Film Director Wei Te-Sheng:
Driven by a Sense of Crisis
As a continuity clerk, Wei Te-Sheng never saw himself becoming a director. But his dreams got bigger and bigger. What was it that could push him forward like a knife in the back?
Driven by a Sense of CrisisBy Jimmy Hsiung
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 542 )
Just three motion pictures, Cape No. 7, Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale, and the currently scalding hot KANO, could likely net NT$2 billion for the ARS Film Production company.
Our search for the new Taiwanese entrepreneurial spirit takes us to Wei Te-Sheng, film director and founder of ARS Film Production.
Surely, this man, who is constantly setting new records, has an inspiring story behind him?
The answer could disappoint some people.
Raised in the rural Yongkang area of Tainan, Wei graduated from the Far East Junior College of Technology with a degree in electrical engineering. After completing his mandatory military service, rather than returning home to face the life of a 9-to-5 worker, he opted to give the relatively "free" film industry a try.
Like many youths still wet behind the ears entering society, Wei Te-Sheng, a young man that radiated earnestness and honesty, had no profound connections nor harbored grand ambitions toward his chosen profession. What he had instead was uncertainty about the future, along with confidence that as a young person time was on his side.
Starting as a continuity clerk, Wei was prepared to pay his dues from the bottom up in this totally alien industry, frequently encountering unimaginable situations.
For instance, after earning a position on his first production team, he discovered that "everyone I worked with was a gangster." Such a rough-and-tumble working environment had him wondering on more than one occasion whether he was really cut out for the industry.
However, precisely because he was an outsider and stranger to the industry, his motivation for absorbing know-how was even greater. Reflecting back on his early days in the industry, Wei Te-Sheng relates sheepishly that he went from being quite poorly read to devouring large quantities of books on working in motion pictures, as well as attending courses and lectures on filmmaking wherever he could.
"Textbooks are boring, so I like reading novels and histories to balance things out," he relates with a chuckle. If he is "cultured" in any way, he credits that period for slowly building a foundation.
Why Are You So Tough on 'Little Wei'?
It was around this time that Wei Te-Sheng encountered a critical mentor, the late director Edward Yang. Upon joining Yang's crew prior to the filming of the movie Mahjong (1996), he thought with amazement, "Wow, these people are so different from the ones before." The difference was refreshing through and through.
Although he finally encountered an environment that agreed with him, he came under huge strain. Edward Yang was a well-known taskmaster during the filming of his movies. This trait was especially accentuated during that particular period when things had not been going well for Yang, a perfectionist as an artist. "Little Wei" the continuity clerk was often the first to take heat on the set. The pressure was so hard on Wei that on several occasions he would reach the sound stage but could not bring himself to go inside.
"Why are you so hard on Little Wei?" a producer that had enough of seeing the harsh treatment Wei was subjected to once asked Edward Yang in private. Yang answered, "Little Wei is different. He's going to be a director."
When word eventually got back to Wei himself, "I was ready to do anything, including die," he recalls with a laugh.
It turns out that Yang had read a script Wei Te-Sheng had written, and knew in his heart that "Little Wei" was a talent in his own right. This is why, while dishing out harsh words, at the same time Yang gave Wei Te-Sheng increasingly important positions, from continuity clerk all the way to director's assistant and assistant director.
If Edward Yang helped Wei Te-Sheng to believe in his dreams, then participating in the making of Double Vision made him see the possibility of realizing them.
In 2002 Columbia Pictures backed the making of Double Vision in Taiwan, under the direction of Chen Kuo-fu. The major motion picture was given a blockbuster budget of NT$200 million, the largest production budget a Taiwanese film had ever seen.
Working as Chen Kuo-fu's right-hand man on this major production "opened my eyes," says Wei. Jimmy Huang of ARS Film Production relates that Wei was inspired by the making of Double Vision to say to him, "There's hope for our Seediq Bale."
In Huang's eyes Wei Te-Sheng is like a "farmer" working on movies. "He's practical, going around first thing each morning like he's surveying his fields, seeing to every task that needs taking care of. Even if the previous season yielded a bountiful harvest, he still goes ahead and plants seedlings the following season."
Jimmy Huang, a co-founder of ARS Film Production, has also recently completed work as an executive producer of KANO. In charge of raising funds and overseeing production for each of Wei's films, although he often finds himself acting as a "brakeman" trying to slow the impulsive Wei down, "Little Wei is really an unstoppable force," Huang notes cheerfully. So all that remains for Huang to do is to source funding and come up with ideas.
What Jimmy Huang's words imply is the stubborn insistence that Wei possesses, the kind that makes him perfectly willing to gather a huge cast of characters at considerable expense, only to make everyone wait for just the right light at daybreak. This is also why, despite the enthusiasm that funds and venture capital firms have developed recently for investing in the film industry, the name "Wei Te-Sheng" is a deal breaker for many.
"The reason for this is that, if you follow accepted means of financial analysis, we generally get rated as having no investment value," Huang says with more than a little exasperation in his voice.
On the other hand, he stresses that most people see how strongly Wei Te-Sheng commits to things and recognize the passion and commitment he devotes to his art. Nevertheless, he credits Wei's unflagging perseverance to his "confidence that he has things under control."
