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The News Lens caught up with '10 Years Taiwan' directors Lekal Sumi and Rina Tsou, who discussed what inspired them as directors and how Taiwan can avoid the film's dismal vision of the future.
Taiwan leaps 10 years ahead into a bleak, oft-dystopian future in “10 Years Taiwan,” its entry into the future-gazing “10 Years” franchise. The omnibus film strays away from overt cross-Strait commentary, instead adopting a resolutely human gaze on issues such as nuclear waste, pollution, inequality and the sexual abuse of female foreign workers.
The first two of the five short films, “The Can of Anido” by Ami director Lekal Sumi Cilangasan (勒嘎舒米) and “942” by Rina B. Tsou (鄒隆娜), respectively explore the hazards of storing nuclear waste on Taiwan’s Orchid Island and the future consequences of the sadly rampant sexual abuse of foreign caretakers in Taiwan.
The film, which premiered in Taipei on Monday, recently concluded a crowdfunding campaign and has been holding screening events in Taipei, Taichung, Tainan and Kaohsiung. The News Lens caught up with Rina Tsou and Lekal Sumi at the premiere to find out what inspired their creative choices, the experience of being an “outsider” in a majority Han Chinese society, and the film’s very subtle commentary on cross-Strait relations. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
The News Lens: What was your personal motivation for choosing the topic of your film?
Rina Tsou, “942”: My mother is Filipina and my dad is Taiwanese, so I have a background of mixed cultures. But my dad is also an immigrant from China, who came with the government after World War II. So, for me, immigration or mixed cultures has always been the center of my interest in making films. I wanted to be a voice to people of the same background.
At the time, there was news of a rape case involving an Indonesian caretaker in Taiwan. It is sad that she had to gather her own evidence. So she recorded with her phone, secretly, the process of being raped by her employer. This footage was seen by the Indonesian people before it became famous in Taiwan. We were the “bad Taiwanese” employers in Indonesia before we were aware of it ourselves.
I wanted this to be heard again because it has happened over and over again since my mom was here as a caretaker in Taiwan. As a female, as a daughter of a previous caretaker, as a woman to myself go abroad and work, to see that this environment hasn't improved much in terms of the power struggle between sexes and how people actually blame the victims in these kinds of sexual harassment cases.
I wanted to make this film more of a fable story so, when you see it, it’s not a very easy film to take in. But the very strong images and the sci-fi elements make you remember the film. I don’t want people to see it very realistically, as with my previous films. I want people to see it and feel very strongly, even uncomfortable about it.
Lekal Sumi, “The Can of Anido”: I have been actively participating in anti-nuclear campaigns over the past few years. I feel it’s a citizen’s obligation to take part in that. But I also asked myself, as a creator: What can I do for this subject? Can I do more? The Hong Kong 10 Years studio came to me and the opportunity came. I thought, this is a good way to start.
I felt that most Taiwanese do not understand the gravity of the nuclear waste issue. They mostly misunderstand how people feel, as they know residents [of Orchid Island] will get some benefits. But they misunderstand – that’s not what residents want. They would rather give up those benefits and not take on the nuclear waste. I wanted to depict what residents really think through the film.
TNL: What were your feelings as you made the film (at the end of 2017) and saw Taiwan’s pro-nuclear advocates gain momentum, culminating in a successful November referendum to keep the plants running – one which did not resolve the question of how to dispose of nuclear waste?
Lekal: I was very sad, very pessimistic about Orchid Island’s history. It was the place the Taiwanese government used as a prison for serious criminals. There’s a sacred island next to Orchid Island, sacred to the local people, but it was chosen for the Republic of China (ROC) air force to do military practice. It's been bombarded by the air force.
Orchid Island is known as Ponso no Tao (island of the people) by locals. But ironically, it has constantly taken negative things from the main island. It’s a trauma for the indigenous people and I felt it’s very important to try and communicate with those who don’t understand the issue. It’s crucial to find a way to live together peacefully instead of building contrast between each other.
