Taiwan's Foreign-Language Oscar Hopeful: Wei Te-sheng
Taiwanese writer/director Wei Te-sheng was in New York this week for a screening of his film Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale at Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art in celebration of Fortissimo Films' 20th anniversary. The action drama about Taiwan aboriginals and their fight against Japanese colonial forces in the 1930s is Taiwan's biggest-ever production and its hope for the foreign-language Oscar race. THR New York bureau chief Georg Szalai talked to the director, using a translator, about the film, its lack of clear-cut heroes and villains and his views on Hollywood.
The Hollywood Reporter (THR): Your film is coming to North America in February. What is your hope and goal for it here?
Wei Te-sheng: We really hope that this movie about this special aboriginal culture can really have a presence in the American market. But we know that it is kind of difficult for the American audience to have a feel for this movie at first. We first want to reach Chinese and Taiwanese Americans. Starting from there, we hope word can spread.
THR: The English tag line for the film says that a man can sacrifice his body, "but he must win his own soul." How universal do you think the themes of the film are?
Wei Te-sheng: The theme of aboriginal people standing up to a repressive government is something universally felt. What is special about the film though is that there is no definite bad guy and good guy. There is always a bright side in bad guys and a dark side in good people. We tend to tell the story of a perfect hero. There is no struggle. But we want audiences to really feel the [characters'] struggle in this historic event and think about what they would do in their situation.
THR: The North American version of your film is about two and a half hours long. The original was released in two parts and is much longer. How are the versions different? And is there a difference to the version shown at the Venice Film Festival?
Wei Te-sheng: The original version is four and a half hours. The version that we showed in Venice was also two hours and 30 minutes. But due to time limitations, we just took out everything but the main story back then. It was a product of haste. In this version, we thought things through thoroughly. It is a new cut. We thought we should present fighting and human feelings in half and half proportions like in the original version. We took out some parts explaining hunting traditions and other parts about the culture. They help the audience understand the culture more, but don't really advance the story.
THR: Your film is Taiwan's Oscar hope in the foreign-language film race. How exciting is that for you? Any thoughts on your chances?
Wei Te-sheng: Of course, we would like it to happen very much. This is such a great honor. We really want to introduce this very different hero epic to American audiences instead of [films with] the perfect hero.
THR: Is that approach to presenting heroes a personal choice or is there a tradition in Taiwan to feature less than perfect protagonists?
Wei Te-sheng: It is my personal thing. I haven't seen it much in previous Taiwanese films. I just think that to present a perfect hero is kind of ridiculous. They all have their dark sides.
THR: I heard the movie had a $25 million budget, was financed with the help of bank loans, money from your previous film and other financing and has done well in Taiwan. How has it played, and has it made its way to other parts of Asia yet?
Wei Te-sheng: So far, the film has only been distributed in Taiwan. On Nov. 17, it will be released in Hong Kong. The box office at home has been helped by waves of marketing. Right from the very beginning of production there has been news about the film. The audiences were and are feeling curious and sometimes didn't believe that this project would succeed. So, everything had been built up. Audience expectation had been built up. I think that is why we have had good box office - 100 million New Taiwanese Dollars, or top 20 in the world weekend box office, when the first part was released on Sept. 9.
THR: How did it do compared to Hollywood movies that were in Taiwanese theaters at that time?
Wei Te-sheng: We initially beat Hugh Jackman's Real Steel. The second week, they were first, and we were second.
THR: Any audience reaction you have particularly enjoyed?
Wei Te-sheng: The success of this movie brings out the pride in our aboriginal people. It is a beautiful scene when they wear their traditional clothes to go to the movies.
THR: There is a lot of fighting in the film. Any interest in making a Hollywood action movie?
Wei Te-sheng: I grew up in and learned in Taiwan. If I was to make a movie in Hollywood, I would feel dislocated. And I don't think I'm particularly good at making movies purely for attracting the audience. I can make movies in Taiwan that could be universally accepted. But I don't feel like I could make a movie in Hollywood to the same effect.
THR: Have you ever been to Hollywood?
Wei Te-sheng: John Woo has told me a lot. And the more he has told me, the more afraid I feel. Hollywood is such an organized system. There are so many rules, and it's just like a factory. I think I would enjoy less creative freedom, because all the story telling is done by the writer or actors. The director is just a functional part of a project. I think I wouldn't adapt well, nor do I think the system would accept me.
THR: You mentioned John Woo who was a co-producer on your film. How long have you known him for and what's your relation?
Wei Te-sheng: I met John Woo in 2008 in Taipei at the ceremony for the Golden Horse film award. I needed his advice for producing such a big-scale movie and for the action scenes, which I had not done before. He didn't immediately promise me anything, but told me a lot about international cooperation and also a lot about how to arrange action scenes.
THR: What's your next project?
Wei Te-sheng: I have an idea about the story I will make, but I don't have gone into any detail, including who I will work with on that. It will still be a drama, but on a smaller scale, because I want a little bit of rest. It will still be Taiwan-related, but it will be broader-based, because I want to involve more ethnic groups, including foreigners.
THR: When will you start?
Wei Te-sheng: I think after June. I would like to take a break, but I think if I was on vacation for a week, I would panic.
THR: Do you have any role models among filmmakers?
Wei Te-sheng: James Cameron. It's not that I necessarily like his movies, but I appreciate his spirit of making new things and always innovating. And he is so persistent in making his dream come true.
THR: Are you aware that Billy Crystal is the new host for the Oscars?
Wei Te-sheng: No. We care more about who the award goes to.