"Little Wei is fully aware that this commitment will produce returns. Otherwise, even the most committed person would end up falling apart," Huang says.
Wei's hallmark storytelling style, evident in all his works, from Cape No. 7 through Seediq Bale and KANO, is to stack one story line on the other, adding layer upon layer and finally bringing the audience's emotions to the breaking point. What kind of moving finale can Wei Te-Sheng wring out of his career as a movie industry entrepreneur? Lee Chi-jen, professor of International Trade at National Taiwan University, recently sat down for an interview with Wei to find out.
Following are highlights from their chat:
Q: What made you decide to try and make a career in the movie industry? Especially given that two decades ago Taiwan's film industry was at an all-time low point.
A: I'd have to say my choice of career was a "process of elimination." I eliminated what I didn't want, and I wasn't really sure whether I wanted this (motion pictures). But I wanted to give it a try. I thought I might spend a year or two or three. Anyway, I was young and could afford to give this industry my best shot. Who's to say? It might turn out to be interesting.
Actually, before I got drafted into the military, I had no plans for the future. I had no idea whatsoever what I wanted to do. I didn't know how big the world was, and I didn't have all that much curiosity about the world.
No Directorial Ambitions at the Outset
Although I learned professional skills while earning a degree in electrical engineering in junior college, I had no interest in it. I knew that in the future I would not go into that field, but I was not sure what I wanted to do instead.
That uncertainty remained until just before my discharge from the military, when I felt a sense of urgency, thinking to myself, "I'm about to leave the protection of the military and academia and face the prospect of working for the rest of my life." That decision could set the course for many decades to come, far unlike being a student or a soldier. That is when I started to get scared.
I knew that if I returned to my hometown I could easily imagine what my entire life would look like. I had worked part time in a factory before, and if I had gone there to earn a living I knew I would be miserable. So I wanted to stay in Taipei and see what might pan out.
People had told me about this industry when I was in the military, and I enjoyed watching movies when I was a kid, but I had no clue what the world of movies was like. To me it was about things like stories and movie stars. So from that time on, I was curious about this industry.
At first I just found it interesting and wanted to try it out; I hadn't given it much more thought than that.
My dreams got bigger and bigger. I hadn't set out to become a film director. From the beginning all I wanted was to break into the industry, take part in it, get to know it, and at the same time I was attracted to the film industry for its relative freedom.
Q: Before making a mark in the industry, or before you saw a light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak, what kept you going?
A: My youthfulness (laughs).
Really. I told myself, you're still young, it's still early. So I was never too anxious to settle down. I never thought that way.
Only around the time I was putting together Seediq Bale did I gain an increasingly strong sense of mission. It seemed to me a real shame how Taiwanese people have always grown up with such conflicts.
Our generation in particular – we all belong to a new era. The antagonistic thinking of the old era – it's something I can't really accept. That's why I began writing the stories for Cape No. 7 and KANO. In the future I want to make a trilogy on Taiwan set four centuries ago. My style comes from observing society.
I didn't always have a sense of mission from a young age, so for me Seediq Bale was a major turning point in terms of thinking. Prior to that I was emulating and learning from others, and by that I mean in my short films up to 1997 I was copying the approaches and thinking of those that came before me.
Q: In addition to a sense of mission from within, what other factors can you credit for your success?
A: A sense of mission is not enough to see you all the way through. A sense of mission just gives you ideas, and helps you write things down, but it cannot support your life; a sense of mission is just a turning point in thinking.
What really pushed me forward was the sense of urgency that came from having my first child at the age of 40.
Just before my child was born I felt a compulsion to take a risk, because if I didn't do it then, my life would just stay the same forever. So I made a five-minute pilot film for Seediq Bale for NT$2 million.
Of course, that risk ended up in failure (laughs). But with that as a start, the dream that had nearly been extinguished was constantly prodded by that five minutes. It would remind you about this thing that was left unfinished. It was like having a knife, and telling someone else to hold it against you.
My greatest risk was making Cape No. 7 when I was 40. The whole film came together very quickly. I started writing the script in 2006, began filming in 2007, and released it in 2008.
Although this film was made quickly, I had a feeling it would "hit pay dirt" when I finished the script. I could tell the audience would like it, and as long as I didn't compromise, or give up due to lack of funding, as long as I completed it according to the script, it would be a hit.
Right from the start I calculated that Cape No. 7 would do at least NT$60 million at the box office. At the time, predicting NT$60 million in returns would get you flogged, and accused of being shamelessly ridiculous (laughs).
Looking back, there was both luck and method involved in Cape No. 7's success. To end up generating up to NT$500-600 million is good fortune, but we had projected that it could make between NT$60 to 100 million. That was our calculation, without which we could never have had our subsequent good luck.
Q: What can Taiwanese films do to overcome the limited scope of the market?
A: I think this is a national issue, not just a question of a movie or a certain topic. Not just movies, but every enterprise needs the strong backing of the nation to help enlarge its trade network when seeking to expand the reach of its products. The difference between strong and weak countries is huge. Weak countries have a hard time expanding their networks, and run up against resistance from strong countries.
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman