TOKYO -- When Taiwanese screenwriter and director Wei Te-sheng starts a project, he pays no mind to making a crowd pleaser. "I have never taken audience taste into account when making a film," he said.
What Wei does think about: showing "the truth of life in Taiwan and the significance of its existence." Specifically, he has focused on telling stories related to Japan's colonial rule of the island, which lasted from 1895 to 1945. Though his takes on the period have invited criticism from all directions, they have also made Wei a rising star in Taiwan's growing film business -- and a well-known name among Japanese cinema buffs, too.
Wei was born in Tainan, in the south of Taiwan, in 1968. His breakout feature, which he wrote and directed, was "Cape No. 7," released in 2008. It tells the story of a Japanese man separated from his Taiwanese lover six decades ago, alongside a romance between a contemporary young couple.
This was followed by "Seediq Bale," a 2011 epic depicting the Wushe Incident of 1930. In this tragic and violent episode in Taiwan's past, the Seediq, an indigenous tribe, launched an uprising against the Japanese colonialists.
"Kano," released last year, continues Wei's exploration of Taiwan's history and cultural identity. The film is a sports saga based on the true story of a 1931 Taiwanese high school baseball team composed of Japanese, mainland Chinese and indigenous Taiwanese players. The team made it to the finals of what is now Japan's Koshien tournament -- a high school competition that captures national attention every summer. "Kano" was released in Japan on Jan. 24.
Opportunities to reflect
Wei envisioned "Seediq Bale" even before he made "Cape No. 7." Recalling the moment he came across a comic book about the Wushe Incident, the director said he was immediately interested in the Taiwanese aboriginals' struggle for "survival and freedom." The more he learned, he said, the more he respected their decision to fight. This encouraged him to delve into other facets of life in Taiwan under Japanese control.
During the colonial period, Japanese policy compelled assimilation among ethnic Chinese and aboriginal people. This led to both integration and culture clashes; Wei said the upheaval also gave rise to inspiring and touching real-life stories.
Wei hit upon the tale of the baseball team while preparing to film "Seediq Bale." He was thrilled to learn that, just a year after the Wushe Incident, a multiethnic team made its way to Koshien. Although social inequalities between Taiwanese locals and Japanese colonizers had already taken root, members of the Kano team banded together for the tournament, according to the director.
To this day, ethnic and tribal differences sway Taiwanese politics. Wei said he wants to create opportunities for audiences to "reflect on their history and social attitudes." He accepts that viewers are bound to interpret his films in different ways but worries about people going into the cinema with closed minds.
Some argued that "Cape No. 7" presented Japan in a favorable light. Others said "Seediq Bale" would fuel anti-Japanese sentiment. The pendulum swung back again with "Kano," which was accused of glorifying Japanese colonialism.
Wei's counterargument is that "Cape No. 7" is about the feelings of helplessness felt by the Japanese-Taiwanese couple, who were separated by the flow of history. He said he filmed "Seediq Bale" to understand "why people came to bear grudges or animosity against others."
Despite rankling some viewers, Wei has won plaudits for breathing new life into Taiwanese film. In the 1980s, filmmakers such as Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien led what was known as the New Wave cinema movement and earned international acclaim. Wei once worked with Yang as an assistant director. But the business entered a protracted slump in the 1990s.
The success of "Cape No. 7" is widely seen as a turning point. It raked in 530 million New Taiwan dollars ($16.8 million at current rate), a record for a domestic film.
Today, Taiwan's film industry is on the rise. Wei said China's booming movie market has helped, though there may be a price to pay for relying on money from the mainland. Aside from government restrictions, he noted that investors tend to want a say over themes. "A high level of creative freedom," he said, "is the most important thing for me."
It is no secret that Taiwan has been greatly influenced by Japan and China. But Wei wonders how much Taiwanese people themselves know about the island's geopolitical position and their own identity. Filmmaking is his way of helping them deepen their understanding.