I think the result from the referendum is a form of tyranny of the majority. It’s what most people hope for, but it's not what local people hope for.
Nuclear waste has been stored on Orchid Island for over 30 years. It's not easy to find a consensus on it, but that’s the same around the world. I felt very lost when I saw the referendum result. I wondered: Why vote for this issue when it’s a false issue? It really hurts the local residents.
I think the result from the referendum is a form of tyranny of the majority. It’s what most people hope for, but it’s not what local people hope for. (Editor’s note: While the pro-nuclear referendum passed, 56 percent of Orchid Island residents voted against it, while 43 percent voted in favor.)
TNL: Rina, you mentioned the “power struggle between sexes,” especially among foreign workers – is awareness increasing in Taiwan of the present imbalance?
Rina: In terms of news coverage, I know a lot of people who are trying their best to cover these kinds of stories that are mostly unheard in mainstream media. But we fall into social bubbles. On my Facebook, everybody’s very aware of these issues. But beyond that … the news is repeated once or twice, then it’s cast to the sidelines. When you see the news [playing on TV in one pivotal scene in the film], the woman riding the bicycle becomes the main story.
I think there’s a disparity between independent media and mainstream news. And somehow, I have this feeling that mainstream news is trying to make us stupid. [Laughter] And make us not want to care about those things that could spark social movements. These are not things that are OK.
TNL: What was behind your decision to show both an Indonesian worker in Taiwan (in the present) and a Taiwanese worker in Indonesia (in 2028)?
Rina: I think we are actually living in the same era. I have friends who work in Indonesia, but not as caretakers. But I am feeling the rise of Southeast Asia, and I am also feeling the decaying economy of Taiwan. I have hope, but I have a very pessimistic vision of the Taiwanese economy. If we don’t change, when that time comes, we will face this same kind of working environment.
People influence people. If we treat the Indonesian workers here nicely, one day, if we do have to work in Indonesia as caretakers or in any kinds of jobs, they will repay us in the same manner. Now, we are exploiting the Indonesian workers. What happens when circumstances reverse? What happens if our economy becomes worse and they rise, and we have to work there? I think it's really important for us to realize that our worlds are connected.
In the film, I do this with a tunnel, or a wormhole. That’s why I wanted to show these kinds of space jumps – and let people know that the choices we make now influence the future and impact us directly.
I am feeling the rise of Southeast Asia, and I am also feeling the decaying economy of Taiwan. I have hope, but I have a very pessimistic vision of the Taiwanese economy. If we don’t change, when that time comes, we will face this same kind of working environment.
TNL: The film also contained many ancillary themes – air pollution, a same-sex love theme – which packed a lot into what was about a 20-minute film. What led you to add them to the film?
Rina: For the air pollution element – for me, it’s an imminent future. We have air cleaning machines right now. I just came back from Malaysia, and in the airport, they have this big air cleaning machine that says “CLEAN AIR HERE.” And it was such a deja vu – I laughed and I was sad at the same time. Because I don't want my film to come true – even though I made it.
For me, it wasn’t an intent to shock, it was just a natural understanding of the future that I made as a background to the film.
For the love story element – I wonder if you noticed the two girls have different relationship dynamics in their respective space and time. For me, I wanted to show that, in this space, they were in love, they had the same social status [to each other]. But now in Taiwan, it is almost impossible – even if they have some kind of feelings for each other, the social status and racism create all kinds of barriers between them that make it impossible to form any kind of friendship.
When it happened here, in the present, the girl just kind of ignored it all. Because it’s also scarring for her to acknowledge what is happening. But when she makes that choice, it has an effect. I wanted people to feel that – we actually can help each other, we actually can love each other. And when you have this kind of friendship and help, it makes a difference for this person. So even if she is running away for her life, she will have some kind of strength and support. Whereas in this time, whenever these people are running away from a dangerous working environment, they are helpless.
Instead of turning away from what’s happening in front of you, why not take another look? There might actually be something beautiful that can happen. With the love story, that was my intention.
