My father—he worked in a bank in Shanghai before coming to Taiwan but came from a village—went to the movies once a week, taking me along, at a time when that wasn’t so common. So I breathed in films from a very early age. My other love was comic-books—Japanese-style manga, with complicated narratives. I was good at drawing, and liked making up stories, so I would draw cartoon scenes for my classmates which made me popular in school. At home I read a fantasy version of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms secretly, at the age of nine, and later devoured classical Chinese novels, and foreign ones if I’d seen film versions of them, like Doctor Zhivago. Story-telling was always central to my life.
Anything that was shown—American, Japanese, Hong Kong: whatever. By my teens there was a terrific range of films you could see in Taipei, because the Nationalist government set up a number of movie-theatres that specialized in the cinema of particular countries, to bring the movies of the world to Taiwan. This was part of its policy to project the KMT regime as the legitimate country of the whole of China, a world power with close cultural relations to other powers. So it funded these theatres for diplomatic reasons. That meant you could watch French, Italian, Japanese, American films every day of the week. It was a wonderful system for us. You could see virtually anything. Of course, it didn’t last. When the Nationalist regime lost its seat in the UN, and most countries recognized the PRC, the policy lost its rationale, and the KMT shut down all these theatres. There were some comic episodes—when Japan set up an embassy in Beijing, but South Korea didn’t, the ‘Japanese’ theatre changed to showing just Korean movies. But we benefited a lot from the original set-up. The next generation weren’t so lucky.
I’m not sure. Maybe Italian neo-realism affected us, because its methods looked so inexpensive, and we had no money. If we wanted to make films ourselves, it was obvious everything would have to be done with pennies.
You have to understand what Taiwan was like in the late fifties and early sixties. The KMT regime was an extremely rigid, conservative dictatorship. For any urban youngster, the atmosphere of the society was very oppressive. You didn’t have to have any particular political ideas to feel this—it was all around you: rules and regulations, attitudes and institutions were authoritarian at every level, from school upwards. No-one could risk openly defying this, at a time when just sporting the wrong length of hair could get you into trouble. So in my generation, the typical phenomenon was outward conformity and inner rage. We were told all these lies by the government, and had no trust in it. Our parents didn’t trust it either. The whole texture of life seemed unreal. The roots of the Taiwanese New Wave lie in our rebellion against this set-up. It was a youth revolt of that time, so it took mainly cultural forms. Crucial to it was the impact of rock music. We were fascinated by the new sounds coming from America, and the overthrowing of any fixed order of traditional values it represented. Not just the promise of sexual freedom, central though that was, but the liberation from any kind of stable, handed-down hierarchy. The very idea of the Top Ten, for example, which changed every week to reflect what people liked to listen to, was revolutionary in our ancient culture. Maybe we were the first Chinese generation to grow up so alienated from the surrounding society. Of course, the fact that the point of attraction was a popular culture coming from the States helped us, since the US was after all the official protector and friend of the Nationalist regime—the KMT couldn’t just suppress it.
That’s the background to the New Wave, that you can see in my movies or Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s. But, of course, there was a time-lag before any of us could make films. The actual New Wave arrived exactly at the moment when the Nationalist regime was overtaken by crisis. That was in 1979, when Carter established diplomatic relations with mainland China, dropping the KMT into limbo. Losing its seat in the UN, which happened in 1973, was bad enough. But losing its privileged connexion to the US was a much worse shock. The regime suddenly looked quite isolated—it was the low point in its political fortunes. People in Taiwan were thoroughly disillusioned with its propaganda, and now much more confident in confronting it. After big demonstrations, the government finally lifted martial law, which had been in force ever since 1949. There was no democracy yet, but political controls weakened, and culturally it became more possible to defy the censor. I had been in the States for a decade after graduating in Taipei—studying in Florida and LA, and then working in a computer company in Seattle. When I saw what was happening, I decided to head back and make some films. I was then thirty-three.