Translated by Geof ABERHART, proofread by Stefanie Eschenlohr and TSAI Wan-ying
In 2014, the Taiwan International Documentary Festival screened Adon WU’s 1997 film Swimming on the Highway, which starkly presented conflicts and conversations between WU and the protagonist, a friend of the director, sparking much discussion on the ethics of documentary filmmaking. Two decades later, WU returned with Goodnight & Goodbye, seemingly having lost none of his ability to shock audiences.
While WU does not consider the film a sequel, the influence of Swimming on the Highway is substantial in terms of both narrative and imagery. On the one hand, it clears up many of the lingering questions left from its predecessor, while, on the other hand, many questions and contradictions in WU’s new film seem to become even deeper due to this influence. When shooting began, the film was to be called “Finding Oneself,” but why would you want to find yourself through someone else? WU sounds uneasy, but would the two still be at odds the same way they were two decades ago? The push and pull between them reveals emotions that cannot be spoken and understandings that have come too late.
We talked to WU and editor DUAN Pei-yau about whether the author truly is dead and whether karma is on the horizon.
Q: You started shooting Goodnight & Goodbye in 2015 but only finished the film in 2018. Is this a common thing in documentary filmmaking, or were there other reasons?
Adon WU: Not particularly. Some things came up in the middle of shooting that meant we couldn’t keep going. It was basically trying to keep those beasts at bay until we found solutions that made things drag on as long as they did.
Q: Would these “things” be the situation we see at the end of the film?
WU: Yes. The reason I started shooting was that in 2014 Public Television Service producer WANG Pai-zhang came to me and asked, “It’s been years since Swimming on the Highway, have you made anything else you’re satisfied with in the interim?” He kind of hit a nerve with that. It felt a little accusatory and it got my dander up a bit. He said I should go find Tom [from Swimming on the Highway] again, but the real issue was “finding myself.” I had no idea what this “self-finding” actually meant, it was just a term he had come up with! But as I kept listening to him, it all made a lot of sense.
Q: There are a lot of segments of Swimming on the Highway interspersed throughout the film. Could you talk more about the relationship between the two films?
WU: We don’t want people to think of this new one as a sequel, mostly because there’s not really that much a connection between the two. But even so, maybe the imagery or Tom’s personality were just too strong, so things we shot 20 years ago were even more powerful than what we were making now.
DUAN Pei-yau: So we didn’t clarify the timing because we didn’t want the audience to really know the timing of things. The timeline isn’t that important, it could all be made up or it could all be real. Like their meeting in Chiayi; the “them” in that scene is a lot like the “them” from 20 years ago. Obviously it is different in terms of space and time, they’re both older and they’ve both gotten wrinkles, but what they’re talking about overlaps with the past, there are several similarities. And so we did some cross-cutting while editing, and since the images are of similar intensity, there wasn’t that much of a difference in the editing.
WU: You could think of Swimming on the Highway as kind of a work of venting or anger. Going back over the digital video from 20 years ago, I found Tom had been so patient in telling his life story in front of the camera but I hadn’t used any of it. I just found all the parts where we were in conflict, because I felt like I was being led around by the nose when shooting and so I wanted to kind of get back at him with this film. Twenty years later, though, I realized his reasoning was actually quite simple. He just wanted to say he might be dying, and so he needed to find someone to film him in hopes he could leave something behind. I didn’t help at all though, and instead I produced something like barreling down a highway. And so when I was working on the editing with Pei-yau, I would go through the footage on her computer and point at the guy on the screen [Editor’s note: the director himself] and say, “Let him die this time!” I let her know that this time I wanted to be cut out of it. I didn’t care, I just wanted to turn it all over to her and let her deal with it.
DUAN: There was actually a subtle thing between them, maybe the kind of love-hate thing Adon is talking about, that ties them together inseparably. Before it seemed like there were some things Adon didn’t want to face or couldn’t say out loud, that kind of love that he didn’t dare say face to face. So, in the end, I put in some segments from 20 years ago, without repeating the parts on the highway, however; I was rather trying to bring out the ideas of the director 20 years later. Not too much, though. Just having them expressed was good enough.
Q: Throughout the film, you ask yourself “Why do I want to make this film?” Have you come up with an answer since starting shooting? Is there a particular connection between that and the essence of the documentary itself?
WU: There’s no answer in the film, right? “Finding oneself” is really the dark heart of making a documentary, it’s the thing you most care about, but I honestly don’t even know what that is.
DUAN: I don’t know how right this is, but you could liken it to the two of them dancing a tango. While shooting Swimming on the Highway, he had a partner—Tom. There was a kind of dialectic going on between them on the essence of the documentary. But this time, when he went back to find him using the same approach, he found his partner was gone. I think because of the loss of his partner, Adon had to deal with this question himself and look back on the past two decades to see how he’s made documentaries and why. In that experience of going back into himself, he was able to re-explore the nature of documentary film. There might not be any real answer yet, but it’s a process.
WU: A process of disclosure.
Q: To finish up, I would like to ask how you feel about the public screening of Goodnight & Goodbye.
WU: Pretty anxious and apprehensive.
DUAN: You can tell how nervous he is by how he keeps looking in that can! (laughs)
Q: Isn’t it just water in there?
DUAN: It’s full of whiskey! (laughs)
WU: Honestly, I was really nervous. The screening got started this month. I wanted to spend the month really accurately talking about our working process, then after a month, I’ll be up on stage talking with audience about the film, and all of you will be asking me questions and I’ll have to tell you how the film came to be. Whether you accept it or not is entirely your own business, the film is what it is. I think in the end, the documentary is what it is.