Thursday, November 23, 2006

Master of Beauty and Desires
--A Retrospective of Hong Kong master Yonfan and his new movie “Colour Blossoms”
By Andrew C.C. Huang

(This article originally appeared in Taiwan News on August 12, 2005)

Everyone knows about the desire for beauty and the disappointment in the loss of it. Invariably, filmmakers all over the world all make their careers out of exploring their desires and disappointments – for what else matters the most in this world besides love?
If Hong Kong master Wong Kar Wai is torn between the intrigues of romance and unrequited love while Taiwan auteur Tsai Ming-liang is irrevocably fixated with the allures of human bodies and sexuality, then Hong Kong director Yonfan willingly and gleefully swims in the river of beauty and its enchantment.
This week, Yonfan’s highly controversial and extremely erotic movie “Colour Blossoms” will make its Taiwan premier at Taipei’s Spot Cinema under the festival entitled “Music in Taiwan and Mandarin Films: A Companionship.” The festival runs from August 12 until September 29. Three of Yonfan’s movies, including the erotic fantasy “Colour Blossoms,” costume drama “Peony Pavilion” and docudrama “Breaking the Willow” will be featured in the festival.
“Colour Blossoms” recounts the story of a young real estate agent (portrayed by Teresa Cheung, the prodigally squandering ex-wife of Hong Kong singer/actor Kenny Bee and the tabloid queen known for her socialite antics) who struggles between her love for a impeccably handsome photographer and a shy but equally gorgeous cop when she takes on the rental management duty of a luxurious apartment owned by a wealthy Japanese Madam.
While Yonfan’s pervious movies explored the topics of sexuality and human longings, he pushes the envelop further this time by tackling erotic sexual scenes, sadomasochistic games, galore of shots featuring beautiful actors and actress’ skin and, last but not least, a subtle contemplation and questioning of the meanings of fantasy, sex and love.
Because of the risqué subject matter of the movie and the involvement of the controversial personality Teresa Cheung, the project had an unusually difficult production process because it was spurned by most of the talents and investment firms invited by Yonfan even with his the shining brand name.
In addition, the nudity scenes presented enormous challenges for the movie’s two first-time actors -- namely Teresa Cheung and Japanese model Sho. During the difficult shooting that dragged on for more than 13 months because of financing troubles, both Cheung and Sho experienced major emotional hurdles performing their nudity scenes. Once, Cheung cried for two days after shooting a sexual scene. A concerned Yonfan asked Cheung if she could stick it through. A notorious personality known as much for her excess and strength, Cheung answered, “Yes, I can do it. I just need to let my emotions out. You put your trust in me by casting me. I will finish this movie no matter what.”
When “Colour Blossoms” released in Hong Kong last year, it was greeted with pervasive ridicules and was labeled as pornography. However, this finely crafted movie won its due respect it was invited to be screened at Berlin Film Festival this year. “Colour Blossoms” also eventually won the Film of Merit award from Hong Kong Film Critics Society this year.
No stranger to awards, Yonfan’s 2001 lesbian costume romance “Peony Pavilion” won the FIPRESCI Prize at Moscow Film Festival and sent the movie’s participating Japanese actress Rie Miyazawa to the Best Actress award glory at the festival. In October 2003, Yonfan was acknowledged again for his cinematic excellence with a “Yonfan Trilogy” Film Festival held in Guimet Museum in France.
All these accolades might not be so surprising if Yonfan is not tackling risqué subject matters in his films – homosexuality, transvestite, sadomasochistic romance and prostitution.
A true-to-his-heart artist, Yonfan does not treat these subject matters with any sensationalism or shock values. Rather, he gently tells us the stories and emotions about these characters – be they homosexual, transvestite, prostitute or the sexually confused.
“Colour Blossoms” marks the first time Yonfan makes the foray into the so called sexually explicit and consciously controversial movie. The movie’s subject matters of sexual fantasy and sadomasochistic relationship made the project a magnet for sneering and mockery by the media and the public before and during the movie’s shooting and even after the Hong Kong release.
"Colour Blossoms" is a further development from Yonfan's risky but critically acclaimed so-called “Yonfan Trilogy,” which includes "Bugis Street," "Beauty" and "Peony Pavilion." In the small-budget 1995 film "Bugis Street," Yonfan paints a sympathetic and touching portrait of a group of transvestite prostitutes who make their living by conning sailors into their brothel house when they are drunk. The success of “The Burgis Street” paved way for a bigger budget gay romance “Beauty” in 1998. In this sumptuous project of passion, a Hong Kong young policeman from a conservative family discovers his homosexuality through the experience of falling in love with a budding pop star before the singer achieves his fame. The exploration of this subject matter culminated in “Peony Pavilion,”a lavish costume drama set in early Republic China about the love triangle between a male teacher, a bisexual female teacher and her lesbian lover.
Yonfan’s obsession with human beauty is apparent in his choices of actors. He prefers to choose beautiful and photogenic actors even if they are new comers or stars known more for their charisma rather than acting chops. However, with Yonfan’s acute sensitivity, he is able to draw out the best of his actors and elevate their acting caliber. With “Beauty,” Yonfan uses four new actors including Daniel Wu (who went on to win the Best Supporting Actor Award at Golden Horse last year for Jackie Chan’s “New Police Story”), the ravishingly handsome Terence Yin, Stephen Fung and a young Shu Qi (who successfully transforms herself from a star to an actress in Taiwan master Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “The Millennium Mambo” and then in this year’s Cannes competition film “Best Years”). With “Peony Pavilion,” Yonfan pairs up Taiwan superstar Joey Wong of the celebrated “A Chinese Ghost Story” trilogy fame and Japanese superstar Rie Miyazawa as a lesbian couple in a nostalgic and lavish end-of-aristocracy era love tale. Wong, who is as known for her shockingly celestial beauty as for her one-note facial expression, manages to deliver the most touching performance of her career under Yonfan’s tutelage. Miyazawa, on the other hand, went on to claim the glory of a heavyweight best actress award at the Moscow Film Festival.
While these heart-felt, poignant movies about people who live on the margin of the society and are torn apart by the society’s decorum of forbidden love move the hearts of critics and audiences, their fruition did not come easy. Yonfan started his career as a commercial director specializing in sentimental romance movies. The success of a long string of commercial romance movies finally afford Yonfan the clout to embark on his own personal journey and explore the topics that’s closer to his heart as an art-house auteur.
Born in 1952 in Hunan Province in China, Yonfan immigrated to Hong Kong during his youth. Fascinated with beauty since youth, Yonfan picked up his camera to photographs different objects and quickly landed a job as a photographer.
His unwavering sense of capturing the beautiful aspects of all things was quickly noticed by Hong Kong’s movie industry – an industry that specializes in selling dreams and stars’ charisma for audience’s escapism enjoyment. He moved up to become a cinematographer and soon had enough clout to become a director.
Yonfan’s early phase as a commercial director saw him directing several romances back to back. His first success is the 1985 romance blockbuster “The Story of Rose” starring a young Chow Yun Fat and Maggie Cheung. In the movie, Cheung portrays the title role of a girl named Rose who lost her beloved brother (portrayed by Chow) and then ten years later marries a man (Chow again) who is a dead-ringer of her brother only to lose him again in a car crash. This classic features the young but already a thespian actor Chow in a rare dual role. The young Cheung, whose acting skill is hugely overshadowed by her fame and Miss Hong Kong title back then, also delivers a touching performance as Rose that foreshadows her future success.
Riding on the momentum, Yonfan went on to make another romance “The Flower Floating on the Sea” in 1986 starring superstar Sylvia Chang as a prostitute who falls in love with a soldier. In 1987, Yonfan reinterpreted Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “Vertigo” into a thriller romance entitled “Double Fixation” starring 80’s reigning sex goddess Cherie Chung Chu Hong as a mysterious beauty who captures the heart of a office man played by Hong Kong pop star Jacky Cheung. Under Yonfan’s adroit direction, the already astonishingly beautiful Chung literally becomes Venice reincarnated with an endless array of lavish gowns and delicate dresses that show off her through-the-ceiling sexual wattage.
In 1988, Yonfan pairs up the two female reigning superstars Cherie Chung and Maggie Cheung in another romance movie “Golden Years” with Chung and Cheung as two childhood best friends who move into drastically different paths in life.
In 1994, superstar Maggie Cheung again returns to collaborate with Yonfan to star as a single woman looking for love in a three-part movie entitled “The New Age of Living Together.” By 1994, Cheung has already established herself as the unrivalled award-winning queen by raking up the best actress award at Golden Horse Awards for “Full Moon in New York” in 1989, the best actress award in Hong Kong Oscars for “A Fishy Story” in 1989, and three best actress awards at Golden Horse Awards, Hong Kong Oscars and then at Berlin Film Festival for “The Actress” in 1992.
“I feel safe in the hands of Yonfan,” Maggie Cheung has once said. “I know that no matter what, he will always capture the most beautiful sides of me and show me at my best.”
Yonfan’s esthetic is extreme, lavish, elegant, and almost nihilistic. His pursuit of the human beauty ideal is unflinching and reckless. China master Zhang Yimou explores the darkness and the decadence of the corrupted old China underneath his beautiful cinematography. Hong Kong master Wong Kar Wai contemplates the sadness of lost love and yearning with the aid of Christopher Doyle’s gorgeous cinematography and William Chang’s art design. By comparison, Yonfan projects his highly polished sense of esthetics into the characters and the humanity itself. Ever an optimist who holds the religion of beauty and ideals, Yonfan’s movies are almost devoid of villainous characters. Even though most of his romance movies take the final note with tragic endings, the nature of these tragedies are never dark. His characters are ordinary or beautiful human beings driven by desires and yearnings to pursue their ideals out of good intentions. In his cinematic universe, fate is the force that tears the beautiful lovers apart and leaves their love unconsummated.
However, as the old saying goes, beauty exists in the eyes of the beholders. With Yonfan’s unerring eyes and magical cinematic touches, even marginalized personalities such as homosexuals, transvestites, transsexuals, the sexually confused and aging divas all put on their invisible cape of glamour and become beautiful objects of desire.
Maybe Yonfan is right after all. In his early 1984 small-budget film “Diary of a Young Girl,” a young girl having a crush on her physical education teacher learns the pain and pleasure of love. As this small movie foretells and continue to asserts, there is no villain and devil in this world. There is only coveted beauty and the forlornness or hatred of desires gone unfulfilled.

