Observing the Absurdity: An Interview with Huang Hsin-yao

For his feature-length debut, Taiwanese filmmaker Huang Hsin-yao adapted his 2014 short film The Great Buddha – hence the feature’s cheeky title of The Great Buddha+ (2017), in the vein of corporate product naming. Prior to this feature, Huang was known for his celebrated documentary films, which he has been making since the early 2000s. His documentary work, often marked by a satirical tone and his voiceover, consistently examines ‘small,’ peripheral spaces and/or figures in Taiwan; or better yet, the different ties that people have or cultivate with the places in which they move and live.

Though a fiction film, The Great Buddha+ is less a break from the films that Huang had been making prior to it than an expansion of his aesthetic, visual, and thematic preoccupations of people, peripherality, and landscapes, be they physical/geographical or cultural/mediated. From documentary specifically, Huang culled the techniques of voice-over and a kind of found-footage style and cleverly integrated them to have both the film’s main characters of marginal social status and the spectator witness the exercise of power of the elite, particularly by clandestinely watching dashcam footage. Its diffuseness in structure, use of varied styles and footages, and the authorial first-person voice-over that speaks to and about the film simultaneously also makes a powerful case for the film to be recognised perhaps above all as an essay film. For its diverse elements are ultimately held together through the themes of class and institutionalised privilege and corruption in Taiwanese society.

Rowena Santos Aquino: How would you say your documentary filmmaking experiences helped you to transform your short film into a feature?

Huang Hsin-yao: Making documentaries helped me write the scripts of The Great Buddha and The Great Buddha+. When I shot documentaries I got to observe the society. I think I’m observant. For example, when I eat I watch people at the next table, listen to their dialogues and imagine their stories. Also based on my various experiences in life, I understand what might have happened to people and their living conditions from their talks. So the biggest advantage I gained from making documentaries is the abundant source materials I can use to write the scripts of The Great Buddha and The Great Buddha+.

In terms of directing, documentaries and fictional features can be very different. Making the transition takes a lot of efforts. The documentaries I’ve made in recent years have no central human characters. Most of the time I’m alone by myself. It is very quiet and a lot of time is spent on waiting. That wouldn’t work for fictional works.

For the short [The Great Buddha], we set the shooting period to three days, so I had to finish it in three days. But for documentaries, when I come across a rainy day, I just skip the day and continue shooting whenever it becomes sunny. For fictional works, I have to shoot even it is raining. It costs more and the actors’ availabilities might reshuffle as well. All I can do is change my script. So there are lots of differences in directing documentaries and directing fictional features.

I have read elsewhere that one of your influences is Werner Herzog. Herzog has often said that he does not distinguish between his documentary and fiction works…

For me, making documentaries and making fictional works are both creation. I don’t specifically distinguish them. But since the process of making fictional works is different, my job duties as the director are different. For myself, the feelings are the same because they are both creation.

No matter it is for documentaries or fictional works, I always pay attention to what I’m interested in. Creation is the same for any genre. I pay attention to people’s connections to the world or the earth. Why we exist and the meaning of our existence is something I’ve been trying to explore.

A recurring core in my documentaries and fictional works is absurdity: the absurdity of life, humans, and the world. For example, the characters in The Great Buddha+ are absurd. Their actions are absurd. Same for most of my documentaries. They share the same theme.

Given how it is so integral to the tone of The Great Buddha+, at what point in the process did you decide to add the voice-over?

I didn’t use voice-over in The Great Buddha. The short was only about 23 minutes long, more of a mock-up. When producer[/director of photography and fellow filmmaker] Chung Mong-hong and I were discussing developing it into a feature, he felt that I shouldn’t limit myself in my debut and encouraged me to try out different things. Most other directors have their signature styles, but I personally would love to do things differently every time as long as the producer and investors are on board.

It’s the same for my documentaries. I not only work on a new subject every time but also experiment a new aesthetic approach. So when it comes to the fictional feature, I used the voice-over in my documentaries to set up the tone, nothing in particular.

What was the collaboration like between you and Chung?

Director Chung Mong-hong and I got to know each other in the year of 2015. My short The Great Buddha got into the Golden Horse Awards when he was on the jury. He watched it and liked it a lot, so he asked me to come to his office to discuss the possibility of making it into a feature film. I just got to know him on that day.

It’s strange because actually he and I get along very well. We understand each other and have similar visions. Basically I consider myself very lucky to run into such a producer. He is a director and knows what a director wants when he works as a producer.

He said that the reason he worked on the film was not trying to help me but trying to help Taiwanese cinema. He wants to produce a work that is different and can showcase the energy of Taiwanese cinema. So he wasn’t really concerned about its box office potential. His top priority was to make a good film.

I had been making documentaries. Becoming rich and working on blockbusters aren’t really what I’m after. I enjoy the creation process more. I was also trying to make my films really good. So we had a shared goal: make a good film, and we believe audiences will show up for a good film automatically. We just wanted to do our own job well.

As the producer, Chung Mong-hong was there to support me. We chose to do black and white and both the leading actors were little known, [although] convincing others on its box office potential was difficult. But he supported me nevertheless, because he also felt that was the right way to do it. The leading actors’ performance is more important than their knowability. We had many such similar thoughts.

Everyone in the crew helped the most inexperienced novice director, me. And the crew had one collective goal: make a high quality film. With the help from so many people focused on this goal, I believe we were able to make a good film. And this good film doesn’t only belong to the director.

One of my favourite moments in the film is the cool but biting exchange between congressman Gao and the Buddhist nun at the statue’s unveiling. Specifically choosing these two people for this conversation is especially significant, as they happen to be representatives of political and/or religious institutions.

The short doesn’t have this scene. Only the feature does.

The target of my critiques has never changed. What I try to criticize with the short and the feature is not religion or Buddhism. I only used the Buddhist statue as a symbol of institutions: laws, constitutions or moral standards, things that are unquestionable. No matter what happens to the Buddhist statue, like…a drop of red paint leaks out, people see it as a manifestation of god’s presence, because it can’t be questioned. But actually many things in laws, constitutions and moral standards are outdated.

Sometimes we judge others based on moral standards. But who gets to decide what the standards are? For example, who decides that a couple has to be a man and a woman? Is this relevant? We kowtow to the great Buddhas and believe in them. But do we really know what’s in them? That’s why I used the Buddhist statue as a symbol. People often misread it as my critique on religions. That would actually be much less work for me.

Everyone is deeply convinced that he or she is right. Lots of people criticize others online in the name of defending justice without giving things enough thoughts. Just like the sister and congressman Gao attacking each other in the film; each of them talks in their own language and no real communication is achieved.

Saying ‘Amitabha’ doesn’t make us understand Buddhism. Just like Gautama, his accomplishments were achieved not by following a master or reciting the sutras, but from experiencing real life. Like the sister who says one thing but does another, a lot of politicians in Taiwan appear so righteous on TV but do all sorts of dirty things behind the curtain. It is so hypocritical to me. These people can be hurtful when they are saying ‘Amitabha’ at the same time.

It’s the same for Kevin’s wig. He says that he has been wearing the wig for so long that he no longer knows if it is real or not. That is the appearance these people choose to put on when they face others in the real world. After a while, they forget who they really are, like Kevin mistaking the wig as his real hair.

The Great Buddha+ was shown on April 3 and 4 as part of MoMA’s 2018 ‘New Directors/New Films’ series. It is available on VOD from Cheng Cheng Films.