Yang Li Chou is the director of FATHER, which will screen at Scene Taiwan 2019 in Edinburgh on June 1st. Amber Heath reviewed the film and spoke to the director about the film, the making of it and the topics it addresses
Amber Heath: How did you come to make this film? Why did you choose this topic?
Yang Li Chou: I am 50 years old this year, and Budaixi was an important memory of his childhood. When I was in military school, every day when I finished school I just wanted to go back home and watch Budaixi on television. I would run home at lunchtime to catch it, and then later at night I would watch the Japanese cartoon. Then suddenly Budaixi disappeared from my life. At the time I didn’t really mind because there were many things to distract me from it.
And then 13 years ago a television colleague remembered that I was really into Budaixi, and introduced me to Master Chan Hsi-huang. It was the first time I got to see close up the detail of the puppet’s wooden head and the texture of the puppet’s clothes, which left a deep impression on me. I wanted to film all the delicate skills involved in the art.
The reason it took 13 years to come to the screen is because as well as all the delicate skills involved the film is also about the heritage of Budaixi. Not many people were watching it, and there was no one to take over from the Master then. Over the years, disciples have come to learn, students from France, Italy, and the Netherlands. It’s a very traditional practice, you have to bow your head to the Master.
AH: Was it controversial, allowing foreigners to learn this traditional art?
YLC: It’s not controversial, but it was very special from the point of view of a Taiwanese person, like ‘No one is watching Budaixi, why bother learning it?’. Master Chan is the best in Taiwan at Budaixi, and his first disciple is the second best, but he couldn’t make a living from performing Budaixi, so he was washing cars. But then his hands were being used to wash cars and he felt that his hands shouldn’t be used for that, it should be used for Budaixi.
So the first reason to make this film was to film all the skills involved in this art and the making of Budaixi, and the second was to film the passing down of the skill. But then I realised what was most important was actually the relationship between the father and son. Master Li Tien-Lu was the father of Master Chan, and he was a very renowned puppetmaster himself. He appeared in many films directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien. The film took so long to make because I was trying to find a way to deal with that relationship.
AH: Did THE PUPPETMASTER – executive producer Hsiao-hsien’s film – impact the approach you took? Did you see FATHER as a response to THE PUPPETMASTER?
YLC: THE PUPPETMASTER let a Taiwanese audience know about Master Li, the greatest Budaixi Master in Taiwan. He’s such a giant figure even today and he casts a long shadow. But not many people know about what it was like for his son to live under that shadow. Master Chan, the son of Master Li, is 90 years old this year, but he is still under the shadow of his father.
He never saw how he could become himself. He had such great admiration for his father, he just wanted to be his father’s assistant. But they have different surnames: the father is called Li and his son is called Chan, because Master Li’s wife came from a socially higher family. In Taiwan tradition the eldest son has to have the socially higher name. From the Taiwanese patriarchal view, it could be a blow to the man’s pride, his ego. Every time he called his son’s name, he had to call him the name of his wife’s family, so every time he calls his name it’s like a recognition of his lower position in the family and in society. I think Master Li felt it was a blow to his pride. So THE PUPPETMASTER is about the glorious Budaixi family, and FATHER is about that shadow, the darkest part of the Budaixi family. I think that why Hou Siao-hsien agreed to be involved in this film, because it shows another part of the picture.
AH: The practical skills you show in the film being performed by Master Chan were filmed 10 years ago. Has anything changed for Budaixi since you filmed those parts?
YLC: It has gotten worse. Less and less people have been watching it. The government knows it’s important to protect Budaixi, but they can’t do anything to increase its popularity of it. So what they are doing at the moment is selling the puppets and the theatres to museums, to art galleries. But for me that’s not how it should be, because that’s just archiving it, freezing it in time. Art should be present in everyday life, rather than being only present in a museum.
“Art should be present in everyday life, rather than being only present in a museum.” – Yang Li Chou
AH: Do you think your film will have an impact on Budaixi in Taiwan?
YLC: At the beginning I thought there would probably be no impact from the film. But the response has really surprised me. The film premiered last October. The Minister of Culture for Taiwan was interested in the film and she wanted to see it before the premiere. When the screening for her finished and the lights went up the Minister asked me ‘why did you want to make this film?’. I was quite sad at the time because I saw no hope for Budaixi so I told her ‘no one is watching it, so I want to use the most laborious way to say goodbye to Budaixi, and filmmaking is such a laborious process’. And she had a breakdown in front of me, crying like a little girl.
She asked me if there was anything she could do to help not let Budaixi disappear. I actually had a lot of complaints, but when I saw her crying I decided not to say anything.
The next day the Minister of Culture went to meet Master Chan on her own, with no media attention and spoke with him for the whole day. And now this year there is a whole programme of events and activities for Budaixi, and it has three times the budget of previous years. There is funding to support all the disciples learning Budaixi so they don’t have to go wash cars for a living.
But what is most important to me is not the involvement of government but the involvement of private companies in Taiwan. The owners of those companies are a similar age to me so they have my same memories of Budaixi from childhood. One owner of a private company approached me and offered to send my film to all the far away elementary schools in Taiwan so it can be seen there, and they offered to cover the fees of the screenings. This development really surprised and delighted me.
When I come back from Edinburgh there is a tech company in Taiwan which is going to take a 3D scan of the hands of Master Chan, all the different movements of his hands when performing Budaixi so that they can keep the data for research later. It’s a very surprising development. Master Chan is 90 years old so we are running against time to preserve this traditional art, so we are taking a modern approach.
AH: How do you think your film will translate for a Scottish audience, or more generally a British audience?
YLC: I have limited experience of Scotland, I only know whisky. But I can share how the Japanese responded to it. I believe a Japanese and a Scottish audience would have a similar point of view. FATHER will premiere in Japan in November this year, with a big distributor that previously acquired this large Taiwanese epic action drama. Because FATHER is an art film, I was wondering how much money they were going to lose on it comparatively. The distributor said that he didn’t think they’d lose money. The distributor thinks that there are two draws to the film; firstly, the Master as a central figure who has dedicated his life to his craft. That will resonate with the audience in Scotland as well because there are many people who are good at their craft and their skills and care about preservation of such old skills.
The second element is the father and son. In Asia we have very complicated relationships with our father, where we don’t discuss our feelings. The figurative patricide in the film, where you have to kill the shadow of your father to become yourself is very relevant to a lot of cultures. Becoming yourself is a very important theme of this film. Taiwan also needs to become itself, and Scotland needs to become itself.
The original title of the film translates to ‘Red Box’, but the Japanese distributor suggested changing the name to FATHER. I think it really connects well, because of how we look up to the father, how important that relationship is, and that connects with all of us in the world. The universal theme of father and son should hopefully connect with everyone.