(“Colour Blossoms” is shown with both Chinese and English subtitles. Screenings for “Music in Taiwan and Mandarin Films: A Companion” film festival will be held in Taipei, Taoyuan, Hsinchu and Kaohsiung. For ticket and schedule info, please contact Spot Cinema at (02) 2511-7786 or check out )

The Pleasure of Fear
--- A New Wave of Asian Horror Films Tells Us How to be Scared Ecstatically
By Andrew C.C. Huang

(This article originally appeared in Taiwan News on September 23, 2005)

When in fear and uncertainty, one wants to scream one’s anxieties out as exemplified in the famed Edvard Munch painting “Scream.” What better way in this world to let out one’s fear and angst by experiencing vicariously the fictional horrors on the silver screen and scream out one’s own anxieties out loud in the darkness of movie theaters --- the only place where screaming is considered legal in modern civilization other than the psychiatric ward in the hospital.
This month, Taiwan’s film industy challenges the audience’s capacity for facing fear again with the wonderfully executed horror film “The Heirloom.” Already breaking box office record and on its way to become the highest-grossing domestic film this year, the movie is about a young couple moving into their family old mansion. The couple soon find that there are more than inheritance awaiting them --- family sins, curses, death and spirits from the other world.
“I don’t want this movie to be a typical horror film,” says emerging director Leste Chen, who came from art-house background and had a short film “Wandering” nominated by Venice Film Festival’s Critics’ Fortnight. “I try to bring my art-house sensibilities into this film. Horror film happens to be a genre that allows the slow build up of emotion and suspense. It’s also a genre that demands believable characterization. I allow this movie to progress slowly. The frights here are not the sudden screaming kind but psychological and emotional. I also let the characters stand out by emphasizing the actors’ personal traits.”
“The Heirloom” is only the latest example of the mainstreamization of Asia’s horror films to feed into the audiences' insatiable appetite for fears. Before this millennium, horror films used to be B-movies made with shoestring budgets relegated to the watch-and-toss teenage market. During the past few years, many brand name directors have ventured into the horror film and elevated the genre into a respected trend that speak to the mainstream audiences and reflects the Zeigeist of a world entrenched in fears of terrorism, wars and plunging market forces.
The explosion of horror movie rage always occurs during the time of economic hardship or sociopolitical unrest. The German Expressionism movies reflect the anxiety of the German people during the Nazi-rising pre-WWII German while Universal Studio's horror movie cycle in the 30's bespeaks people's fear in America's Depression era. The ghost movie rage in Asia during the past few years reflects Asian people's fears and anxiety in the face of the region's economic setback after five decades of economic booming, the global recession and China's possible totalitarianism after the takeover of Hong Kong in 1997.
Before “The Heirloom,” the first mainstream horror film was the mega-budget “Double Vision” produced by Columbia Asia. Directed by Taiwanese auteur Chen Kuo-fu, who also helmed the 1995 art-house lesbian tale “The Peony Pavilion,” "Double Vision" is a spooky cross between ghost movie and serial killer movie. The movie unfolds with an FBI agent Kevin (American actor David Morse) pairing up with a troubled Taiwanese cop Huang (Tony Leung Ka Fai of "The Lover" fame) to track down a serial killer who is embedding a mysterious fungus into the brains of his victims. The degree of chill intensifies when we find out that the serial killer is killing the victims according to Taoism cult ritual in attempt to achieve immortality. By throwing out the double-punch of ghosts and serial killer at the same time, "Double Vision" made huge waves and became the top-grossing movie in Taiwan that year.
Several recent Hong Kong horror classics also attest to the audiences’ hunger for fear. “Three” part one and the sequel “Three – Extremes” produced by Hong Kong’s Applause Picture and “The Eye” trilogy directed by Thai brother team Pang are the recent classics of horror film canon.
"Three" is a high-concept film that aims to bring together three acclaimed directors from three Asian countries for a three-segment collaboration horror film. “Three” features director from Korea, Thailand and Hong Kong. In the first segment "Memories" helmed by Korean director Kim Jee-woon, a middle-class family moves into a new city and apartment with anticipation of new life. However, the woman suddenly wakes up on the street without memories of her identity and past. As she tumbles through the streets, she slowly remembers her lovely husband, their disintegrating marriage and finally his murder of her. In the second segment "The Wheel" directed by Thai auteur Nonzee Nimibutr, Tong is a poverty-ridden street puppetry player who envies the millionaire puppetry master Tao for his puppet passed down from 15th century Thai court. Realizing his court puppet has been cursed, Tao orders his wife to discard the puppet into the river. This action comes too late as Tao's wife drowns in the river while Tao is found dead the next day.
"Three" saves the best for last with director Peter Chan's (of "Comrades, Almost a Love Story" fame with Maggie Cheung) third segment "Coming Home." Policeman Whee and his son Kiny moves into a new derelect apartment complex where the only neighbor is a Chinese herbalist doctor named Pahy. One day, Whee's son Kiny disappears with Pahy's daughter. To track down the whereabout of his son, Whee breaks into Pahy's apartment and discovers the corpse of Pah's wife. It turns out that Pahy has been bathing the corpse in herbal bath tube in the belief that she will come alive again after three days. Fearing possible disruption, Pahy inprisons Whee at his apartment and awaits for that morning when he believes his wife will resuscitate.
South Korea’s recent cinematic renaissance also produced a crop of horror classics that has Hollywood rushing for remake rights. Director Kim Jee-woon’s (who directed the segment “Memories” in “Three”) haunting “A Tale of Two Sisters” is about two sisters who return from treatment in a mental institution only to face the inhuman behavior of their absent-minded father and cruel step-mother in addition the other-worldly forces that seem to be ghosts.
Thai director Nonzee Nimibutr (who helmed the segment “The Wheel” in “Three”) put his name on the cinematic map with 1999's ghost fable "Nang Nak," which won the best picture and best director awards in that year's Asia-Pacific Film Festival. Based on a Thai legend, "Nang Nak" recounts the journey of Mak as he leaves for Bangkok and becomes seriously wounded in the Chiang Toong War. His wife Nak meanwhile dies with her stillborn child in Mak's absence. However, when Mak returns from the war to his village, he continues to live happily with his wife without realizing that she is a ghost. However, the forces of cosmic natural laws intervene and push this forbidden human-ghost marriage to a hauntingly unexpected denouement.
“Three -- Extremes” again features three segments from three Asian directors. The highlight is again the Hong Kong segment directed by award magnet auteur Fruit Chan.
