Stories of mainlander veterans in Taiwan may not be novelties, yet their life stories can quite often exceed our imaginations. LI, The protagonist of HEBEI TAIPEI, his parents died when he was a child. For survival, he became a monk and later joined the army, which took him to one place after another, further away from home. He fought in the Korean War and eventually settled in Taiwan where he spent the rest of his life.
LI once said that he failed to live up to the virtues his name LI Chung-hsiao implied, being neither loyal nor able to serve his parents well. Following some soul-stirring experiences in the first half of his life, he just wanted to spend the rest of it being himself.
The director of HEBEI TAIPEI, LI Nien-hsiu spent 15 years filming the story of her father. From Taiwan to mainland China, she explored and pieced together the fragments of her father’s past in the hope of documenting his life as well as fulfilling her promise to him. Below is an interview with director LI Nien-hsiu.
Q: I heard on the news that you didn’t believe what your father told you, so you tried to verify it. Could you explain again what your motivation was for making this film?
My motivation was simple: my father wanted his stories to be known by more people. He considered himself a great man, but as I had an estranged relationship with him, I didn’t quite agree with him.
Initially, my father wanted me to write a novel about him, but as I studied Communication at university, I began considering making a film about him instead. This film is therefore my promise to him. It is also something that I wanted to do for myself. I think this is rather different from the starting points of other films, as I simply wanted to finish one of the things I need to do in my life.
Q: Why did your father consider himself a great man?
After all, he did fight in all those battles. What he had been through before was completely different from the stable life he led in Taiwan. That’s why he felt those experiences were worthy to be told.
The other reason was that he fought in the Korean War, after which there were “Anti-Communist Martyrs” and World Freedom Day celebrated on 23 January. 23 January was the date those defecting soldiers arrived in Taiwan. My father used to boast that this memorial day in fact acknowledge publicly him as a contributor to this war., so every year on this day he would start saying “Your old man was the reason behind World Freedom Day”, which I never took seriously. But after I went on the journey across mainland China, I started believing it.
In fact, making this film offered me an opportunity to understand him. I am thankful to him for asking me to take on this journey, because few people get the chance to really understand their parents. I think I gained a lot from making this film.
Q: In the film there is a section shot in your father’s hometown Gao Village. How did your father feel when he saw it?
There is a scene of him watching what I shot while doing field research in mainland China. I thought he would have got emotional watching the footage too, yet to my surprise he seemed rather calm. In fact my father was unfamiliar with that environment. Those who have watched the film may think the village is bleak, but for him the village was even bleaker when he was a child. There is a gap between how the image looks like and how he remembered it. Maybe that’s why he didn’t have strong feelings about it.
Q: The film shows your father’s experience in mainland China. Did you want to make a connection between his experience and Chinese history?
My father’s life story is inseparable from the Chinese Civil War between the Nationalists and Communists. I won’t call it a connection, because he was within it. At the same time, I find my trip in mainland China quite interesting. It made me start thinking about the writing of history, for people there talk about the same events in a completely different way from us.
Q: During the 15 years of filming, have you had a change of feeling?
Actually, what I felt the most strongly about was “One regret not being able to serve one's parents when they are no more.” I used to think it was just a proverb and never thought about its meaning, let alone when I would personally experience it.
I didn’t have a close relationship with my father when I was young. I remember a friend cried in class over the sudden death of her father. At the time I thought if my father had died at that very moment, I wouldn’t even shed a tear. But when that moment actually came, I felt terrible, because I finally got to know him and understand why he became like this. Just when I started getting close to him, there was no more time. That’s just life. You can’t do anything about it.
Q: Do you intend to show the film only at film festivals? Or do you have other plans?
Our next plan is to get the film screened for free at veterans’ homes, hospitals and schools, especially veterans’ homes, for the residents there may not know there are people who do take their stories seriously.
A while ago, I read a novel about the process of caring for a father suffering from stroke. I was deeply moved by it. As I had the same experience, I felt grateful to the author who put it into words.
When we did filming at the veterans’ home in Sanxia, I sensed an atmosphere of loneliness. For someone there passes away every three to five days, those who remain have to face the death of a friend every one or two weeks. That’s why I want to screen the film there in particular. I hope to make them realise that there are people who know their stories and care about them.
Q: What is the happiest moment when you make a documentary?
How could there be any happy moment when making a documentary? Documentary filmmaking is hard work and it gets no funding. It is also difficult to make people understand why you are doing it. But I think making documentaries gives one a sense of mission. Even if the film touches the audience for just one second, it is fine. As I have accomplished my mission, I feel content.
For me, the happiness of making a documentary exists when looking back at what I have been through, and I can laugh at myself for being silly. This silliness is what takes me to the next step. It is a kind of optimism in the face of adversity. Although it’s tough, it is what I want to do in my life, and completing it means succeeding in life. This is also what I felt at the end of the filming. My father had too many regrets and I don’t want any regret when my time comes.
For more information about HEBEI TAIPEI, please click here.
(Translate by TAN Chen-chih)