SU Hung-en’s The Mountain: Grandfather’s Forest, Ancestors’ Spirit

by KO Pei-ching, Jennifer CHEN / 2016-08-07

The Mountain is director SU Hung-en’s first documentary feature film. With the blood of both the Truku tribe and the Hoklo people running through his veins, SU observes Taiwan’s indigenous peoples through an unusual double lens. This film combines recordings from the tribal life of his maternal grandfather (who is Truku), interspersed with historic footage characterizing indigenous peoples (propaganda films from the Japanese colonial era to Nationalist government rule), as well as video from social movements carried out in the name of indigenous peoples. These images from different times and spaces lead the audience to renew their thinking about the life experiences of Taiwan’s indigenous people on this land.

What is rare about this film is that it uses 16mm film, which is extremely uncommon for today’s documentaries, resulting in beautiful image textures that are clearly different from digitally-shot documentaries. The director diligently builds the viewer atmosphere to create a very “cinematic” documentary, taking us deep into the tribal lives and mountain forests inhabited by indigenous elders and their interactions with animals, seeking to break down stereotypical impressions of indigenous peoples. This film has already received recognition with several award wins. The following is an edited transcript of an interview with the director.

Q: Why did you want to make this documentary?

In the beginning I just wanted to make a cultural record. Hunting, ancestral spirit culture, sacrificial rituals — all of these aspects of tribal culture are gradually weakening. There are less and less people who understand it, and it’s hard to find people from the younger generation who are willing to continue it. I thought it would be a shame if we aren’t able to see these things in the future, so I decided take advantage of the opportunity to record some of it down. Later, I asked my uncle if there was a suitable subject, and he said: “Just film your grandfather!” That’s how the first stage of recording began.

After I finished filming my grandfather’s way of life, I became curious as to what kind of experiences he had to possess these kinds of skills. So I delve deeper with some field interviews and began to understand more and more about his education, his work, and the process of his return to the tribe, as these things may have a connection to his life background. During his interviews he eventually revealed some things about the government policies of the time, so I dug up old files and news footage to corroborate. When I gradually understood the situation at the time, such as why he would work in such low-level jobs, I slowly started adding these things into the film.

My original intention was simple: I just wanted to make a cultural record. But later on things slowly expanded and transformed into what it became.

Q: Why choose to film in 16mm?

In the beginning we filmed with digital equipment for a very long time and also tried to edit some of the digital footage in, but I felt it didn’t reach the desired effect. I wanted the mountains to convey a very calm, sacred feeling, but as the digital equipment is smaller, the image would often shake when shot with handheld cameras, making it feel more hurried. Later, I thought we should change our shooting methods, so we changed it to predominantly fixed camera shots.

In terms of textures, digital cameras still aren’t able to capture the same depth or vibrancy of color. Scenes in the mountains filmed using digital equipment sometimes came across as too sharp, too real, and cannot communicate that sense of spirituality from my grandfather’s presence in the mountains. Later, the cameraman showed me about three minutes of footage he had previously shot on analog film. The images were very quiet but also full of life, so I decided to try using film to record the next part. Since we had a lot of experience using digital cameras from filming before, we knew roughly my grandfather’s movements and positioning. These scenes were effectively shot twice, which is why we were able to get them to the way they are now. The other aspect is that my grandfather started getting used to people filming him, so he would generally ignore us and focus on doing his own things. We basically didn’t disturb him.

Q: How do you see the influence of different ruling regimes on indigenous peoples, from the Japanese colonial period to the Nationalist government to today?

At the start, I actually didn’t know how each regime treated indigenous peoples. It was after interviewing my grandfather that I found these archive images from the internet and the Taiwan Film Institute.

During the interviews, when I asked my grandfather about his impression of the Japanese and the Taiwanese, he said he thought life during the Japanese colonial period was more strict, whereas when the Taiwanese were in power it was more lenient, though now they are all friends. The Japanese were in control when he was in elementary school, but his teachers were quite good to him, so he perhaps didn’t sense an antagonistic relationship with the Japanese. The antagonism he felt was probably more severe when he was middle-aged. He would often face oppression when he went to work in the city. That oppression was probably worse than that experienced by workers from other ethnic groups, so the middle-age period of his life was not easy.

In fact, the patronizing relationship is very obvious in the archive images. The government thinks it is bestowing kindness on indigenous people, using civilization to educate this group of “savage people”. I think that was a particularly confrontational era. It’s probably not as serious now, but those stereotypical impressions more or less still remain in the hearts of the general public. For instance, the typical first impression people have of indigenous people is that most of them are good at singing and dancing and are very lively. I think this image is a stereotype, but subconscious thoughts are even more frightening than conscious thoughts. If it’s intentional, at least everyone will know it’s intentional, but unintentional notions are actually internalized thoughts etched into your brain.

If we don’t correct these notions and allow these same values to persist, we won’t be able to achieve so-called transitional justice or wash away the stigma. That is why we must repeatedly tell the people and overturn these views.

Q: What kind of thinking were you trying to convey to the audience through the shooting and editing methods used in this film?

The first thing I wanted to convey was images people can’t usually see, such as the process of hunting in the mountains, which I think is the core of indigenous Truku culture. What I didn’t want was the dancing and singing festivals people normally see, or stereotypical representations of indigenous people like drinking alcohol. What I wanted to show was the local lifestyle, to rectify people’s thinking toward indigenous people and to wash away their existing impressions.

Secondly, I adopted this editing method because I wanted to, through news or government propaganda footage that we now think is ludicrous or amusing, remind the audience that during the growth process, these ways of thinking are not imprinted in our minds, and then to contemplate whether such thoughts still remain. Additionally, the narration in these videos to some extent reflect the state of Taiwan’s development from the Japanese colonial era to Nationalist government rule to now, whether it is in terms of the transformation of economic patterns or the changes in lifestyles of indigenous peoples.

This film in fact just wants to give audiences many facets to think about, not just one particular facet. That’s what I want to achieve the most.

Q: Why did you name the film The Mountain? (Note: The Chinese title of the film translates to Spirit Mountain)

At the start of filming I wanted to focus on the hunting. But later on I wanted to broaden the scope of the topic a bit more, so I first decided on the working title “Mountain”. This is because the mountain is the field where they carry out their entire lifestyle, where the heart of all their culture is assembled. I then added the word “Spirit” because I really like the faith the indigenous people have in their ancestral spirits. In the film there was a prayer scene where he was chanting, “Go back! Go back!” This was because he had invited over his ancestors from the other world, given them their sacrificial offerings, and was in the process of sending them back. The concept of ancestral spirits is at the heart of indigenous culture.

Because it is their field and their culture, I decided to call the film “Spirit Mountain”. Further, I was also inspired by the Gao Xingjian’s novel of the same Chinese title, in which he writes in both a first person (“I”) and second person (“you”) perspective. I also used this concept in my film. In the first part, the storytelling is from the perspective of an observer: How are “you” doing in the mountains? Then in the middle, when it switches to my grandfather’s voice, it becomes “I” was this and that.

For more information about The Mountain, please click here.


(Translated by Howard SHIH)