In this segment entitled “Dumplings,” an aging wife with a womanizing husband goes to the back alley to seek help from an illegal mainland Chinese doctor. The doctor offers dumplings made of baby embryos which could help one reclaim youth. After eating the dumplings, the middle-age wife becomes young and beautiful. The suspicious husband pays a visit to the sultry doctor too, only to end up having sex with her. Half way during their intercourse, the husband suddenly sees a document on the wall that describes the birth date of the woman in from of her as early Republic China.
The other segment “Box” is directed by Japanese helmer Takashi Miike. Miike made his name with the 2003 horror hit “One Missed Call” which tells the chilling story of people who receive voicemail messages which contain the recording of their future selves reacting violently to impending death. The third segment “Cut” is directed by none other than Korean master Park Chan-wook, who won the Grand Prix at Cannes last year with his highly acclaimed “Old Boys.”
In the highly acclaimed "The Eye" trilogy directed by the brother team Danny and Oxide Pang, the Pang brothers recounts the trials faced by people who could see ghosts. In “The Eye” part one, a blind girl finds herself seeing living people as well as ghosts after a corneal transplant. In “The Eye II,” a pregnant woman who attempts suicide starts to see ghosts roaming on the street and ghost who is trying to enter her embryo in order to become her child. In the third movie entitled “The Eye 10,” a bunch of teenagers go to Thailand and purchase a book that instructs ten ways to see ghosts. The heedless teens start to experiment with all methods and slowly die one by one.
As horror films start to turn from B-movie to prestige films with acclaimed auteurs’ stamps on them, they start to attract award as well as mainstream audience. The “Coming Home” segment of “Three” won Hong Kong idol star Leon Lai a best actor award at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards whereas the actress Lee Sinji who headlines “The Eye” swept the three major film awards in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China by picking up three best actress awards.
Japan is also a powerhouse in producing high-caliber horror films that scare their ways through Asia all the way to America. So far, three Japanese horror films – “The Ring,” “The Grudge” and “Dark Water” -- have been remade into American versions with box office success.
"The Ring" has its premise on a mysterious video tape that kills off anyone who watches it. Whenever a victim is hapless enough to watches the tape, the phone rings and tells the victim he or she has only one week to live. A young journalist named Rachel is investigating these mysterious events. However, matters become personal when she realizes that she and her small son have just watched the tape. Hence, it becomes a race against time to find out the curse of the tape and how it could be stopped. “Ringu,” the original Japan movie, was so successful that it spawned four sequels and still counting.
In the American version of “The Grudge” directed by the original Japanese horror master Takashi Shimizu himself, Karen is an exchange nurse student from the U.S. who fills in at the last minute for another nurse in a Tokyo suburb house where the house owner was rumored to go crazy, kill his wife and then himself. After starting her job there, Karen is alarmed by the bizarre behavior of the aging American woman Emma who is mute and sleeps through the day. Karen soon discovers that the house is possessed by a vicious curse caused by someone who dies with a unrelenting grudge a decade ago. After several horrific deaths in the house, Karen finds herself in a race against time to save herself or be consumed by that deadly grudge from the dead.
In this year’s another American remake of Japan horror film hit “Dark Water,” Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly portrays a newly divorced wife Dahlia who is struggling to make the ends meet with her daughter with a new job and a new apartment as their home. Things turn spooky when mysterious noises and persistent leaking of dark water start to overwhelm the apartment and send the already embattled Dahilia’s imagination run wild. Is this just an embittered divorced wife’s imagination or is there dark force at work in the apartment? Dahilia is determines to find out the answer at all cost.
As Indian master M. Night Shyamalan has demonstrated with the blockbusters "The Sixth Sense" and "The Signs," Asians know there's more to horror than what meets the eyes. The true chilling horror resides in a mind that believes in a horrid thought than seeing simply blood and gore.
Despite some inevitable gory scene, bloodshed is never the core attraction in Asia's quality horror movies. The drawing gravity is always a haunting thought or idea that would ferment in the audiences' minds and then consume them with gratifying fears long after they leave the theater. In "Double Vision," it's the idea of a serial killer who kills the victims in Taoism ritual in order to become a demi-god. In "The Ring," the chiller is the video tape that would kill anyone who watches it. In "The Eye" trilogy, it's the hapless ability of being able to see ghosts. In the “Coming Home” segment of "Three," it's the maniac thought of a doctor who keeps his wife's corpse in bed in the belief that she will resurrect three days later. In the “Dumplings” segment of “Three -- Extremes,” it’s the horrid and disturbing thought of eating dumplings made of minced meats of unborn babies’ embryo to renew youth.
In “The Heirloom,” the director and the screenwriter push the envelop further again by tackling the subject matter of keeping a baby ghost and feeding blood to it in order to dispatch him out for missions and accumulate wealth. The subject matters slowly progresses from people who can see ghosts in “The Eye” trilogy, to keeping the corpse of one’s diseased wife in “Three,” to eating dumplings made of still born babies’ embryo in “Three -- Extremes,” and then to the grisly practice of keeping a baby ghost as slave and sacrificing a family member to amass wealth. In Japan, the fear of a modern technology that distorts humanity from “Ringu” that features a video tape that would kill anyone who watches it to “One Missed Call” in which a phone message warns you of your future tortured death.
In a world where renewed ancient civilizations clash with modern technologies, there is no doubt that horrors that come from deep rooted superstition or traditional rituals are far more scarry than cutting-edge special effects. While American horror classics such as "Friday the 13th" series and "Nightmare on Elm Street" series or even the recent “Aliens vs. Predators” boast state-of-the-art special effects and flying heads aplenty, the lavish splashing of blood becomes comical in comparison to the psychological and emotional neurosis in Asian horror films.
The real horror comes from a real or even ambiguous belief in the darker world – a belief that could only come from a nation with an old culture and civilization. In a new country like the U.S. where skyscrapers and upscale cosmetics dominate, the true horror is to see movie audiences becoming bored with splashing blood and decapitated heads. Hence, Hollywood studios rush east-ward to seek inspirations from older civilizations in Asia where primitive religions and darkly rituals have existed for millenniums. To see the ancient Taoist practice of keeping baby ghost in order to seek prosperity in “The Heirloom” is to realize the horror of actual human cruelty and decadence.
With global recession and terrorism still hanging over our heads, what better time to exorcise one's fears and feast on the pleasure of seeing one's inner and outer demons in horror movies?

