Leon Dai won numerous accolades this year for No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti at the 11th Taipei Film Festival. In addition to the coveted Taipei Grand Award, the movie was also honored with prizes for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, plus the Media Choice Award. Dai is the first Taipei Film Festival contestant ever to win the Taipei Grand Award twice, having first achieved the feat in 2002 for a short film entitled Two Summers.
No Puedo has gone global, winning the Grand Prize at the Skip City International D-Cinema Festival, the Best Film Award at the 30th Durban International Film Festival, and a Special Mention at the Alba International Film Festival. In addition, it has been chosen to represent Taiwan in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards.
No Puedo is based on an actual news story from 2003: "Father Threatens to Throw Self, Daughter off Pedestrian Overpass." The father, portrayed in news accounts as a criminal, made the national news in Taiwan when he climbed over the railing on a pedestrian overpass near Taipei Train Station. In his arms he was holding a daughter, cast in the news reports as having been kidnapped by the man. As he threatened to jump, the father screamed at the top of his lungs, "Society is unfair! Society is unfair!" Mobile news units from six different stations reported live on the event, which lasted for 40 minutes. Within two days, however, not a single news organization was paying any further attention to the father and daughter.
One day in 2005, Chen Wen-pin (producer and lead actor in No Puedo) was in the hospital reading newspaper articles to his wife, who was preparing to have a baby, when he ran across a story in which a local reporter from southern Taiwan followed up on what had become of the father and daughter. Chen created a storyboard based on the article and showed it to Dai, who was immediately interested: "Who could have guessed there was such a moving tale behind that sensational news story?"
The father, a single parent, relied on odd jobs to eke out a bare existence for himself and his daughter, but trouble ensued when she reached school age and he tried to enroll her in school, because he was not her legal guardian. The attempt to get her a household registration led to an impenetrable thicket of red tape, and he ended up riding his motorcycle 250 miles to Taipei numerous times to appeal for the assistance of an elected representative from his hometown. Everyone from central government functionaries on down to local bureaucrats all professed their intention to do everything in their power to help, yet their ineffective actions served only to waste time. The father tried to go directly to the Office of the President to present an appeal, but plainclothesmen cut him off before he could get near the building, and when he started yelling that he wanted to see the president, they forcibly escorted him away. In frustration, he ended up climbing over the overpass railing to make his case to the public.
The destitute father's act of desperation landed him in prison and his daughter in a foster home, but after two years apart, their fortunes turned. The cold hand of "the law" failed to resolve anything, and the little girl had refused to utter a word to anyone after being taken away. There was nothing the social workers could do to get her to open her mouth and speak, so in the end they returned her to her father. In the movie's final scene, father and daughter look silently at each other, the depth of their emotions showing painfully through.
Piercing the veil
"We live in an imaginary world created by the media. All events are placed under a magnifying glass for our facile consumption, but the underlying reality, the nub of the issue, is ignored each time. No one even cares. This is how we all form our world view, and distort the real world we actually live in." Dai spent a year and a half writing a movie script based on Chen's two-page storyboard.
The movie script departs considerably from events as they actually occurred in real life. "This movie isn't just a Taiwanese story. It could have happened in any country that adheres to the rule of law." He chose to film in black and white, in an almost documentary style, in hopes that audiences might focus more closely on the movie's message: Are we protected by the man-made labyrinth that results from our multi-layered edifice of laws and systems? Or are we shackled by it?
"I wanted to film the true face of Taiwan." Dai attempts to use images to get people to think seriously about certain questions. How do the others who share this world with us actually live their lives? What do they long for? What do they fear? The leading character in the story, Wuxiong, is a silent type with very low social status. He wants only to be with his daughter as she grows up.
Says Dai: "The parent-child relationship is the most basic level of human society. It is the foundation of the family, and only after that can there be a society, a country, a world. All of civilization rests on the tie between parent and child. If the law can interfere with this most essential of all emotional ties, is there perhaps a problem with our system?"
Early this year, in fact, President Ma Ying-jeou called upon civil servants not to use the concept of "handling government business in accordance with the law" as an excuse for avoiding responsibility. Instead, he said, they should come to the aid of those in need, just as Guanyin the goddess of mercy would. This is precisely the message that No Puedo seeks to communicate. Dai would like for civil servants to be more empathetic with the plights of others when handling government business.R
While addressing a topic of depth, Dai nevertheless handles it with unadorned simplicity and loving attention to detail. The warm compassion of the movie is more powerful and moving in the end than a loud scream of protest, and gives the lie to Dai's hard-bitten public persona.
A graduate in theater from the National Institute of the Arts, Dai has been involved in everything from stage plays to advertisements, television, and movies. In addition to acting, he has written scripts, directed, and even done post-production editing, and has done a very creditable job in every role he's taken on. And what of his personal life?
Dai was born in 1966 in Chenggong Township, Taitung County. His father was in charge of student discipline at a local middle school, and he was very stern with his children at home. Once when three-year-old Dai got mixed up and wore his flip-flops on the wrong feet, his father beat him severely and locked him outside the house. Dai cried himself hoarse, but his father paid no attention, and finally a neighbor couldn't bear it anymore and took the boy back to her home.
