Finish year

Colliding with Reality—An Interview with "Condemned Practice Mode" Director CHI Yueh-chun

  • 2018TIDF
  • Taiwan Competition

translated Geof ABERHART, proofread by Stefanie ESCHENLOHR and TSAI Wan-ying

More than a documentary, an action

In his early days, director CHI Yueh-chun was a cinematic activist, focusing on Taiwan's social issues and taking part in social movements. He documented the movement to preserve Taipei's Treasure Hill and later observed the controversy over the Losheng Sanitorium. In the process, he noticed that movement insiders may be passionate, but they can have trouble getting outsiders to understand, and that getting people to understand an issue requires re-editing and translating its content.“I used to work on issues from a very insider perspective, but I found myself limited in how I could explain things. Later, while shooting, I kept thinking about how I could translate things to make them more understandable.”

LIN Hsin-yi , chair of the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty sought CHI out, to make a documentary about death row inmate HSU Tzu-chiang. At first, CHI was hesitant; there would be a lot more nuance in this than in the business-related projects he’d taken on before. “This would put me in a different position,”he remarked.“I'd be less a director and more like a juror or a judge. I wouldn't be taking orders from others, but having to make my own ideas and conclusions.”

“To be honest, I had my doubts from the photos online, HSU looked like a gangster. I'd also heard he had a prior conviction for gambling, and he was related or friends with accomplices.”By inserting himself into the film, CHI hoped to play the role of the outsider. At first, he did the same thing that most people do, letting their stereotypes of convicts influence their thinking and lead to a presumption of guilt. However, in the process of shooting the film, interacting with HSU, and going through the files, he found that the reality did not entirely conform with his preconceptions.

Documentaries confront the truth

Intervening as an outsider and participating in the process as an insider, the usual documentary director does not intervene so much in their films, but CHI believes that this was an important process. From news reports and stereotypes to personally developing an understanding of the case, ultimately he arrived at something as close as possible to the truth.

Early in filming, CHI mostly shot from the side, and there was no closer contact. Later, when doing interviews, he interviewed HSU's family and ex-wife to present a more thorough picture. He shared their stories and thoughts with HSU, and the two began talking about more than just the case—“We would talk about things like how one faces life, fortune, and misfortune.”

Through the repeated visits, HSU and his family again recalled the painful process of the past twenty years. However, HSU felt it was“something [he] had to do,”much like continuing to give public talks several years after his release despite his fear of facing crowds, because many people just don't understand. CHI also chose to deliberately insert footage of news reports showing the victim into the film.“I think that's something that should be seen.”He continues,“The critical part of this was going back and forth a lot. If we wanted to present people with the truth, then we had to dig deeper.”

It wasn't just the people in the film that were feeling pained by things. CHI also found himself pained during the editing process, and those moments were ones which CHI often did not consciously enter. But to see things more clearly, he had to pull back. Editor for the film LIAO Ching-sung told him he was too invested in helping HSU's voice be heard, but CHI actually felt it was more like he was trying to help himself. “It wasn't a matter of life and death, but the lived experience of making the film sure seemed like it.”To help HSU launch a lawsuit, his family sought out help and even sold their house to raise money. CHI, meanwhile, also hit a wall during the three-years of shooting, running out of money and with not much to show for it. He was on the verge of giving up. During filming, CHI gradually came to understand what a“rescue situation”really was.

This was a process of constantly having to face the question of what “truth” is. CHI, however, believes that truth is something we just have to piece together. When shooting or editing, it can be easy to miss the bare reality of the material by putting concept first. It was for this reason that LIAO recommended that CHI watch through the edited footage three times without preconception and that he neither get too involved nor too aloof. The two were also aware that they needed to avoid sensationally presenting the case as a miscarriage of justice. Maybe this was out of the same drive to not make the same mistake as everyone else and presume guilt, whether out of being biased by getting too involved or by twisting the truth through lack of understanding.

All of us tend to use somewhat sensational phrasings to express our ideas as individuals, and the media even more so.

Just another person telling a story

CHI Yueh-chun inserted a process of “reflexive thinking” into the film to help the audience understand the changing viewpoint.

“These people and friends you meet every day, you start thinking, ‘Why should I trust this person?’, ‘How do relationships of trust form? ’We are all always faced with the reconstruction of reality. ”Only by confronting reality can you see yourself, and only then can you know how to face others. Emotions affect our judgment.

What happened to HSU Tzu-chiang is not something totally divorced from us, and in this process we are all confronted with the same thing. The process of confronting reality is also one of confronting our own lives, and this is why CHI made his own marriage and divorce part of the story.

“I'm just another person telling a story,” he says. If things are to actually get closer to reality, CHI believes, the audience also shouldn't blindly accept what he tells them, but rather think about, deconstruct, and reconstruct it all. He believes that if the audience members come out of the film with differing opinions about, or even disapproval of the film, then that's a good thing, because“truth”is something that is assaulted from all sides.

Reform is neither a simple nor a speedy matter

From his involvement with the movement to preserve Treasure Hill, through the controversy around Losheng Sanatorium, to his documentary on HSU Tzu-chiang's case, CHI Yueh-chun has seen too many problems that stem from errors in the system. This is not something that can be dealt with by simply nabbing officials or judges who made mistakes. Through both participating in social activism and making documentaries, CHI has strived to communicate a few ideas to society. He is an activist outside of the system, who has certain expectations of those inside the system, because there are some changes that only they can make.

If he had deliberately set the other side up as opposition in the film, CHI believes, then they may not have even been willing to see it. Allowing space for one another creates the opportunity to engage in dialogue and communication. After a special screening arranged by CHI, HSU Tzu-chiang talked with the audience.“It's hard to believe I could sit here with judges and prosecutors as an equal,”he remarked. Some judges even apologized to him for what happened, even though they weren't the trial judge. Nevertheless, they are part of the system, although they are parts that are willing to admit faults and try to correct them.

“Reform is never a simple matter. It can really take a lot of lives to create even a small change.”CHI believes that the system can and will change, though. If it couldn't, HSU wouldn't be where he is now. However, it is a slow process.

“Like drums far off in the distance, we must keep on banging away,”says CHI.


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