Monday, November 20, 2006

Merging the Tradition with the Modern
- The 30th Anniversary of Cloud Gate Dance Troupe -
By Andrew C.C. Huang
Contributing Writer

(This article originally appeared in Taiwan News)

For people who feel intimidated by the opaqueness of modern dance or doubt the validity of Asian dancers performing this decidedly western art form, Taiwan’s Cloud Gate Dance troupe has proved that modern dance can be very “Chinese” and could be enjoyable by all.
Cloud Gate Dance Troupe, the premier and the first ever dance troupe in Taiwan, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. The troupe celebrated by staging the world premier of “Cursive II” in Taipei on August 30 and a revival of its classic work “Legacy” for three months ending August 26.
After the world premier in Taipei, “Cursive II” will move to have its international premier at the opening of Melbourne International Arts Festival on October 9.
“I feel incredibly fortunately to being celebrating our 30th anniversary. It has been almost mission impossible,” laughs the troupe’s founder/director Lin Hwai-min. “I think we survived because of my enormously devoted dancers and because of this society which has a craving for arts.”
Lin Hwai-min derives the company’s name form an ancient Chinese myth. According to legend, Cloud Gate is the name of the oldest dance known in China, a ritual dance of some 5,000 years ago.
This year, Cloud Gate sets yet another historical precedent. In recognition of Cloud Gate’s outstanding artistic achievement on the international stage, Taipei’s city government renamed Fu-Hsing North Road, Lane 231 -- home of Cloud Gate’s office -- as “Cloud Gate Lane.” This is the first time Taiwan bestows the honor of naming a place after a living artist and/or artistic group.
Cloud Gate's rich repertoire has its roots in Asian myths, folklore, and aesthetics. Choreographer Lin seamlessly merges the story of Asian myths with the western art form, the modern dance.
Hong Kong’s revered critic Hu Chu-ren has proclaimed that “Cloud Gate’s works has solved the problem that has puzzled Chinese people since the historical 5-4 movement in the 1920’s. Its works prove that tradition and modernity can coexist in harmony…that Chinese culture and western culture and not contradictory but rather compliment each other.”
Cloud Gate has toured extensively overseas throughout Europe, Asia, Australia, and America continents. The troupe has performed at high-profile events such as New York’s BAM Next Wave Festival, the Sydney 2000 Olympic Arts Festival, Lyon Biannual Dance Festival, Melbourne Festival, the 25th anniversary festival of Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal, Sadler's Wells Theatre London, Deutsche Opera Berlin, and the Kennedy Center.
Since founding the troupe, Lin has metamorphasized style-wise as a choreographer. The troupe’s early works in the early 70’s drew inspirations from classical Chinese myth such as “Tale of the White Serpent” and “Dreams of the Red Chamber.” From 1978 on, Lin fashioned a string of socially concerned works such “Legacy” and “Portrait of the Family” that contemplate on Taiwan’s identity in its historical context. The troupe went on a hiatus from 1988 to 1991 because of creative exhaustion and financial setback. Then came the next decade of golden age into the millennium when the troupe’s well-financed structure allows it to put out spiritual and abstract works such as “Songs of the Wanderers,” “Bamboo Dream,” “Moon Water” and “Cursive” part one and two.
The troupe’s trademark is its outlandishly beautiful visual designs and often slow-tempo dances that don’t necessarily show off the performers’ well-polished techniques. The troupe’s works do not attack you with their velocity and accurateness; rather they let you soak in slowly the beauty and philosophies they are trying to convey.
Lin uses an unique multi-disciplinary program to train his dancers. In addition the dancing techniques from both the East and the West, his dancers are required to study Taichi, meditation, calligraphy and even arts appreciation classes.
The result is that many of the troupe’s work grow organically from this seemingly digressive curriculum. Meditation engendered the serene “Songs of the Wanderers,” Taichi inspired the pensive “Moon Water” while calligraphy gave birth to the “Cursive” series.
“Cursive” premiered in 2002 to acclaim with the dancers dancing and kicking to blown-up images of jet-black Chinese calligraphy characters projected onto the stage.
This year’s new work “Cursive II” takes another direction with the dancers prancing in a more meditative mood against five different colors of Chinese calligraphy ink.
Cloud Gate performs island-wide in venues ranging from the lavish National Theatre in Taipei to mid-sized cultural centers in various cities to high-school auditoriums in remote villages. In order to serve the public -- especially those who don’t have the deep pocket to buy the tickets -- Cloud Gate gives free outdoor performances about four times a year, drawing audiences of 30,000 to 80,000 per performance.
Cloud Gate Dance Troupe 2 was founded in 1999 to cultivate young choreographers and provide more job opportunities for professional dancers. In 1998, Cloud Gate Dance School was founded to bring the joy of dance to students of all ages.
Cloud Gate Dance Troupe 1 now specializes in international touring while Cloud Gate 2 takes over the duty of community performance. Both troupes have about two dozens dancers in them
Most of Cloud Gate's productions have been made into dance films. Among them, “Songs of the Wanderers” was filmed in the Netherlands, “Moon Water” was filmed in France, while “Bamboo Dream” was filmed in Germany by RM Associates, London. These productions are available on DVD and have been broadcast on television in many countries since their release.
This month, Taiwan’s Public Television is airing a three-part documentary chronicling Cloud Gate’s achievements and evolution.