Dai's father forbade his children from playing games or doing extracurricular reading, and often ordered them to sweep up neighborhood streets and repair the mortar in the walls of their home. As a result, Dai had calloused hands while still young. But Dai's father was not without his tender side. He liked to fish and go to the movies, and often took his sons along to the theater.
Back in those days, mainlanders working as civil servants were frequently transferred from one location to another, and so as a second grader in elementary school Dai moved with his father to Kaohsiung. The family would move again four more times over the years. The strict discipline and frequent moves left Dai feeling rootless. For him, movie theaters were the safest and most familiar place. There he could completely relax, and through the movies he could learn about the world. "I used to spend all my money on the movies. There wasn't a single listing in the paper that I didn't go to see."
During junior high school his family lived right between a bookstore on the left and a rental shop on the right offering novels and comics, so he was able to sneak out for forbidden reading every day. By his second year of junior high he was big and strong enough to stand up to his father, and ran away from home with his brother to stay at a classmate's home. He has been estranged from his father ever since.
Now in his 40s, Dai comments philosophically about his father. War had forced him from Gansu in northwest China to India, where he stayed for a few years before proceeding by himself to Taiwan. Without a single relative here, upon graduation from National Taiwan Normal University he volunteered for a hardship posting to Taitung County, where he was put in charge of student discipline at Xingang Junior High School. Dai is able to understand how the rigors of war molded his father's draconian character, but the two nevertheless remain estranged.
As an avid movie fan, Dai as a junior high schooler often discussed plans with his buddies to film a movie of their own. Again as a senior high schooler, after watching St. Elmo's Fire, he got the idea of making a movie about his own life, but the instability born of his rebellious nature got in the way. After flunking his coursework and getting transferred to another senior high school, he had a conflict with the dean of discipline at the new school and was forced to transfer once again. He eventually managed to put himself through the evening division of Kaohsiung Jiangong Middle School, holding part-time jobs as a book salesman, delivery boy, and waiter.
Dai had one serious love before he started his mandatory stint in the military. "We were planning to go together to Taipei after I got out of the service. I was going to study filmmaking and she was going to major in political science because she wanted to become a diplomat." Two months into his military service in Kinmen, however, his girlfriend died in a frightful incident. Dai's commanding officer, fearing that he might do something rash, ordered him confined to one of Kinmen's many underground tunnels for two whole weeks, where he drowned his sorrows in the fiery gaoliang spirits that fellow soldiers snuck in to him along with his meals. "The next year and a half in the military was the bleakest period of my life. I felt like I had completely lost all direction."
After finishing his military service Dai tested into the National Institute of the Arts, but was still as confrontational as ever. Due to his protests in his first year against something he regarded as unfair, the schooled failed him in a required course for his major, which delayed his graduation. It wasn't until his sixth year at the institute that he finally finished his graduation piece, Hot-blooded Youth, and began to demonstrate his talent.
Hot-blooded Youth was a stage play about a group of recent high-school graduates waiting around to be called up to do their military service. Because no one knew quite when they would be summoned, the youths could do nothing but kill time with idle pursuits. The play was a big hit on campus, and someone suggested that they should perform off campus to a paying audience. That was going to require funding so, at the advice of an acquaintance who had graduated previously from the institute, Dai entered it in a contest, and the Council for Cultural Affairs awarded it a prize for outstanding script in 1994. As he watched his play being performed at Taipei Crown Theater, says Dai, "I felt for the first time that I was indeed heading in the right direction."
Tough to deal with
Dai went professional after graduation and was soon attracting notice as an up-and-coming star thanks to his good looks, excellent acting skills, and combination of aloof self-assuredness tinged by a hint of melancholy. He won a Golden Horse Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1999 for A Chance to Die, and followed up with Golden Bell Awards for Best Actor in 2000 for The Contract with Tso-shui River, and in 2002 for Moonlight.
Dai uses a clever metaphor to describe how an actor deals with the need to "get into character" while at the same being able to "set the role aside." A script is the outline, says Dai, and an actor's performance of any given scene is like the writing of a Chinese character, while a film editor takes lots of individual Chinese characters and strings them together into a moving tale. Moreover, "The characters can be put together in an infinite number of different combinations." In his view, editing is actually the process that is most central and most important to the making of a film.
Dai was once dubbed the Taiwanese version of Hong Kong heartthrob Tony Leung, but has always refused to play the part of "big star," such that when people learned of his romance with Kwai Lun-mei, a red-hot film star 18 years his junior, some felt that Kwai was too big a celebrity to be in a relationship with Dai.
In an interview two years ago with Cheers magazine, Dai stated: "I'm very much on the margin of the acting profession. Staying at the margin for me is a way of holding on to my persona and my direction." Because of his unwillingness to play by the rules of the game, the media has tagged him with such labels as "prickly" and "hard to deal with."
While keeping a certain distance from the mainstream, he nevertheless admits that he would like to change the mainstream, and redirect it. "A good director must interact with the mainstream. I started as a kid by watching commercial films, and now I would like to get back in touch with the mainstream viewpoint and cater to the tastes of ordinary moviegoers. I do believe you can strike a balance."
