An Interview with Li Nien-hsiu (Director)
My Promise with Dad—Traversing the Ages
Q: Your film allows us to feel the dramatic waves of your father’s life and the atmosphere of the times unfolding as your travels take you in your father’s steps. You say that he was an “unfathomable high peak” for you. What kind of a parent-child relationship did you have with him?
LN: I was never very close to him. After my parents divorced when I was ten, we lived apart and I did not understand the values he lived by, as they were borne out of a completely different era. I was always skeptical of the stories that he told me, so oblivious to chronology and totally without any factual backing. Nevertheless, since my childhood, he had always asked me to spread his story to the world. My father told his stories to all four children, but not a single sibling took him seriously. But when I entered university and chose film as my major, I somehow decided to use filmmaking to fulfill my promise with him. My elder brother who was even more distant to him than me, says my film helped him finally understand our father’s story.
Q: Starting out unconvinced, how did you get to believe your father’s stories?
LN: Thanks to a government grant in 2011 which allowed me to travel to the Mainland to film, I was still half suspicious of the accuracy of his tales. In China, I travelled in doubt for a while, as I wasn’t finding anything to support his claims. Then one day, I found the well that my paternal grandmother had jumped in to kill herself. The surprise and shock of discovering it made me tremble.
Q: You use some experimental footage in your film. What was your intention behind these shots?
LN: As I had started out in filmmaking doing experimental films, I was intent on avoiding a conventional presentation of history. I would think that our filming must have looked amateurish and quite comical to onlooking outsiders. For example, we shot the flood scene by dropping things into a water-filled fish tank placed in front of a television.
Q: There’s a scene in the film where your father shows you a tattoo that says “Anti-Communist.” What’s the meaning of this?
LN: Formerly enlisted in the Nationalist army, he switched to the Communist side in order to make a living. Many men like him were then sent to the frontlines of the Korean War. My father was shipped off and was taken prisoner. After the war, most of the POWs chose to go on to Taiwan. To show their conviction, they tattooed themselves with the anti-communist slogan.
Q: By pointing your camera at Time, which “will never let go of life, aging, disease, or death,” what did you feel?
LN: I had always felt that a person’s life could be so long. Yet as I followed my father’s story of birth, going to war, and later passing away, I began to sense how short life actually is. However extraordinary an experience you have encountered, you are fated at one point to end your life and disappear, like everyone else. They say “You cannot bring anything with you when you are born, and you cannot take anything with you when you die.” Through the making of this film, the meaning of this proverb struck me hard.
(Compiled by Kawashima Shoichiro)
Interviewers: Kawashima Shoichiro, Kimuro Shiho / Interpreter: Akiyama Tamako / Translator: Fujioka Asako
Photography: Harashima Aiko / Video: Iwata Kohei / 2015-10-10