“For me, there is no so-called highbrow and lowbrow arts,” Lin asserts. “Human beings have a very basic ability to enjoy and appreciate arts. Even the most uneducated village peasants can tell and enjoy a good show when they see it.”
As reality proves it, a near 100-year-old grandma in a free outdoor performance is captured gushing “beautiful! Blessing to You!” to Lin in the documentary series airing on Public Television.
Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang -- whose “Vive L’Amour” (1994) won the Silver Screen Award at Venice Film Festival and “The River” (1997) won the Silver Berlin Bear at Berlin Film Festival – has his take on Cloud Gate’s broad appeal to the audience. “Some audiences resist it at first because they haven’t seen it before. They only heard that modern dance is very ‘artsy’ and the dancers are topless or scantily clad,” he laughs. “But when they see a Cloud Gate’s performance, they enjoy and appreciate it.”
Lin is a legend himself in the Chinese world. Born into a prestigious family clan with his grand-grand-father as a governor under China’s Ching Dynasty, Lin’s own father has served the posts as both the Minister of Internal Affairs and the Minister of Transportation of Taiwan. With this aristocratic background, Lin went through a childhood when all his grades must be straight A’s – A minus is not enough.
He achieved famed as a writer by publishing the novel “Cicada” at the age of 22. He then went on to earn an MFA from the Writer’s Workshop at University of Iowa – a sojourn that also allowed him to take dance classes and swerved his career track into a dancer/choreographer.
Despite his status as a master and a pioneer of Taiwan’s art movement, Lin has a very easy-going manner in person. While many of his colleagues in Taiwan’s art scene respectfully call him “teacher” – a term reserved for a highly respected person in Chinese custom even if he has not taught you personally – he laughs heartily and jokes around with colleagues who are his junior. As a choreographer and dancer, Lin has kept his body in remarkable shape even at the age of 55. He currently sports a crew cut with gray hairs left untreated among the black hairs – a sign that he is not intimidating by aging and proudly wears his gray mane as symbol of maturity and wisdom.
During an exclusive interview with Taiwan News, Lin switches from his usual laughters-and-flancing-hands mode into a serene sternness that commands respect and attention.
Asked about Cloud Gate’s evolution of style over its three phases, he explains, “In the beginning I had to rely on existing materials to create the dances. With my literary background, I naturally turn to classic Chinese myths and tales.”
Cloud Gate’s first socially-aware work “Legacy” – a work about the brave pioneers of Taiwan at the turn of 20th century -- premiered in December 1978, the same day when the U.S. cut off its diplomatic relation with Taiwan under the pressure from communist China. The timing of “Legacy” was pure serendipity. Taiwanese people were outraged with the U.S.’s decision and responded fervently to “Legacy.” This work immediately became a classic and has since stand firm in the troupe’s repertoire.
“I have always been a socially committed person and want to serve the community and make commentary about our society through my works,” says Lin. “It took five years for us to have the confidence to march into the territory of socially aware dance works. Thus came ‘Legacy’ and ‘Portrait of the Family.”
The troupe’s style during the 90’s and into the new millennium is abstract and non-narrative. But behind all these seemingly impenetrable abstraction, there is the simple message of faith.
“I made my first trip to India in 1994. I was extremely moved to realize that Buddha is not a god but rather a human being too,” Lin says. “My works these years are about being spiritual. We all need to find that peace of mind in us.”
Asked about how he manages to balance and even merge the traditional with the modern, and the East with the West in his works, he replies matter-of-factly, “I don’t see any conflicts between tradition and modernity or between eastern and western cultures. They can co-exist in harmony.”
Lin adds that his work reflects the environment of Taiwan and his growing up experience. “We live in this island that is so multicultural. We enjoy and consume Chinese, western, Japanese and aboriginal cultures at the same time. We all grew up reading literatures and watching movies from nations around the globe,” Lin elucidates. “How could you say that these different cultures contradict each other? We already live this life that’s multicultural.”
Asked how he selects his dancers, Lin responds, “I select based on their bodies and the personality of their movements. Height is not a criteria. I hate uniformity of body height.”
Regarding Cloud Gate’s unique training curriculum that includes dances of eastern and western disciplines, and even Taichi, calligraphy and art appreciation, Lin explains, “I believe that body goes with the mind.”
“A good piece of dance is not about the dancers striking beautiful gestures and move at incredible speed,” he concludes. “It’s about the culture and the refined mind that are reflected through their bodies. The body reflects the psyche.”
Asked how he envisions the future for Cloud Gate, Lin says optimistically, “I hope Cloud Gate can go one performing for another 30 years or forever.”
“I am perfectly capable of enjoying my own life after I retire from the work of Cloud Gate,” says Lin. “But I hope to find someone who will take over the duty and continue with this art form. The torch will be passed.”

(“Cursive II” runs from 8/30 to 9/6 in Taipei and from 9/12 to9/20 in Kaohsiung. The revival of “Legacy”’s ran from 8/21 to 8/26 in Taipei. For ticket info please call 02-2784-1011 or check out “Cursive II” will run from 10/9 to 10/11 in Melbourne. For ticket info please call 61-3-9662-4242 or check out )

Monday, November 13, 2006

Touches of Zen and Kungfu
By Andrew C.C. Huang
Contributing Writer
(This article originally appeared in Taiwan News)

