In 2016, Taiwanese artist KAO Jun-honn ventured into the mountainous wilderness of the Dabao River Basin in Sanxia District, New Taipei City. There he unearthed remnants of the Defence Lines of Frontier Guards from the Japanese colonial period. The ruins stood witness to a blood-soaked history: It was the site of a massacre, where Atayal people of the Llyong Topa community fell victim to the Japanese government's first wave of indigenous genocide. After more than three years of strenuous fieldwork and solid research, KAO has since published a book, various artistic sketches, video recordings, and a feature documentary, Llyong Topa, which was commissioned by the Taiwan Public Television Service (PTS). In the film, KAO brings a forgotten history to light, telling the story in his own voice.
Why did you choose to narrate in the first-person perspective in Llyong Topa?
In the initial rough cut of the film, I included a great percentage of oral histories from the descendants of the Llyong Topa community, aiming to tell this particular history from their angle. Later on, however, after discussions with the PTS team, I decided to shift to a first-person narrative and emphasise instead on my quest for the remains of Defence Lines of Frontier Guards. Many recent documentaries choose to approach social issues faced by indigenous peoples from a sympathetic perspective, perhaps from an underlying wish for atonement, but less seen is the aspect of how a Han Taiwanese could enter and participate in indigenous peoples' world. In this vein, the process of mapping out the former sites of Defence Lines was my attempt to take part in the community history of Llyong Topa as a Han Taiwanese.
Please tell us a bit more about the sound design of this film. What was it like to work with sound artist Yannick DAUBY?
Filming in the mountains was difficult for me on a technical level. The Defence Lines of Frontier Guards were usually located in the middle- and low-altitude mountain areas, a region known for its misty and rainy climate, which could easily result in monotonous images. Soundscape therefore became the crucial element that could add colours to the film and prevent it from getting dull. I wanted to work with an expressive sound artist — That was where Yannick came in. Yannick did so much more than sound design and engineering; he is an artist through and through.
When we were working together, he would bring up questions based on potential sounds within a specific scene, which shaped and enriched my imagination for the documentary. Once, he asked me about the exact voltage on the power lines over the sites of the Defence Lines. I was bewildered by the notion: How was I supposed to know such a minor detail? Then he pointed out that differences in voltage produced different sounds. On another occasion, he asked me: What kinds of environmental sounds could be heard around the Defence Lines? My immediate thought was the sounds of cicadas or other wild animals, but Yannick wasn't satisfied with such cursory response. Later, I recalled a description I'd read from some historical records. A Japanese police officer described what he heard when out on patrol at night: knock-knock, knock-knock-knock. It was the signal system used to transmit messages between the huts at the outposts, the instant communication system before telephones. So we decided to simulate that particular sound and included it in the film.
As a video artist, how would you define the nature of this documentary?
I majored in mixed media and oil painting in college; I wasn't professionally trained as a documentary filmmaker, so I don't necessarily identify myself as one. I see myself as more of an artistic activist: My main concern is how to interpret and represent the development of a certain event through art.
Llyong Topa for me seems closer to a hybrid between a documentary and a video recording of a ceremony. In my own words, I would say this film is a 'movement object', namely an object created by a social movement. The film was involved throughout the movement and had some effects on the movement; that's enough for me. Categorical details like whether it's a video art or not, with or without narration, matter less in this regard.
Do you have any follow-up projects planned to expand on this subject?
I plan to publish another book by the end of 2020. It's also about my journey to search for the Defence Lines and descendants of the Llyong Topa community. A lot of materials I have are more suitable for textual presentation, so I wish to give more information in detail with this book.
In addition, because my original plan for Llyong Topa was to tell the story from the perspective of the descendants, I had accumulated a significant amount of interview footage. These materials are compelling enough to merit their own documentary, so I'm making another descendant-centric film called Ncaq. That one is still in production, estimated to be screened in 2021. If Llyong Topa shows how I, as a Han Taiwanese, participate in this issue, then Ncaq returns the stage to the people concerned to speak out for themselves. For me, these two films are only complete when viewed together.