TNL: That was a powerful scene – when the Indonesian caretaker sat at the table while the girl looked away, that barrier of silence.
Rina: I also wanted to show the perspective of the girl having to experience her parents dealing with this kind of stuff. Her father was the predator.
For the audience, you can relate to the girl wanting to turn away. It was so embarrassing, it was so scarring to be in that kind of situation. You just want to turn away. So actually, this choice not to turn away is difficult – but it is these difficult decisions that make a difference. Doing the right thing is not comfortable. Sometimes it takes a lot of courage, sometimes it takes a lot of power – but it’s worth it.
TNL: Lekal, you mentioned the historic trauma of the island for its indigenous people – did you hope to raise awareness among Taiwanese of what Taiwan’s indigenous have been through and what they are voicing now?
Lekal: Even though the film is based on Orchid Island, it’s not just about Orchid Island. It’s a projection of Taiwan.
I find it paradoxical that Taiwanese don’t value the minority groups in Taiwan, but they are seeking international recognition at the same time.
Rina: How can you identify as Taiwanese when you don’t even acknowledge your soil?
TNL: What did you think of the recent letter to Xi Jinping from Taiwan’s indigenous people? It condemned Xi’s recent speech on Taiwan, but it also contained messages of self-determination and ancestral land rights which did not receive as much attention in the reaction to that letter.
Lekal: I feel that, for most Taiwan indigenous people who participate in social movements, they feel very disconnected to Taiwanese politics. The mainstream issues are always Taiwan or China. Which side? Ruling party or non-ruling party.
But indigenous people feel like we have already been through several colonizations, changing dynasties in the past. Going through that, they have always recognized themselves as indigenous groups.
In Mandarin, the term yuan zhu min (原住民) basically means people who already live on the land. For them, Taiwan is the motherland. But the government doesn’t think that way. For them, whenever they draft a law or make policies, they always marginalize indigenous groups.
I feel the government should prioritize and solve this issue. When they are trying to build a nation, it’s necessary to understand the history of the land.
Most Taiwanese may say they don’t really care about politics – but everything is politics, from the taxes we pay to the “1992 consensus.” Everything in life is politics. And the country should look into the trauma of history and find real transitional justice. For 10 Years Taiwan, I feel that represents the most real of Taiwan. It’s meaningless to just follow the mainstream issues. Everything is politics.
I find it paradoxical that Taiwanese don’t value the minority groups in Taiwan, but they are seeking international recognition at the same time.
Rina: For me – actually, we are called “new residents.” Since my childhood until now, I have been labeled many different names. I have been the “foreigner,” the “foreign spouse child,” the “new immigrant’s child,” the “new resident’s child,” and now I have another name, the “new second generation.”
At first, I didn’t really know my connection with Taiwan, because I’ve always felt like an outsider. So I think it was a very natural reaction for me to want to dig for some kind of connection and make myself stick to this land, to feel recognized and feel like I belonged.
When my family moved here when I was 10, I was recognized – misrecognized – as an indigenous person. People asked me if I was indigenous. My surname is “Tsou” – there’s a tribe with the same name. So, at first, I thought I was indigenous because my teacher told me if I was indigenous, I could have my lunch for free. I ran home and happily asked, “Are we indigenous people? I can have my lunch for free.” Then I realized I’m not, and actually I’m a foreigner.
But then, after growing up, I learned that the Filipino people are part of the Austronesian community, which is strongly related to the indigenous people in Taiwan. We have the same words, like the word for the number five. It's still the same after so many years.
Growing up, I started to organize my thoughts on how I feel about this land and how I feel about the injustice that is still not solved, as Lekal said. We have to solve our internal issues before we can come up with an idea of what it means to be Taiwanese. If we just ignore it and think it’s not important, we will never have a unified voice which will be a strong voice in an international platform.