What happens when you pour in the Zen-oriented drumming of Taiwan’s celebrated U Theatre, mix it with essence of the real-life Shaolin kungfu, and then drop in the olive of drama? The result is a dazzling glass of Zen-plus-kungfu Martini – the stage version of the now all-the rage kungfu movie genre.
“A Touch of Zen,” the new work by Taiwan’s highly acclaimed U Theatre, will make its world premier at Taipei’s National Theater on June 2. The show will run from June 2 to 4 for four performances. This dramatic musical will run for approximately two hours and contains 12 acts with an intermission in the middle. The performers include 12 of U Theatre’s drummer/actor and 22 of Shaolin Temple’s kungfu practitioners.
“A Touch of Zen” is the first part of the planned “Journey to Shaolin” trilogy which will unveil over the next five years. “A Touch of Zen” marks the first collaboration between Taiwan’s U Theatre -- which put its name on the world’s theatrical map with its Zen-themed musical pieces – and the real-life kungfu practitioners from Hunan’s Shaolin Temple. The unprecedented mixture of the mesmerizing drumming of U Theatre and the authentic Shaolin kungfu techniques coupled with the story penned by U Theatre’s director Liu Ruo-yu makes this the theater event of this summer.
While the Chinese title “Chen Wu Pu Er” literally means “No other Zen and Kungfu,” this new work’s English title is “A Touch of Zen” – a tribute to Kungfu master director King Hu’s epic masterpiece “A Touch of Zen” which claims the honor of the first ever Chinese movie to win an award at Cannes Film Festival in 1969.
As one of the most celebrated theater troupes from Taiwan, U Theatre has enjoyed international acclaim and tours globally every year. U Theatre will perform its classic “The Ocean of Sound” on June 21 at Japan International Expo and another classic "Meeting with Vajrasattva" on October 4 at at Maison de la Culture-Bourges in France.
U Theatre’s made it name with abstract, Zen-themed drumming musical such as “The Ocean of Sound” and “Meeting with Vajrasattva." U Theatre’s music director/principal performer Huang Chi-chun utilizes the aborigine-style drumming and Zen meditation practiced by himself nad his 11 drummers/actors to create minimalistic, abstract musical pieces with no visible plotline.
Inspired by the raging kungfu fever instigated by Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and Zhang Yimou’s “House of Flying Daggers,” U Theatre cheerfully and bravely plunges into the genre of drama for the first time.
“The idea of combining the drumming music of U Theatre with real-life Shaolin kungfu was brought up by an agent,” says U Theatre’s artistic director Liu Ruo-yu. “It sounds like a fantastic idea. I said yes right away and that agent orchestrated the collaboration for us and Shaolin Temple.”
The result of combining U Theatre’s Zen-themed drum music, real-life kungfu from Shaolin and a strong storyline makes “A Touch of Zen” a genre-defying, landmark dramatic musical with real-life, real-time Shaolin kungfu display on the stage with no film editing and special effects.
“I wrote the story according to the convention of the kungfu movie genre,” says Liu. The story of “A Touch of Zen” recounts the journey of the hero named Ao-Hsiang or literally “flying” in Chinese. Ao-Hsiang is a kid whose father is wrongly killed and whose mother is unjustly imprisoned. He is taken in by Shaolin Temple and grows up practicing Shaolin kungfu techniques. He leaves Shaolin to look for his mother and finally tracks her down. After this last reunion of the mother and the son, the mother dies after 20 years of suffering and illness. The protagonist vows to track down the villain who destroyed the lives of his parents. During his search for his hated enemy, he runs into a mad monk who turns out to be a sage. The hero comes out of the mountain, finally with equilibrium of mind and no longer tortured by thoughts of vengeance.
“Writing this story according to the kungfu genre convention is the easy part,” Liu explains. “Trying to merge the theatrical professionalism of U Theatre with the rough-and-tumble realness of Shaolin kungfu practitioners has been the challenging part.”
“I got become so fond of these Shaolin kungfu kids,” Liu adds. “During the time we spent together discussing and rehearsing, I found that there is an unmistakable honesty and innocence with people who practices kungfu that really enchants me.” The 22 Shaolin practitioners’ age range from 14 to 24.
“However, the Shaolin discipline is a very hard-core kungfu techniques. What they practices at Shaolin and performs for the tourists at the temple there are all real,” Liu elaborates. “There is nothing fancy and fake about it.”
“These Shaolin kids are not actors or performers. They come out to display their real kungfu skills. As a result, they really know nothing about anything theatrical techniques such as timing or performing for effect,” Liu explains. “I have to keep coaching them to try to use their kungfu skills to serve the drama of the story.”
Liu says that there is one scene in which the Shaolin practitioners are required to walk slowly through the scene for the purpose of the story. During the rehearsal, she bemusedly found out that the Shaolin kids laughed behind her back about having to walk slowly.
“Because they are real kungfu practitioners, their first instinct always is to come out and attack right away. They had trouble understanding why they had to walk slowly through that scene when they could just fly or leap across the stage. I had such an amusing time coaching and convincing them that this slow scene is necessary for the story.” Liu laughs. “I also found out that these Shaolin kids cannot speak dialogues convincingly because they are not trained actors. There were too much dialogues in the beginning drafts of my play. I had to cut the dialogues to the bare minimal and keep only the most essential and precise languages only. As a result, it’s the body languages of these Shaolin kids that are serving the drama.”
In order to make this project come to fruition, U Theatre made a total of six trips to the Shaolin Temple in Hunan in order to discuss the collaboration details.
“The toilet is really a terrible big headache for me. It’s so dirty – it’s actually just a hole on the ground…,” Moans Liu with a laugh. “However, seeing the Shaolin Temple in person is such an amazing experience. Also, watching those Shaolin kids performing Shaoling kungfu in the mountain right in front of you is such an unimaginable experience. It’s literally pyrotechniques kungfu movements seen in kungfu movies happening right in front of your eyes.”
Because of China’s decades ban on all forms of religion since 1949, the spirit of Buddhism has long disappeared from Hunan’s Shaolin Temple despite the temple being preserved until today.
“When we arrived at Shaolin Temple for the first trip, we realized to our shock that Buddhism has disappeared from mainland China for decades. Even the people residing at Shaolin Temple have not seen Buddhism scriptures for decades,” Liu explains. “I decided right in the beginning that I want to put the holy Buddhism scripture of Vajrasattva into the story. So, I showed the scripture of Vajrasattva to the people at Shaolin Temple for the first time in more than 50 years.”
“One night, I purposely stayed up and chanted aloud the scripture of Vajrasattva in my room as my own personal practices,” Liu bemusedly reminisces. “Then, the second day, I found out that those Shaolin kids were mesmorized by the scriptures. They already learned the scripture the night before and were already walking around, reciting the scripture by heart the next day.”
If the real-life Shaolin kungfu practitioners from Shaolin Temple have become the main attraction in “A Touch of Zen,” U Theatre’s music director and principal drummer Huang Chi-chung has decidedly not taken a sideline for this production. In fact, Huang has used this chance where he does not need to dominate the whole show to expand his range as an artist.
“This is the first time I do not have to be in most of the scenes in a U Theatre production. In fact, I portray the third stage, the oldest version of the protagonist Ao Hsiang when he starts practicing meditation and achieves peace of mind. Literally, I am on stage only one third of the time,” Huang explains. “Therefore, I use the spare time to concentrate on composing the entire score for this production. If the music of U Theatre’s works before were episodic, then “A Touch of Zen” marks the first time U Theatre presents the music as a whole, coherent, continuous music work because I had the time to do it this time.”
“The process of creating the score for this production is very spontaneous,” Huang recounts. “The whole U Theatre went to Shaolin Temple to discuss with them and to experience the life there. Day in and day out, I was seeing these fantastic landscapes of mountains and sky and interacting with these innocent people in the mountain. The ideas simply poured out.”
During the rehearsal session on May 10, glimpses of the ingenuity of this landmark production could be sensed even in its burgeoning stage. While the drumming music of U Theatre’s past works before mostly derived from imageries and abstract ideas, the music this time is far more ambitious and achieved. The music of “A Touch of Zen” grows out of the plotline of the story and puts the musicality of the different musical instruments in the service of the central story about revenge gone and equilibrium acquired that holds the whole production together.”
With the act entitled “Little Monk,” a cute, delightful music that is would be considered improbable in U Theatre’s past work is used in order to convey the mood of innocence and glee during the protagonist’s childhood.
With the act entitled “Thinking about Mother,” Huang jettisons U Theatre’s trademark drumming music in favor of cello and flute in order to convey the mood need for this scene. The sad, ringing sound of the flute playing against the music of a weeping cello vividly brings the atmosphere of an orphaned child yearning about his mother’s love alive.
“I want to lead U Theatre into a new direction with more drama as a theater troupe,” concludes artistic director Liu. “At the heart of ‘A Touch of Zen’ -- underneath all the kungfu trappings -- are the themes of ‘ordeal,’ ‘meditation’ and finally ‘growth.’ The message and the central theme of this dramatic musical is redemption. I think, in this day and age when the world is so full of chaos and turmoils, we all need redemption in the end.”

