January 23, 2015 1:00 pm JST
Taiwan's new auteur

Wei's trilogy brings him fame in Japan

NORIKO SEKIHARA, Nikkei staff writer

TOKYO -- Taiwanese director Wei Te-sheng has hit the big time in Japan. His rise to fame is thanks to a number of successful movies set during the Japanese colonial rule of Taiwan (1895-1945). The director says he is driven to use his films to "confirm the truth of life in Taiwan and the significance of its existence."

     During preproduction of any film, Wei always thinks about what most attracts him to the story. "I have never taken audience taste into account when making a film," said the director, who was born in Tainan, in the south of Taiwan, in 1968.

     Wei's blockbuster success came from his trilogy about Taiwanese life under Japanese rule. "Cape No. 7," the 2008 film which he wrote and directed, was the first in the trilogy. It tells a tragic love story from 60 years ago when a Japanese man was separated from his Taiwanese lover alongside the romance between a contemporary young couple.

      This was followed by "Seediq Bale," Wei's 2011 historical epic depicting the tragic and violent Wushe Incident. The historical event is famous because an indigenous Taiwanese tribe fought relentlessly against the Japanese army during their colonization of the island.

      The trilogy was completed with "Kano," which he wrote and produced. It is a 2014 sports saga based on the true story of a 1931 Taiwanese high school baseball team composed of Japanese, mainland Chinese and indigenous Taiwanese players that made it to the finals of what today is Japan's prestigious Koshien tournament, a nationwide high school competition held and broadcast across the nation during the summer months. The conclusion of the trilogy will screen in Japan from Jan. 24.

Survival and freedom

Wei thought of filming Seediq Bale, even before he had made his debut feature Cape No. 7. Recollecting the moment he came across a comic book about the Wushe Incident, the director said he was extremely excited about the uprising and rebellion of Taiwanese aboriginals fighting for "survival and freedom." He learned more and more about the incident and developed a deep respect for the aboriginals' decision to fight. He explained that the experience inspired and encouraged him to pursue his interest in Taiwan under Japanese rule.

     In Taiwan, Japanese colonial policy compelled cultural assimilation among Chinese and aboriginal people. During that process, cultural confrontations, along with integration, were repeated with different ethnic groups -- a development that caused inspiring and touching stories to occur frequently in real life, said Wei.

     The director often thinks about the best ways to address historical issues (related to Japanese colonial rule) when viewed from today's perspective. Although the director knows that viewers can interpret films differently, he is worried that some people might lack the flexibility to open themselves to his creation.

     Responses to his films have been diverse. Some argued that Cape No. 7 cast Japanese influences and forces in a favorable light. Others pointed out that Seediq Bale is a film that fuels anti-Japanese sentiment. Kano has received much criticism for what is said to be a glorification of Japanese colonialism. But Wei's counterargument is that "Cape No. 7, a portrayal of unfinished love, is intended to wipe out the feelings of helplessness and desperation felt by the Japanese-Taiwanese couple who were forcefully separated by history. The director went on to say that he filmed Seediq Bale in order to understand "why people came to bear grudges or animosity against others."

     Wei accidentally found the true story of the Kano baseball team from Japanese-occupied Taiwan while preparing to film Seediq Bale. He was thrilled when he discovered that the multiracial team made its way to Koshien Stadium in 1931, a year after the violent Wushe Incident. Although social inequalities between Taiwanese locals and Japanese colonizers had already taken root around that time, the Kano team overcame cultural differences to band together for the tournament, according to the director. This issue is still very much alive today, Taiwan is struggling to resolve racial and tribal differences which are currently the subject of political maneuvering. Wei hopes that his work can provide audiences with opportunities to "reflect on their history and social attitudes."

     Wei, a rising star of the Taiwanese film industry, is credited with being the driving force for the industry's remarkable recovery after a long downturn, which started after directors of Taiwan's New Wave Cinema movement, such as Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien, earned international acclaim. Wei once worked as assistant director with Edward Yang.

More money from China

Taiwan's film industry is now growing dramatically in terms of market size and investment. Wei cited China's booming film market as a major reason for the revival of the Taiwanese film industry. If more Taiwanese films can screen in China, it would attract Chinese capital to the Taiwanese industry, making it easier for local directors to secure large production budgets.

     Wei said that although he thinks it could be an advantage for local filmmakers, the release of a Taiwanese films in mainland China also means that they will be subject to restrictions that investors want to impose on the selection of movie themes, adding that "a high level of creative freedom is the most important thing for me."

     Taiwan's modern history has been greatly influenced by Japan and China. However, Wei wonders how much Taiwanese people themselves know about their country's geopolitical position and their own identity. The director voiced his desire to confirm the truth of life in Taiwan and its identity by making a film based on the history of the island under Japanese rule and that of post-war China.        

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