Filmmaker Doze Niu digs into his wayward past to tell a tale of teenage angst in Taiwan's triads, writes by Vivian Chen
Twenty-seven years may have passed, but Doze Niu Chen-zer still remembers the snaking queues at cinemas all over Taiwan. Everyone was turning out to watch "Growing Up", the youth drama that made Niu, then a teenager actor, one of the brightest stars of Taiwanese cinema.
"I'd never seen so many people lining up for a film," he syas. "It was raining and they had almost created a wall with their umbrellas. It's such a beautiful experience - it's good to be true."
The scene galvanised Niu's determination to become an acclaimed filmmaker, although it was nearly there decades before he realised his dream. His new film, Monga, has been an unqualified success with opening-day taking of more than NT$19 million (HK$4.4 million) - beating that of "Avatar" in Taiwan. It has since raked in NT$250 million at the box office, making it easily the island's most-watched film last year.
Now showing in Hong Kong, Monga is only his second feature film, Set in 1980s Taiwan. it focuses on three young men trying to survive cutthroat turf battles after they are drawn into the mob. They are Mosquito (Mark Chao Yu-ting), who joins the gangs to avoid being pushed around at school;Dragon(Rhydian Vanghan), the son of one of the most powerful ganster; and Monk(Ethan Ruan Jing-tian), who plunges into the underworld to protect Dragon.
Niu, 43, says the film - named after a downtone area in Taipei now better known as Wanhua - is based partly on his adolescence.
"I was bullied when I was young and then made friends who solved problems for me and gave me a sense of security," he says, "In our teenage years, our emotions overwhelmed logic and reason.
We only knew we didn't want to be babies but our minds weren't that clear. We drifted away from our families just to make a point - somthing which proves how naive we were."
The characters' roller-coaster ride through their youthful years mirrors the making of the film, he says.
Monga was first conceived in 2004 as a collaboration betwenn Niu and pop singer Jay Chou Jie-lun, who promised to play a leading role. Two weeks before shooting was to begin, however, Chou dropped out of the production, citing worries that playing a hoodlum would tarnish his squeaky clean image. That immediately put the project on the backburner, as it was felt "without a star like Chou, there's no way we can proceed with this huge project", Niu says.
But Niu persevered; he spent the next four years reading everthing he could find about Taiwanese gangs and interviewing people living in Monga, often cycling there "just to see it, smell it and feel it".
While Niu is grateful for the community's help, Monga residents also have him to thank as the neighbourhood undergoes a revival. The once forgotten part district has become a hip mecca as young fans flock to locations shown in the film, much as the 2008 home-grown hit, Cape No. 7, lifted tourism at the seaside town of Hengchun, where it was shot.
Like Cape No. 7, Monga has become a beacon of hope for Taiwanese filmmakers tring to tell their own stories at an age when imported American blockbusters reign supreme.
"Sure, globalisation has led to cash flowing towards Hollywood," Niu says. "But theres are regional film telling our stories, revolving around our culture in our own language."
His attachment to Taiwanese cinema is hardly a surprise when he has been a participant in the industry's fluctuating fortunes for most of his life. He began acting at the tender age of nine and rose to prominence with films such as Growing Up and Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Boys from Fengkuei, seminal works of the so-called Taiwanese New Wave, Niu delivered riveting performancese playing troubled delinquents in both films, personifying the discontent of the gereration that grew up in the turbulent last years of the Kuomintang's military dictatorship.
Unfortunately, Niu soon found himself living the life of his screen character, spending his early 20s in a boozy, hedonistic haze. It wasn't until he was 28 that he decided to clean up his act on the advice of his close friend, actor Li Li-chun.
Niu didn;t become a director until he was 33, when he was recruited to helm a China Television soap opera called Toast Boy's Kiss. It was a hit, and he followed up with an equally successful sequel, making him one of the most sought-after serial-makers in Taiwan.
But then came the fall. His 2004 series Say Yes Enterprise flopped and soon after Monga was shelved; his annus horribilis was sealed when his infidelity led to the end of a 10-year relationship.