(“A Touch of Zen” by U Theatre will make its world premier at Taipei’s National Theater on June 2. The show will run from June 2 to 4 for four performances. For ticket and schedule info, please contact Taipei’s National Theatre at (02)3393-9888 or check out the website at www. or the U Theatre at (02) 2938-8188 or

Life as a Chain of Dreams
By Andrew C.C. Huang
Contributing Writer
(This article originally appeared in Taiwan News)

If a life is composed of a long series of events and dreams, then a story is comprised of a roaster of characters with their life stories interweaving and influencing each other.
In the tradition of the life as dream metaphor of China’s all-time most acclaimed novel “The Dream of the Red Chamber” and western master playwright August Strindberg’s “A Dream Play,” internationally acclaimed director Stanley Lai of the movie “Peach Blossom Dream” fame will bring his outlandishly ambitious theater piece “A Dream Like a Dream” to the audience for the next two weeks.
This Sunday, “A Dream like a Dream” will come to life on stage for the second time at Taipei’s National Theater in celebration of the 20th anniversary for master Lai’s Performance Workshop. An astoundingly ambitious, epic, romantic, poetic, extravagant, mysterious, religious, metaphysical and emotionally powerful play that lasts for the shocking length of seven and half hours, “A Dream like a Dream” written and directed by Lai will runs from April 24 to May 7 for a total of nine performances.
The performance of this 7 1/2 hour play will be divided into two parts. Audience can choose to watch the first part in the afternoon and the second part in the same evening or watch the two parts on two consecutive nights. For the sake of artistic integrity, all audiences are required to purchase the tickets for both parts of the whole play. No purchase of one single ticket for half of the play will be allowed.
However, the unheard of 7 1/2 hour length is not the only history-making feat of “A Dream like a Dream.” In order to tell this unique story that is conceived as one story leading to another and one dream connecting with another, a revolutionary stage structure is needed. The production will completely refashion the existing structure of National Theater in order to build a 360-degree stage that will surround the audiences in the middle. During the performance of this play, the audiences’ seats have been engineered to turn clock-wise slowly as the actors perform their scenes and walk clock-wise on that 360-degree circular stage.
Undisputedly the theater event in Taiwan this year, Lai’s “A Dream like a Dream” has already achieved nearly all sold-out ticket record. The production rounds up 32 top theater actors to play over a hundred roles in this epic work. All the characters in this play except for the role of the Count will be played by at two or three different actors/actresses in order to show the different stage of their lives in a story that takes place against the backdrop of the whole 20th century. Legendary Asian American actress Lisa Lu of the movie “The Joy Luck Club” and “The Last Emperor” fame will portrays the pivotal part of the female protagonist Gu Shiang-lan.
The story of “A Dream like a Dream” is inspired by the book “The Tibetan Book of Living and Death.” The story starts with a young doctor who goes into a hospital to start her career. To her shock, four out of the five patients in the ward she supervised pass away. She learns that she could try to be a sympathetic listener if she is not able to save her patients. Thus, she devotes her time to listen to the life story of the final and the fifth surviving patient. This patient’s story leads to the stories of people he has encounterd in his life and one story leads to another story in a chain of life circle.
The genesis of “A Dream like a Dream” is in itself a legend. “It happened in 1999 during a trip to India,” director Lai reminisces. “I went to that site where Buddha meditated for days before achieving Buddha-hood. I sat down, took out my pen and paper, and was trying to jot down something. The afternoon sunlight shone behind the Tower of Buddha of Wisdom and rendered a glow around that tower. The lotus tree seemed to radiate some mysterious energy. A lot of people were circling the Tower of Buddha of Wisdom clock-wise.”
“Suddenly, the various events in my life and the countless stories I have read and heard surged up in my heart,” Lai recounts. “I felt the accumulative emotions…”The Tibetan Book of Living and Death,” the people who survived the catastrophic train crash at London’s Paddington Station, a diplomat inside a French castle, a woman in China, a love story that lasted for a century….”
“I quickly scribbled down the ideas of this story on that piece of A4 size paper,” Lai explains. “It’s one of those experiences in life in which a story idea has been fermenting inside you for years. Once when that story idea ripens and appears in your heart, all you have to do is just to pour it out, write it down on the paper and start thinking how to make this into an actual work.”
“It’s a story about journey, about a journey within another journey. The story starts with when this character who is near the end of her life,” Says Lai. “Her life story takes place against the backdrop of the entire 20th century. Her life runs from Asia to Europe, from life to death, from pain to the possibility of release.”
“I finished jotting down the ideas on that piece of A4 paper just right as the light went out at the end of dusk,” Lai says.
If the birth of this staggering, epic story came to the page in such a bizarrely spontaneous fashion, the attempts to make this story come alive on the theater stage for the audiences have been decidedly the opposite.
A theatrical super-production is necessary in order to do justice to such a legendary story. A production of this kind would require at least 20 to 30 actors to portray more than 100 characters, with 300 plus costumes, an unheard of 360-degree theater stage that surrounds the audiences, the most daunting two-storey set structure that could represent the various scenes, numerous props of different sizes, and -- last but definitely not the least --, a mega budget that could allow the production to come to fruition.
“We are extremely grateful to the commitment of Taipei’s National Theater. We knew that even with all sold-out tickets, we’ll still have to suffer millions of debt,” says Ting Nai-er, the administrative director of Performance Workshop. “Both the National Theater and the Performance Workshop decided to commit to this project. The only goal for this project is to present the best possible work to the audience without fretting too much about the financial aspects.”
During the dress rehearsal on April 15, this writer witnessed the extraordinary emotional impact of this landmark theater production. Possibly the best work by Lai in his career, this epic story takes place against the backdrop of the entire 20th century with locales ranging from Shanghai, Paris to Taipei. Story wise, Lai draws ideas and facts from “The Tibetan Book of Living and Death,” Tianmen Square incident, the Cultural Revolution and even an ancient Chinese tale about a person who dies simply to realize that he just wakes up from an afternoon nap to create a masterfully done work about life’s journey. As a daring mise-en-scene device, Lai adroitly uses one, two and even three scenes going on simultaneously to show relation between the different stories within the main story. Lai also puts three actors portraying the same role on the stage at the same time, with the oldest version ruminating on his past life while the two younger versions going through their stories in the two different phases of their lives.
For a richly layered and emotionally complex story like this, the casting is central to the success. This production manages to rounds up a cast that is described by director Lai as “the dream team.” The cast includes Hollywood legend Lisa Lu, Taiwan’s premier theater actor Jing Shi-che, Ting Nai-chun and Tang Chi-wei etc.