And growing up, I was always asked the question of why I couldn't speak Taiwanese – which is actually Hokkien dialect. Sometimes I was even told I must learn that language to be Taiwanese. I was actually kind of traumatized by it when they wanted to sing a Taiwanese song and I could only keep up with a few words and I felt strongly like not belonging. But I could actually speak some words of indigenous languages! So for me, I think I developed more and more strong feelings for my connection with Taiwan within the indigenous community. I think that’s how I found myself caring about the issues of justice for indigenous people.
I think I do agree with Lekal that, before we actually fight over sovereignty or the mainstream politics between China and Taiwan, maybe we should fix ourselves first. And it’s not just between indigenous people or the newcomers or different cultural backgrounds of Taiwanese. We are all Taiwanese. So let’s heal our wounds. Let’s fix the injustice first so we can actually have a unified voice and feel like we are all together instead of feeling, “That’s your business.”
We have to solve our internal issues before we can come up with an idea of what it means to be Taiwanese. If we just ignore it and think it’s not important, we will never have a unified voice which will be a strong voice in an international platform.
TNL: In “10 Years Taiwan,” many viewers (and reviewers) noticed an absence of commentary on cross-Strait politics. Why do you think that was?
Rina: Actually, there is. The last film (“The Sleep”). It’s just very poetic. [Laughter]
So one of us made a point about it. The director (Lau Kek Huat, 廖克發) just used a very artistic and poetic film narrative. He actually just said last night, after our screening, he did have a symbolic view on this topic through his film, especially in two elements. The first is: What if you already forget something very important? Because you have already forgotten it, you don’t know how to recall it. In this viewpoint, it is Taiwan. What if you forget Taiwan? That can happen in this political climate.
The other thing is the vision of Taiwan being an island, a boat isolated in that river. You have a renaissance of what used to be so beautiful about it. In the end of the film, he wanted people to feel that kind of beauty of what we could have, or what we could only remember in the future.
For me, I do think we have that element, it’s just maybe not that obvious. It’s his artistic choice and we fully back him up because it’s his narrative. And for us, it means that we actually have five voices. So I don’t think we are absent in that sense, you just have to look deeper.
Lekal: For the indigenous people, once again Taiwanese politics do not resonate with them. Although it’s a democratic country, the people aren’t truly free. For the indigenous groups, they don’t really think what Taiwanese think.
The true value of a country isn’t really the “1992 consensus” or which party rules. They aren’t really meaningful things. The true value of a country lies in the people’s culture. Like how New Zealand accepts the Maori culture, I feel that’s a direction for Taiwan to find a stage in international relations. It’s important for the country to solve internal issues.
If I must say something about my attitude towards politics, I fully support self-rule for indigenous people, independence for indigenous people. I really hope Orchid Island can be independent, as a country, as it’s so different from Taiwan. The people are also closer to Austronesian people.
When I made the film, I felt it was a projection of Taiwan.
TNL: How can Taiwanese society open its eyes to the issues shown in your films – so your films don’t come true after all?
Rina: For me, the answer might be very cheesy, but I take it in two parts.
First, I think we need to really love each other, and it’s actually not easy. Because we have to think of each other as equal parts.
And to do that, we need knowledge. That is not easy. Especially as now, the media is controlled by the powerful – sometimes, it is hard to choose what kind of knowledge you’re taking in, as sometimes it’s pre-chosen for you. That’s something I’m worrying about and I have in mind right now – how to put out the knowledge between each other that is reaching out to most people. It’s not just about social media – social media can have its own barriers as well.
So for us – for me, the only thing I can do is film. And through film, I do want to spread out the knowledge between each other. When you know somebody, that’s the only way you can love somebody. And when you love somebody, you care enough to care about their rights.
Lekal: Whatever the issue is, I feel it’s important to tackle it from multiple aspects, such as education and policy… Through education, we can make a difference. Though there’s only so much our generation can do, if we do nothing, there won’t be change.
Through education, I really hope that we can start seeing the difference from the textbooks, and our future generations will no longer feel ashamed of their race, our skin color – we can make a difference and be more tolerant of our diversity.
Those who are interested in seeing the film or booking an event with Ten Years Taiwan can reach out via the film’s Facebook page.
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