A spoonful of sugar
Seven years ago Dai acted in Double Vision, a horror film co-produced as a completely mainstream commercial film with Columbia Pictures of the US, the first Taiwanese film of this nature. Director Chen Kuo-fu had effectively planted a seed-everyone who took part in the making of Double Vision came away thinking differently than they had before. Su Chao-pin, for example, later took a commercial approach to the filming of Silk, as did Wei Te-sheng when he filmed Cape No.7. And Dai was hired in 2002 by a group of Hong Kong financial backers to film Twenty Something Taipei, a commercial full-length fiction film. It was the first full-length fiction film that Dai had ever done, and was a purely commercial film of a sort rarely made in Taiwan.
Dai accepted the job of filming Twenty Something Taipei because he was interested in seeing how people from Hong Kong approach movie making. "Their style is totally different from ours. We treat a movie as belonging to the director, but they treat it as belonging to the audience. They are always thinking about how to address the audience."
Commenting on the totally different logic and techniques that he was exposed to in making Twenty Something Taipei, Dai frankly admitted: "That was a crash course in directing. It changed the way I look at films, and gave me a chance to pick up many different techniques and communication skills that I can put to use as a director."
In 2003, Dai found himself in debt after money he received for an abortive film project had to be repaid. To pay off his debts, Dai took a role in the smash hit TV series The Hospital, but after the series ended he opted to drop out of sight rather than continue taking other roles to cash in on his celebrity. Two years ago, he was out running around to borrow money again, this time to finance the filming of No Puedo. The project put him several million NT dollars into debt once more, but when the film was finally completed it made a huge splash.
Asked about this success, Dai commented that Taiwan cinema since 1990 has drifted further and further away from mainstream audiences, not because it has dealt with oddball subjects, but because of the storytelling techniques that have been employed. Dai stresses: "I firmly believe that storytelling technique is everything. It's like the proverbial spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. As long as the flavor is right, you can get any message at all into the minds of the audience. I've always been very concerned about honing this particular skill."
In 2006, after watching a Brazilian film called City of God, Dai was made doubly aware of the lack of "dialogue with society" that has marked Taiwan cinema in recent years. City of God showed him that dialogue between a film and society can be very direct and powerful, and that movies can indeed change society. City of God focuses on youth violence in poor Brazilian neighborhoods. After the Brazilian president watched the film he formed a cabinet-level committee that went into the poor neighborhoods to tackle the problems depicted in the movie.
Dai acknowledges that City of God directly influenced No Puedo. He also stresses that No Puedo includes both a "microfocus" and a "macrofocus." The microfocus is the emotional bond between father and daughter, while the macrofocus is conflict between the people and the state. Both of these elements are common to countries throughout the world.
The experiences of relatives on his mother's side, a long-established family in the Dajia area of Taichung County, also contributed in a key way to his desire to set up a dialogue between cinema and society. An uncle had been arrested during the early years of the White Terror, was tortured, and died not long after his release. In the 1970s, another uncle was forced to flee to Hong Kong after being accused to the authorities of being a Communist. Due the politically checkered history of such relatives, every time his family moved to a new location the local police would "pay a visit" not long after they moved in, and this indirectly influenced Dai's outlook on society.
Since the huge success of No Puedo, Dai has contracted to direct two more films. By his own description, Dai feels most at home working all alone on editing or scriptwriting, yet the job of director requires him to continually communicate with others, and to deal with unexpected situations. As such, the question of how to strike just the right balance between "working within his comfort zone" and "reaching for something more" is going to be a big issue for him going forward.
Behind the camera
The government is strongly pushing a policy of support for the development of local cinema, but most government agencies turn down requests for funding on the grounds that supporting filmmakers is not their job. Dai had good luck when he filmed No Puedo in Kaohsiung, however. The Kaohsiung City Government actively supported his work, and arranged for members of Dai's crew to stay at local hotels at the very low rate of NT$380 per night.
The friendly attitude of the Kaohsiung City Government has attracted growing numbers of crews to shoot scenes there. At the same time Dai was making No Puedo in Kaohsiung, Tsai Yueh Hsun (director of The Hospital) was also filming Black and White there and staying in a room directly over Dai's. And on his way out to work in the mornings Dai would sometimes run into Lin Yu-hsien, who was filming Sumimasen, Love in Kaohsiung at the time.
One of the most talked-about things regarding the filming of No Puedo was the fact that Dai managed to wangle the support of a local deity for his project. The first scene in the movie, showing the launching of a new ship, was to be filmed at the Shrine of the Heavenly Sage in Qijin District. In order to enlist the support of the shrine's patron deity, the shrine authorities prayed to the deity to appear for a talk with Dai. The deity transmitted a message indicating agreement with the philosophy embodied in the movie, and an intention to support the project in every way possible. In return, the deity asked to make a cameo appearance in the film. The shrine authorities then pledged to support the film with monetary donations and manpower, and had a brand-new outfit made for the deity for his scene in the movie. The deity's involvement lent an especially festive air to the filming of the ship's launch, and generated outstanding publicity for the upcoming movie.