From Cape No. 7, to Seediq Bale, the movies of director Wei Te-sheng all seem to talk about stories long forgotten since the Japanese colonial period. He has fans and detractors, but how does Director Wei himself see them? How do we learn from the glory, pain, and blood in the past?
His latest movie Kano is about the underdog baseball team from Chiayi Agricultural School becoming the first ever multicultural team from Taiwan to make it to the Japan national championships. How can such a story, which was unknown to most people, help us realize who we are?
As Director Wei travels to the US for a Kano road show, our PR Director Christy Pan had this conversation with him.
Ketagalan Media (KM): Thank you Director Wei for talking with us about your movie, Kano. During an interview with Taiwan’s United Daily News, you said when you discovered the story of Kano you were “surprised and ashamed,” why is that?
Wei Te-sheng (Wei): I first saw this story by accident, in a publication by the alumni association of the Chiayi Agricultural School (Kagi Nōrin Gakkō). In Taiwan the saying goes, “boys like to play baseball and girls know how to play baseball,” but no one knew how the first Taiwanese baseball team came about. We all think it’s the Hongye (紅葉) team [that played at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania], but no one knew that in the 1930s there was already a multiethnic team that made it to the championship game at Koshien Stadium in Japan. I thought, what a proud story to kick off Taiwan’s baseball history, but I was also ashamed that we didn’t even know about it.
KM: Because it was such a big honor but no one knew about it?
Wei: Exactly. 10 out of 10 people I asked had never heard of it, except for old people from the Chiayi area. None of the young people I asked knew. At the time I was working on storyboards for Seediq Bale, and I went to a bookstore to do some research. Originally I just want to understand the history of the 1930s around the “Wushe Incident” [the story on which Seediq Bale was based], but I really struck gold.
KM: So you thought, “I’m going to make this into a movie someday?”
Wei: Right. That book was really short, mostly pictures. But I thought, how can I not tell such an awesome story? Especially since there was such a contrast between the Seediq Bale story of 1930, and the Kano story of 1931. They were both stories about ethnic conflict, but in Seediq Bale, the “boss” is a Japanese cop, and in Kano it’s a Japanese coach. They were both Japanese, but had completely opposite attitudes. In one case, the prejudice and superiority led to a bloody massacre, and in the other case, the tolerance and empathy led to a glorious moment in Taiwan’s history, where anyone with talent regardless of ethnicity became part of a team. The attitude determined everything.
KM: Speaking of stories on ethnicity, another recent movie Paradise in Service [talking about the KMT soldiers that fled to Taiwan in 1949] also touched on ethnic issues, but different from those of Kano’s. How do you compare the two?
Wei: I have seen Paradise in Service and it’s a great film. The director [Doze Niu] was not ostensibly talking about ethnic issues, but I actually think no matter which part of history we are looking at, we are always looking at people who are disadvantaged. In Paradise in Service, he talked about Mainlander soldiers serving in Kinmen, who also had their own stories that we can relate to. We’ve only paid attention to the privileged Mainlanders, but we haven’t really empathized with the disadvantaged, their choices, and their circumstances. I think that film did a great job portraying those things.
Except, after making our movies, both me and Director Niu became kind of a pariah in a sense. I made a film about Taiwan during the Japanese period, and people called me a Japan sympathizer; he made a movie about Taiwan during the KMT period, and people called him a China sympathizer. That’s just ridiculous. Let me ask them, under their logic, did Taiwan truly ever belong to itself? Why do we have to see them as Japanese history or Chinese history? Can’t we just think of them as “Taiwanese history under Japan” or “Taiwanese history under the KMT” instead? Taiwan is already so small, shouldn’t we work together to create our own history, our own traditions, and not to divide people into groups? History keeps giving us new inspirations, but we have not really learned from them.
KM: When you made Seediq Bale you said that history tells us the place where each person stood within that timeframe, and everyone did his or her best deciding what to do, there wasn’t really right or wrong. Tell us more about that.
Wei: We like to look at history through a civilized, modern, contemporary perspective. It’s not fair at all. We need to cast off our prior knowledge, and really go back to how people back then saw everything. Leave your global perspective behind, forget about how big the world is, and imagine having to make those decisions, without your modern knowledge. Only then can we begin to empathize, be tolerant, and stop looking at people as good or bad. We need to find those reasons that pushed those people to make their decisions. Human beings are all selfish to a degree, and some made decisions that turned out to be politically correct, while some did not, and that determined their legacies. I don’t think that’s fair, because we are judging them in hindsight.
KM: Do you think the story of Kano is also a story of the Mainlanders, or for more recent immigrants to Taiwan?
Wei: I don’t think so, because the movie is a discrete story. Here you have a table, and it’s for writing, so you put a computer and a cup of tea, that’s a writing desk, and not a dining table. If you put books and then a bowl of food on the table, then its purpose is lost. Similarly, we are telling one story, so we chose one specific angle. We can’t make soap operas and talk about everything. A lot of people ask me, why do you focus on this topic, and not that topic, et cetera. I tell them, I’m just one person, and every movie takes three years to make, how many three year chunks of time do you think I have in life? These movies also take a lot of money to make, I put my money on the line, how can you criticize me and yet refuse to pay for the movies? Did I owe you anything?