Yest out of this wreckage Niu drew the material for What On Earth Have I Done Wrong, his 2007 small-scale, semi-autobiographical film about an obnoxious, double-crossing television director trying to regain his bearing after his professional and private lives crumble.
By directing - and playing the lead himself - Niu says he managed to "reveal all the dark sidee" of himself as a way to begin anew. The film won the International Federation of Film Critics prize at the Golden Horse awards, garnering the cachet he needed to relaunch Monga.
Despite his growing stature as a director, Niu says he won't ever give up acting - instead, he insists he would star in all the films he is to preside over in the future.
"Acting is my first job and I'm determined to act all my life," says Niu, who has a cameo role as a mobster in Monga. "My skill as a filmmaker has everything to do with my acting experience. It helped me understand what actors want."
He certainly knows what he wants now; with memories of his wildness years as vivid as ever, he is determined not to succumb to the hyperbole and temptations that come with the success. "It has changed how I decide for the future...I'm going to be more careful taking on subsequent projects."
He is now mulling over ideads for urban romances set in taipei and Beojing. "I don't understand why some top_grossing films fomr the mainland don't take off in Taiwan when we have become so close in terms of culture and lifestyle," he says. "I want to find that balance in my next film." Presumably that's a balance that brings audiences queuing around the block to see.
While there have been plenty of Taiwanese gangster pictures over the years, this nostalgia-tinged saga of wayward youth is the first to seriously rival Hong Kong’s ability to combine technical gloss and pretty faces into a riveting commercial package. Director Doze Niu has given such an epic feel to this 140-minute feature that, although the script (by Niu and Tseng Li-ting) rarely achieves the emotional depth warranted by its grandiose treatment, the overall effect is an engrossing film whose energy and scope are the very definition of a blockbuster.
Set in Taipei’s once notorious Monga (known officially as Wanhua) neighbourhood in 1986-87, the narrative is part history lesson and part mob tale, but primarily an exploration of the ties that bind a group of sworn brothers.
The 20-minute, pre-title sequence dexterously introduces the principals and displays the technical prowess of Niu and cinematographer Jake Pollock, culminating in an impressive crane shot wherein scores of colourfully dressed punks clash like rival colonies of variegated ants.
Thus is the milieu of the newest generation of Temple Front gang members, high school students destined to an underworld tradition dating back to the Qing dynasty. Monk (Ethan Ruan) is the tough guy of the bunch, a teen whose mission is to protect classmate Dragon (Rhydian Vaughan), the princeling son of the head mobster Geta (Ma Ju-lung). The soul of the clique is transfer student Mosquito (Mark Chao Yu-ting), a kid with a conscience who struggles to reconcile personal ethics with his yearning to belong.
Their lives become increasingly complicated as they leave school for “real” life. Although never approaching Godfather-type profundity, the proceedings attain a degree of nuance and texture with the inclusion of gang lore: for example, the ageing leadership’s disdain for guns as evil Western imports.
As Geta, Ma (who stole the show in last year’s Taiwanese mega-hit, Cape No. 7) provides the big boss with a down-to-earth solidity and subtlety lacking in the portrayal of his vacuous, too-handsome son. Better written are the roles of Monk and Mosquito, invested by Ruan and Chao with enough intensity to allow these bad boys to transcend their stereotypical nature.
The relationship between Mosquito’s single mum and menacing Mafioso Gray Wolf (Doze Niu) hints at complexity but is too cursory to pack a punch. More intriguing is the gay undercurrent between two of the lads, but executed so tamely as to be all but negligible.
The film ends up in a semi-philosophical mood as the line is drawn between thugs in it for the power and those whose chief motivation is fraternity. But whatever ambiguity its leads ostensibly embody, Monga is gloriously unabashed in its pursuit of box office loot and, unlike some of the protagonists, is deserving of its rewards.
This year’s Panorama will present 18 feature films in its main programme, 16 will screen in Panorama Special and 20, in its Panorama Dokumente series. Of these films from 29 countries, 32 are world premieres, and 17 are directorial debuts.
