Finish year

What do we talk about when we talk about the death penalty—An interview with the director of Me and My Condemned Son, LEE Chia-hua

  • Taiwan Competition

Why did you want to make a film about this topic?

Before 2008, I was a proponent of the death penalty. During that year the Public Television Service (PTS) was making a sequel for the case of SU Chien-ho. The director TSAI Tsung-lung invited me to be his assistant director. I thought it was interesting so I agreed. But at that time, I didn’t have the faintest idea about our judicial system. During the couple of years making that documentary, my attitude towards the judicial system has changed dramatically. The more I knew about it, the more I felt the death penalty is full of problems. By the time I finished making the film, I was deeply convinced that I could no longer support the death penalty. I thought to myself, “What can I do about it?” I decided that I want the audience to be transformed like I did. So strictly speaking, I had the idea of making a documentary on this topic since as early as 2009 or 2010.


How did you decide to film these three particular death row inmates and their family?

In Taiwan, if we want to talk about the life circumstances of the death row inmates directly, it would be difficult for most people to empathize with them. Therefore, I’ve decided to change my way of tapping into this. My sole purpose is to let people understand that these inmates are also human beings. For me, if the society cannot calm down and accept this fact, there would never be a rational debate on whether or not to abolish the death penalty. Since we always say that we were all born to and raised by our parents, I figured I could tell the story from the perspective of the parents whose sons were condemned.

In the film, Inmate A’s parents visit him twice a week. They still hold onto hope and desperately want to save their child. CHEN Yu-an killed his father, so his mother also wanted him dead. CHENG Chieh’s parents, on the other hand, didn’t know what to do about it. Each of them has adopted a different attitude towards their condemned son. I think it pretty much sums up our imagination towards the situation; some parents want to save their child, some wish him dead, and still some others simply don’t know what to do. The reason why I chose these three pair of parents because I wanted to open up a discussion about our different attitudes towards the death row inmates.


Why made you want to include the whole uncut scene of CHENG Chieh’s parents apologizing to the public?

We need a create a sense of imagined communities; that is, every one of us should be held accountable for our media and judicial system. When CHENG’s parents knelt down in front of the camera, apologizing to the public, I wonder who made them look so bad? Is it the media alone? No, every one of us has contributed to it. I want the audience to share their shame watching this three-minute scene.


The inmates seem to be always in need of financial support and material assistance. What are your thoughts about this phenomenon?

Let’s reconsider the function of prisons. Do we want to punish the prisoners or to have them return to our society in the future? If it’s the former, we may just as well lock them up. If we deprive them of their human rights in the first place, how can we expect them to act like normal people when they are released? If we still hope to see them being offered the opportunity to return to the society, we must treat them as normal people from the beginning. As a normal human being, some daily needs that seem irrelevant actually have to be fulfilled.

The phenomenon under discussion reflects our attitudes towards prisoners. We don’t actually want to know what the judicial system has done to them because we don’t think it has anything to do with us. But that’s not true. We have never taken on the duty of caring or understanding these people, or of helping them return to the society. They will never know how to lead a normal life, and consequently, they are likely to become recidivists. This is our responsibility as a society.


At the end of the film, you have included some statements from several ministers of Justice, along with some media coverage. What was your purpose of such arrangement?

I just want people to see that those who have the authority to carry out the death penalty are nothing but a bunch of bureaucrats. They had no intention whatsoever to understand CHENG Chieh or LI Hong-ji. And it suddenly dawned on me that our government has been dealing with the capital punishment with such indifferent attitude. Though personally, I think CHENG and LI deserve to die, but the thought of “they deserve death” and the question of “whether or not to have them executed” are two entirely different matters.

If killing people is wrong, then I think we should stop killing anyone as a nation. If a nation wants to execute its people, it needs to provide a justifiable reason. But did you see what kind of attitude our department heads hold? The process seems legit, but they have not the slightest concern for and understanding of the condemned. Is this the judicial system we want to have? I believe this is something we need to talk about. 

More information about Me and My Condemned Son.


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