Cinema Femme met up with Taiwan’s Zero Chou, helmer of “Untold Herstory.” The feature, world-premiered in the Harbour section of this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam (January 25-February 5), and is set in 1953, during Taiwan’s notorious White Terror. In particular, Chou’s drama zooms in on three female ‘thought prisoners’ confined to Green Island, a penal colony off Taiwan’s eastern coast, who couldn’t stop thinking. The women are only let out of their barracks to sit through ‘re-education’ classes and carry out hard labor.
When authorities start forcing prisoners to ‘volunteer’ to demonstrate their dictated patriotism – requiring signatures in blood and anti-communist tattoos upon their bodies – rebellion begins to intensify. During our conversation with Chou, we spoke about the writing process, the importance of the historical events portrayed in the movie and how it has split the audience in Taiwan and Europe. The movie is sold by Taipei-based outfit Activator.
How the idea for “Untold Herstory” come about? And, when did you start working on the project?
In the beginning of 2021, I finished working on a lesbian-led TV movie titled “Secrets of 1979”. “Untold Herstory” executive producer, Pasuya Yao, gave me a book by Ronald Tsao and suggested to me to make a movie about it. I read it very fast. The book contained true accounts of political prisoners on Green Island – back then known as Bonfire Island – and it included interviews to five female prisoners along with 68 letters from the home of a female prisoner who had been executed to death. I found there were some special moments and stories between these women. Within a month, the production team and I went to Green Island to scout locations, and we evaluated how we could make the movie happen with a limited budget. I knew this book was very important. People were expecting me to work with it and wanted to see whether I was capable to turn it into a film. But I knew we could make it and that it would have been a magical journey.
What were the main challenges during the writing of this film? And, how was your work with your co-writer Min-Hsuan Wu?
The first challenge we faced was that many people don’t dare watch White Terror movies or don’t want to bear the pressure of history, so I have always emphasized that this is the most gentle movie I have ever made.
I chose to use women’s emotions to describe that period, and to avoid deliberately bloody and violent renderings. I chose to appeal to human emotions instead of resorting to anger and hatred. The heaviest subject matters need to be spoken in the softest way. I believe that this will pave the way for reconciliation.
The second challenge was that, although the film itself goes beyond the two political parties of Taiwan – the Democratic Progressive Party and the Chinese Nationalist Party – the criticism from some spectators was unstoppable. Many opponents asked everyone not to go to the theater to watch this movie, because they say it is fake history. I can only say that as long as you dare to face history, all the details in the movie can withstand scrutiny.
In it, every event is adapted from real accounts. As a film director, in addition to researching and confirming historical data, I needed to scrutinize suitable clothing, props, language, ethnic groups, and [other] details of life at that time. The last challenge – the most important, of course – was to tell a good story. The audience can easily follow it by focusing on the three heroines. As for the background of all these sufferings, I buried some clues for those who are interested to comb through, and they will not affect the viewing experience.
[Besides,] Min-Hsuan Wu was the early screenwriter. After several months of hard work, Pasuya Yao asked me to edit a version to try it out, because [he thought] that first draft may not resonate with most of the audience. So, after scouting on Green Island, photographer Hoho Liu and I stayed there. We visited all the places where thought prisoners used to visit, and learned about the historical context.
During that retreat, I pulled out a new structure. After that, I continued to stay in Beituou for a month, and wrote the final draft. Later, Min-Hsuan Wu helped me to check the [accuracy of] historical facts. When we had any doubts, we asked Ronald Tsao for further advice.
The movie had its European premiere last month. It was also shown to Taiwanese audiences at the Kaohsiung fest in October. What was the audience response, especially considering how unsettling are the historical events depicted in your film?
Of course, the audiences of Kaohsiung and Rotterdam were different. The feedback from folks in Kaohsiung was very enthusiastic, but some DPP viewers criticized the work for not being ‘miserable’ enough. But after explaining that this was the only way so people could ‘swallow’ it and come in to watch it, the DPP audience reluctantly agreed.
At Rotterdam, I didn’t expect too much, and I was surprised about the reaction of the first Western spectator, during the Q&A session. She cried and asked: “Why is such a cruel history so moving?” After hearing this, the festival director answered: “This is why we selected “Untold Herstory” for European audiences.” It is so because this film transcends regionalism and portrays the nobility of soul of these female thought prisoners. This Taiwanese movie is also reminiscent of the history of Nazi persecution, and the depiction of the human nature and its generous, kind attitude are particularly moving. So it turns out that Taiwan’s history can transcend national borders, and I immediately felt at ease. We also brought the film to Vienna and some other places, and audiences who are not Taiwanese love it very much.