KM: So everyone, go buy tickets to see the movies first! Anyway, you have said that Taiwan’s biggest problem is that we have for too long sought recognition from others, that we have forgotten ourselves. You’ve also said: “Taiwan is like an orphan, we have to deny our last foster parents to earn the current foster parents’ love. Remembering the past is for us to find nourishment, to figure out what love, hate, good, evil means to us, so we can build our own family.” What does that mean?
Wei: To explain it plainly, it means you have to have a history in order to exist. Without history, it’s like if you go jogging, you get the benefits from the physical exercise, but there’s more to jogging than just running as if you are on a treadmill. You can enjoy the view, the air, the wind, the people, while you jog, so why limit yourself on the treadmill?
We don’t need to keep thinking, which foster family we need to stick with to protect ourselves. We are grown up, and we need to build and protect our own family now, not act like an orphan trying to find a foster home. That’s something we need to wake up to. Taiwan is a grown person now, so act like it.
KM: So do you think Taiwan has built this family yet?
Wei: Not at all. So I say history is still repeating, our people still haven’t learned, and our leaders and rulers have no new wisdom. They keep doing things they know to be wrong, so why? Because they don’t have the sense of history.
KM: So how can they build that sense of history?
Wei: I don’t know, and I don’t want to pontificate about this, as if I am better than the leaders. I don’t have the ability to make those calls, but after delving so deep into these stories and writing the scripts, I realized that we still lack historical perspective. I don’t know if they are 100% accurate, and there has to be wiser folks who can explain this better, but my own sense is just that it’s important to understand the past, and to think about the future.
In other words, maybe one day the Taiwanese people will stop “fighting for the economy” or “fighting for votes,” and instead we can care more about fighting for spiritual fulfillment and happiness. Then, we won’t complain over a $NT5 increase on a bowl of luroufan (meat sauce on rice), because there are greater fulfillment for us, like watching a good film, going out to exercise, enjoying playing an instrument when you feel down. We don’t all need to be professionals, but we should all be able to appreciate beauty and sports, to find the spiritual value in everything. Once that happens, we won’t only fight to satisfy basic physical needs.
KM: Meaning, to raise our spiritual awareness?
Wei: I don’t believe someone should starve to death in Taiwan anymore. Sure there are still cases of starvation in Taiwan, but that’s because that person was abandoned—abandoned because our values are warped. If we are set in our values, we will be able to find a balance and not abandon anyone.
KM: For the movies you’ve directed and now produced, although they are all about history, but they all try to look at each individual person’s perspective and how they choose to live within the bigger currents around them. That’s different from the histories of governments, countries, or dynasties. Do you think looking at history of individuals will make us lose a sense of the “family,” or of belonging to a nation?
Wei: I don’t think so. I think it’s better that we are each a unique individual. I think that anything “mainstream” is “conformist,” and “niche” means you have a different mindset, and people who think differently can create original things. Once everyone can think independently, they won’t blindly follow anyone with a slogan. The more people have their own thinking, and can articulate their thoughts, the more people will know how to cooperate.
KM: Finally, what other stories are still being formed in your mind that we might see on a big screen soon? Why those stories? Any stories featuring female leads?
Wei: Our next project involves Taiwan from 400 years ago, about the Dutch rule in Taiwan. That part of history is very exciting as well. Just like Seediq Bale and Kano talked about three ethnic groups (Japanese, Han Taiwanese, Aborigines), so does this new project (Dutch, Han migrants, Plains indigenous peoples). We want to go back to the time when indigenous peoples were the vast majority of Taiwan’s population, and look at the first clash of East meets West. It’s like going back to Taiwan’s infancy, when Taiwan was first born. As for female leads, we’re still working on that; people say I don’t understand women but I actually do, but yeah.
KM: We’ll be looking forward to it. Thank you so much for your time today, and giving us a lot of wisdom and things to think about.
Wei: I’m not sure about the wisdom, but it was a pleasure.
他的團隊的最近一部電影 Kano，講的是嘉義農林學校的棒球隊，在 1931 年以第一隻有原住民，日人，漢人的球隊，打入日本全國高中棒球冠軍賽的歷史。連魏導本人都沒聽過的歷史，又如何幫助我們找到自我呢？
魏德聖監製上週在美國跟著 Kano 巡迴上映會的時候，我們的公關總監潘奕如 Christy 與魏導有了這麼一段對話。
Ketagalan Media (以下 KM) ：魏德聖導演感謝你今天可以跟我們談一下你監製的「Kano」這部電影，您在聯合報接受訪問的時候有說過發現「Kano」這個故事之後感到驚豔又羞愧，為什麼會有這樣的形容詞呢？
(Feature photo of Kano movie poster, with permission.)
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