Opening Films The Panorama main programme will open on February 11 with the Russian film Veselchaki (Jolly Fellows) by Felix Mikhailov. The clandestine subculture of a Moscow club and its drag queen performers mirrors a profoundly homophobic society. A look at the performers’ families shows the harsh normality they have fled and the effort required by each of them not to fall apart as a result. Yet despite all obstacles, the protagonists learn to stand up for themselves.
Panorama Special opens on February 12 with Kawasakiho ruze (Kawasaki’s Rose) by Czech director Jan Hrebejk, who focuses on a dark chapter of not-so-distant history: after the Dubcek era, corruption, opportunism and pragmatism converge in the ill-fated mixture that has meant the destruction of all forms of revolution. The story of a family unfolds when the daughter asks her highly esteemed father painful questions - though the film is about truth and forgiveness, not revenge.
On February 12, with the film David Wants To Fly, Panorama Dokumente examines institutionalised obscuration such as is relevant against the backdrop of a worldwide rise in religiosity. The young Berlin filmmaker David Sieveking takes off in search of the deeper meaning behind his idol’s obsession with meditation, and so travels from Holland to the USA and India, and then back again to the Teufelsberg – Devil’s Mountain – in Berlin
Major Themes The past and how it mirrors the present plays a central role in many of the feature and documentary films in this year’s Panorama programme. For instance, in Son Of Babylon, a boy and his grandmother set out to find the boy’s father, missing since the last Gulf War, and discover the horrors of recent Iraqi history. In the form of a modern Western, the Australian film Red Hill brings to light the criminal tactics of a racist police force outback. Whether in Brazil’s favelas (Bróder!), in the life of a German-Turkish woman in Turkey (Die Fremde / When We Leave), in a small Taiwanese town (Monga), or on a family manor in France (L'arbre et la forêt / Family Tree) or during the Adenauer era in the young Federal Republic of Germany (the documentary Fritz Bauer): in many of these films, the devastating consequences of a concoction of pragmatism, opportunism and corruption are glaring – be it in relation to the personal lives of the protagonists or to developments in society as a whole.
Panorama Dokumente Aside from films deepening insight into political events - such as Shtikat Haarchion (A Film Unfinished), which is based on unedited footage from a Nazi propaganda film; Red, White & The Green, about the last election in Iran; or Cuchillo de Palo, which breaks the silence on gay persecution during the dictatorship in Paraguay – the programme includes works that are cinematographic in nature. For instance, Blank City, in which an array of US avant-garde artists from the 1970s and 1980s are reunited on the screen: from Amos Poe to John Waters, from founding father Jack Smith, Eric Mitchell and Lizzie Borden to Richard Kern and Lydia Lunch – all of whom also bring back to mind spectacular Berlinale appearances. Or Daniel Schmid - Le chat qui pense: a tribute to the Swiss film artist in which we encounter many great 1970s German film artists who still inspire us today: from Fassbinder, Ingrid Caven and Werner Schroeter to Peter Kern. What’s more, this series includes, for example, works about Rock Hudson and his role as a pioneering AIDS activist; and Candy Darling, the tragic Andy Warhol superstar. There is also Making The Boys, a film about the production of Mart Crowley’s legendary and politically explosive play from the late 1960s, "The Boys in the Band", a Broadway hit that was first made into a landmark film by William Friedkin in 1969.
Panorama Audience Award PPP Many more than 20,000 viewers participate each year in selecting their favourite Panorama films. The winner is then re-screened at the award ceremony on the last day of the festival. This prize has been awarded since 1999 in cooperation with “radioeins” and “tip” magazine.
The 24th TEDDY – Queer Film Award at the Berlinale will be presented on Friday, February 19, 2010 in the STATION Berlin. The motto “Mein Name ist Mensch” is from a song by Ton Steine Scherben: the band’s lead vocalist, songwriter and actor Rio Reiser is being honoured with an homage this year. The Special TEDDY 2010 will go to the filmmaker and inspiration Werner Schroeter for his lifetime achievements. See: http://www.teddyaward.tv