The involvement of the legendary Lisa Lu is undoubtedly the most fascinating part of the casting. For younger audiences not as familiar with the name Lisa Lu, she is the legendary Chinese American actress who appears as the mother An-Mei in the movie “The Joy Luck Club” adapted from the novel of the same title by Chinese American novelist Amy Tan and as the Empress Dowager in Italian master Bernado Bertolucci’s landmark movie “The Last Emperor” which garnered nine Oscars in 1987. Before she immigrated to the U.S. for her Hollywood career, Lu was already a superstar who won the best actress award twice at the 9th and the 12th edition of Golden Horse Awards in Asia.
“There was never a decision to be made,” Lisa Lu says. “As soon as I got the phone call from Stan, I said ‘yes’ right away.”
“This is such an unique story and theater project. I am so sure it will become another highlight in my career,” opines Lu. “This is a fantastic story and a play that will last for seven and half hours for the audience. No one has ever heard of anything like this! An outlandishly ambitious production like this is not even possible in the western world! But now it’s being done by a Chinese artist in Asia! I jumped at the chance to be part of it.”
“And by the way, I get to have PhD students with Theater major from Beijing University to play the characters who push my wheelchair,” Lu laughs. “How much more fun can it get?!”
“It’s an actor’s dream to be able to work with a good director like Stan. I saw the 2002 version of ‘A Dream like a Dream’ in Hong Kong. I was bowled over by it,” says Lu. “It’s a play that has such depth and scope to it. It has such a great story.”
While the concept of “A Dream like a Dream” is that one story leads to another in life, the structure of the play surrounds itself around the protagonist Gu Shiang-lan, a prostitute in 1930’s China who becomes a painter after she moves to Paris. Actresses Hsu Yen-ling and Ting Nai-chen portray the two different stages of the young Gu during the first half of the play. Beside the appearance in the beginning of the first half, Lu’s part mostly appears in the second half during the older stage of Gu’s life.
“Gu is such a unique character,” says Lu. “She lived a life of such unusual experiences. The education she received in China was very conservative and repressing. She yearned for freedom and chased after it. So she moved to France and started a new life, absorbing all the new ideas and experiences in life.”
“In the beginning of the story when she appears, she is near death,” says Lu. “She is old, embittered, disillusioned with life and smoldering with rage. She started out as a prostitute in China and then moved to France to become a respected painter. She has lived such a legendary life and now she has lost everything. She doesn’t even have any surviving family member and is all alone. She is unable to find her emotional equilibrium even at that old age.” says Lu.
A legendary character, Gu goes from a prostitute in 1930’s Shanghai to become the wife of a French aristocratic Count and then a respected painter. After the death of the Count, Gu goes back to China in 1950’s to join her new husband Wang the tycoon. Unfortunately, the notorious Cultural Revolution swept across China in 1966 and Wang died. However, Gu did not.
“My story was nothing extraordinary. It’s just like everyone else’s story at that time. It was the Cultural Revolution,” As Gu puts it in the story. “Cultural Revolution was the perfect time for any human being to die. My problem was that I did not die back then.”
“She is very impatient and standoff-ish when the young doctor wants to listen to her life story,” Lu adds. “Then she starts telling the story and eventually finds her emotional catharsis through the process of storytelling.”
A director who respects and demands inputs from his actors, Stanley Lai invites the actors to express their opinions in order to incorporate them into the story. Lai knows too well the importance of the interaction between actors and the director in order to create the best work.
“Lisa did not know that’s the way I work in the beginning. I want my actors to pour in their life experiences into the story and help reshaping the story,” says Lai, who pulled an all-nighter on March 27 in order to completely rewrite the part of Gu around Lu. “However,it took her only a few days to adjust to my method and she dived into the character right away.”
“With a part like Gu who has lived through the whole 20th century,” explains Lai. “It’s especially essential for the actress who portrays Gu to bring her own life experiences into this character.”
“True, I am the author who invented the character of Gu. However, I am in my 50’s and Gu the character has lived through the 20th century. I am not going to pretend that I know Gu the character better than Lisa,” Lai adds. “I called up Lisa because she is the one and the only perfect candidate to play this part in my mind. Lisa herself has lived a legendary life with different phases in China, Hong Kong and the U.S. She was a legend already during Shaw Brothers’ golden age in the 60’s and then moved on to have a Hollywood career. No one knows this part better than Lisa. She develops and enriches the part of Gu in ways that I could not possibly imagined.”
The 2002 version of “A Dream like a Dream” produced at the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong Repertory Theatre featured the legendary Hong Kong actress Wong Ming Tsuen as Gu. A highly acclaimed smash hit, that production ended up winning the Best Group Performance Award, the Best Costume Design Award and the Best Supporting Actor Award at the 12th Hong Kong Theatre Awards.
“Wong is a fantastic actress too and delivered a great performance. However, for that 2002 version, we only had six weeks’ time to rehearse. It did not really do the story justice,” Lai explains. “This time we have Lisa as Gu and the whole cast devotes three month to rehearse and develop this story. I am absolutely sure this will be the best version of ‘A Dream like a Dream’.”
“A Dream like a Dream” has had two academia productions at University of California at Berkeley and Taipei Arts University before receiving its first commercial production in 2002.
“During the very first rehearsal session at U.C. Berkeley, we spent 12 hours before finishing the rehearsal,” Lai laughs. “By the end, all the students were nearly comatose and I passed out!”
“For a commercial production of this play, I decided early on that it has to be limited to seven or eight hours,” Lai explains. “We knew that we had to let the audiences out by 11 p.m. so that they could catch the last subway ride home.”
“However, it’s a compromise for now,” Lai says. “I dream about making this story into a movie or a TV series someday.”
“For anyone who worries that he might fall asleep during the seven and half hours of this play, don’t. No one fell asleep during the Hong Kong version in 2002,” Lai says. “Actually, most of the audiences expressed that this play was too short at seven hours. They wanted to see more of it, the real full version of this story.”
“’A Dream like a Dream’ came so naturally to me. It’s possibly the story of my career, the best story I could come up with in my life,” Lai concludes. “I promise that it’s a great story. It’s an once-in-a-lifetime experience. When an audience comes here to invest one whole day of his life watching this play, it will become the experience of his life. He will remember this story for the rest of his life.”

(“A Dream like a Dream” produced by Performance Workshop will run at Taipei’s National Theater from April 24 to May 7. For ticket and schedule info, please contact the National Theater at (02) 3393-9888 or the site . You can also contact the Performance Workshop at (02)2698-2323 or the site )