“I Want to Preserve What Taiwan Is Losing”: Interview with PORTRAITS OF MASTERY Director Wu Chien-Hsun
By Alice Li ∥ Translated by Serena Ye
Sep 22, 2022

Originally published at Readmoo: https://news.readmoo.com/2021/11/10/all-walks-of-life/


“Think about it – he’s been doing it for so many years. As if he’d be scared of ghosts and think it’s a big deal?” Wu Chien-Hsun jokes that he had been the only person who, when interviewing bone collector Uncle Kun-Mu, didn’t ask whether he’d had any paranormal experiences. After all, what he wanted more than to satisfy public curiosity was to go beyond the artisan’s story and dissect the history and cultural context behind it. “I’ve always really liked studying temple culture, geography, and political and economic development. These are all connected with the development of local culture and history.” Wu used the developed ritual of bone collecting in Beigang as an example “because there used to be many ground burials of wealthy people in Beigang.”

Wu and his team at Movingtaipei have, since 2019, captured the stories of many Taiwanese practitioners of trades, both new and old, as short films of no more than ten minutes each. Subjects include bone collector Uncle Kun-Mu, who has touched countless corpses; a Taoist priest who deals with the supernatural; and a beaded crown craftsman who works “along with the gods” making headwear for deities. The series showcases the true stories of professional artisans from many industries, from temple craftsmanship to metalworking, ink making, seal carving, and dough figurine kneading, preserving the marks of their time as these older industries are gradually being replaced.

Visiting places all over Taiwan to follow and interview professional artisans inevitably means interacting with people from all trades and walks of life, so Wu’s down-to-earth nature comes in handy. Born in Tainan, Wu is fluent in Taiwanese Hokkien – “I’ve liked listening to my grandparents talk and imitate different tones since I was young.” This seemingly equipped Wu with a certain power to connect with people, and during the filming process, he is always able to guide the interviewees to tell their own stories. “Taiwanese Hokkien is more vivid and closer to the everyday than Chinese, with more depth and emotion, as well as better able to bring people closer.”

Wu has the power to relate and get close to people, but where do the protagonists of the stories come from?

“The first half of Portraits of Mastery mostly involved interviewing people we already knew well, while for the other half we relied on friends to pull a few strings.” Wu has worked on many on-location TV shows in the past, such as “Stories in Taiwan” and “Taiwan Gorgeous Delicacy”. “We were considered a very early on-foot show in Taiwan.” After leaving the network, Wu “wanted to do something different”, and with the trust and financial assistance of former comrade-in-arms at the network “Ah-Wang”, Wu fearlessly began planning Portraits of Mastery. The connections he’s accumulated are also one of his crucial assets, and the group of consultants credited at the end of Portraits of Mastery is the critical driver that allows these cherished stories to be preserved and published. “They helped find these people and stories,” Wu says.


From Film to Writing: Preserving Non-Replicable Soul and Charm

In fact, a career in the film and TV industry wasn’t always Wu’s goal.

Wu once had a chance to visit a friend on set. “They were filming a Judge Bao crime drama, and I was lucky enough to see Kenny Ho, who played Zhan Zhao. I was helping to push the dolly on the track, thinking this seems quite fun.” This was perhaps what sparked Wu’s interest in the film and TV industry; he resigned from his job in China and returned to Taiwan “to find a media company just to hang around at.” This turned out to be the start of more than twenty years in the film and TV industry.

“I was born in 1967, in the glory days of the three established TV broadcasters. But not long after I started in the industry in my twenties, cable TV appeared, and the internet followed shortly after. Who would still watch TV?” Wu lightly complains, though his passion for the film and TV industry wasn’t extinguished. “Have I thought about giving up? Of course, I want to give up every day. It’s so tiring,” he admits. But he chose to persist and break through, working with his team to create Portraits of Mastery.

“To be honest, I used to almost never read books, especially those inspirational self-help ones – I thought they were bullshit!” Wu says candidly. Then Aquarius Publishing saw Portraits of Mastery video series and inquired about print rights. “I first knew Aquarius, then I started reading BigBrother’s books, and they were what got me into reading. I like bringing a book to flip through on my commute now. My eyes aren’t great since I’ve gotten old, so it’s not the best to scroll on my phone!”

This time, Portraits of Mastery videos have been compiled into a book, allowing these stories to be narrated in a different format. “The short films are driven from the perspective of the interviewees, whereas the book takes the reader’s third-person point of view. It’s like reading Jin Yong’s martial arts novels – you’ll imagine those scenes yourself in between the lines.” Wu believes that through writing, readers can better understand the personal side of artisans outside of the profession: “The book is very different. Portraits of Mastery films take a more professional angle, but we’ve also been able to write their life stories into the text.”

Wu and the Movingtaipei team’s videos and writing contain industry history, cultural context, and the stories of artisans. “I want to preserve what Taiwan is losing, to do something for the things that are disappearing. Those souls and that charm aren’t replicable.” Unlike rapidly popularized YouTubers, who chase views and follow trends to create entertainment-oriented content, Wu hopes that Portraits of Mastery can start a new discussion that “reaches young people. After all, this is the land on which we grew up!”

Stories from all walks of Taiwanese life are respected and treated equally in Portraits of Mastery. Wu said that his team also wants to film an “old shops” series: “These deserve to be seen by more people.” By bringing their daily life to the screen, they hope to ensure that the stories of this land are thoroughly remembered.