New York Asian 2019 Interview: HAN DAN Director Huang Chao-liang On Sparking Rituals and Rivalries

Featured Contributor; New York City, New York (@TheDivaReview)
New York Asian 2019 Interview: HAN DAN Director Huang Chao-liang On Sparking Rituals and Rivalries
A box office success in his native Taiwan with films like Summer Times, Love Is Sin, and Hanky Panky, director Huang Chao-liang turns his eye to the rituals of his rural hometown.  At the New York Asian Film Festival, director Huang spoke exclusively with LMD about Han Dan, his semi-autobiographical exploration of two young men’s coming-of-age against an explosive backdrop of societal pressures and fireworks.
The Lady Miz Diva:  I understand that the firecracker ceremony was a ritual where you grew up, but what inspired you to make a film with it as your centre?  
Huang Chao-liang:  I am Taitung born.  I grew up there.  When I was a kid, looking at these grown men in the middle of all these firecrackers exploding, and all that, in my mind, I was just curious, ‘What were they thinking?’  Then I went to Taipei, and I actually studied journalism, I was in the news profession, and then after that, I made films.  Then my old friends in Taitung all said, “When you going to make a film that is about your own old hometown?”  The first thing I thought of was Han Dan; the firecracker ritual.
Basically, it was six years in preparation.  There were really problems and difficulties regarding the script, because it was really difficult to work with the script.  What I did was, I spent two years to make a documentary about this entire ritual; because making the documentary, I’d get to learn and know about what the ritual was, and what was on people’s minds.  
Then I isolated four reasons:  The first is Master Han Dan, the master of prosperity.  Two, apart from him being the god of prosperity, and clearly people want to make money; there are people who actually want to thank the gods.  Third, is that people actually want to show off their muscles, show off their physique. {Laughs}.  Then, the fourth one, which is actually the main theme of this film, which is redemption.  Basically, after I had delved in and gotten to understand the subjects and reasons, then the script was developed much easier.
LMD:  Besides the actual firecracker ritual, how much of what were are seeing is based on your own life experiences, or people you knew growing up? 
HCl:  When I was growing up, I did observe and actually see people clearly in maybe a lower strata of society, and what they go through, and what they have.  After collecting a lot of that material, I created composites of those characters.  It’s a combination of characteristics and traits that became characters.
And the two main characters, in many ways, they are both sides of me as a young person.  The two sides of me.  When I was in school, I was a very good student, just like the character of Lin, but as soon as school was out, I was a very naughty boy.
LMD:  It’s interesting because of the two characters’ trajectories, Lin {Zheng-Kun}’s is like a rollercoaster, starting from being this good, dutiful mama’s boy, who wants to go to the big city and make something of himself, until his rash act.  A-yi {Ming-yi}’s story is pretty straight, even his drug addiction: It’s not hard to imagine a dealer and thug becoming an addict.  How did you guide the performances for each of those very different trajectories?
HCl:  Think of Lin, the good boy, doing well in class and all that, but in many ways, actually, there are a lot of doubts and questions.  He questions himself all the time, ‘Am I doing it right?’  He is so worried he might make mistakes.  So, that actually creates that up-and-down type of a character.  But nobody is perfect, so everybody has a combination of good and bad.  There’s always a little bit of bad.  Whatever the bad, that is being hidden.  The thing is, how does he hide it; how does he tackle the bad qualities that are innate in him?
A-yi is the other one; the one that is violent.  But remember, he grew up in a violent household, so the violence is his way of protecting himself, because that is the way that he knows to express himself.  
Of the four main characters in this film, each of them, I gave them one Chinese character as an anchor.  So, for Lin, it was “to hide.”  For A-yi it was “release.”  For Su-Nai, it was “wild.”  For Xuan, it was “relax,” or “let go.”  Giving them the Chinese characters was something that each of them could grab at.  I also required that before we started shooting, that they stay in Taitung, for a long period, at least one month.  As for who stayed the longest?  Lin, George Hu; and while he was there, he learned about environmental protection, and was also dealing with all sorts of mechanisms.  He was really, really involved in Taitung, so he actually contributed.
A-yi is the person who lost his hearing, so, we also then engaged people who also had the same ailment -- not born deaf, because that’s different.  These were people who lost their hearing in their lives, to actually work with A-yi, so that he got to know more.  The actor who played A-yi {Cheng Jen-Shuo}.met with people who were drug addicts, and former drug addicts.  Not only that, he found a lot of material online to learn about that whole process.  Therefore, they understood naturally.
LMD:  The look of the film is stunning.  I squinted when I saw the opening scene of the train going through the countryside because it couldn’t have been a real shot; it had to be CGI with that super vivid colour.  Is the use of that hyper-saturated palette the way you see that time in life, or when you think of your growing up in the area where the film takes place?
HCl:  Are you talking about the opening landscape being CGI?
LMD:  Yes, that couldn’t possibly have been real?
HCl:  That landscape is real.  Welcome to Taitung!  {Laughs} For this film, I was really trying for different cinematic style.  You know that in Taiwan, lots of films, when it is about realism and social issues, it tends to be darker, dark blue hues and all that?  No, in Taitung, we have colors like that.  When you have beautiful, vibrant colors of the place’s landscape, and yet you have these characters that are clearly grayer, darker, heavier, how do you actually play with their contrasts?
LMD:  To that, was there more to the inserts of the Han Dan statue that are cold silver with splashes of dark, blood red, than just separating the scenes? 
HCl:  Why does the silver god suddenly appear?  There are explosive plot developments in this film.  The statue of the silver god, in many ways, is actually punctuation -- for the audience to just stop, collect.  And then it happens, and then, stop.  
You know, the Asian people, we always believe in the deities.  So, the idea is that whatever we do as mortals, up there, the deity is looking.  But the thing is, as you know, the actual god statue, the face is always in color, and it is red, so when mistakes are made, you have the black and white, and there is the color contrast.  Eventually, when there is the redemption, the release, the colors are more subdued.
LMD:  We can see so many of the societal messages the meant to convey with this film:  The top line would be about the bullying that created the enmity between the two main characters.  There is the tragedy of the developers literally destroying an old woman’s home while she’s living in it.  Of course, there is A-yi’s drug addiction, and how he’s treated by the townspeople.  Is anything else you would like HAN DAN to say as you present it to the New York audience?
HCl:  This film has been shown in China, in the Beijing film Festival, and also in Berlin.  I think the most important part is to understand that we learn to love.  So, if we make a mistake, we actually learn to be responsible, and then to forgive, and that forgiveness also includes to love.
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.
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George HuHan DanHuang Chao-liangNew York Asian Film FestivalNYAFFTaiwanTaiwanese Cinema

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