape from the army.  He is being kept in jail because he tries to keep some secrets. Years later, Sam’s son reaches the age of compulsory military service and is being sent to the same military camp as his father because the officials thought it would stop Sam from running away again. However, before the son arrives, Sam disappears.  His son is appointed to catch his father Sam whom he has never met.  Like “amour-LEGEND“, the film will be both a fable and prophecy as well as metaphor of the history of Taiwan, but in the reversed ways of portray.  And I am planning to shoot the movie here in Quebec. The story unfolds in both cinematic and actual world simultaneously…  



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