In his recent “reshooting” series, Taiwanese artist-filmmaker Su Hui-yu takes forgotten or forbidden artifacts from Taiwanese’s cultural collective consciousness and brings them vividly back into the present, restaging and reworking elements of the source materials into elaborate, expressive new scenarios that involve careful, considered choreography of both the camera and performers, bright, bold color and costuming, and no shortage of sexual or violent imagery. The result is something like a speculative remake, not so much a re-imaging but more a reimagining: a new work that bears ghost-traces of the original, related to it but unshackled from its limitations.
In the first film in this series, Super Taboo (2015), a suited man sits in a secluded forest and reads a pornographic book from his childhood, letting his imagination run riot as descriptions from the book blend with his own erotic fascinations. Playing out in a single-take, a slo-motion frenzy of entangled bodies and vibrant colors, the film works wonders out of its humble-seeming starting moments. A second film in this series, The Glamorous Boys of Tang (2018), also lifts from a text, bringing scenes from the screenplay of Taiwanese homoerotic cult film Tang Chao Chi Li (1985) that didn’t make it to the finished film to life as a series of striking tableaux vivant which play out like a series of dreams spliced together into one non-narrative sequence. Featuring an array of colorful costumes and ornate, fanciful props, these scenes start off as simply suggestive before turning entirely surreal, becoming increasingly sexual and violent as the film continues.
The latest work in this series, The Women's Revenge (2020) takes a series of Taiwanese female exploitation films produced in the 1980s as its inspiration, mixing elements from these films and their original screenplays with newly imagined material to create a procession of fantastical sequences that shift the focus of these films, emphasizing—as the title suggests—the acts of retribution that these films involve rather than the more objectifying elements that had traditionally been dominant in their narratives. Transplanting a cinematic past into the political present, Su creates an altogether new fantasy more fitting for the current age, mixing fragments of moments from various films and his own memories to make a series of slick, action-packed sequences in which a mob of smartly costumed women enact violent vengeance against their patriarchal oppressors. As with The Glamorous Boys of Tang, the non-narrative proceedings become increasingly surreal and violent, repeatedly crescendoing before a psychedelic finale sees the camera tunnel through the body of one of the women into a new dimension, one where the viewer’s own imagination is activated through a conclusion calling on subjective interpretation.
On the occasion of the premiere of the single screen version (a five channel version was previously presented at Double Square Gallery, Taipei, and is currently on view at 1646 in The Hague] of The Women’s Revenge in the Tiger Shorts Competition at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, Su talks to Notebook about what inspired and informed this new work, as well as the broader historical, political, and philosophical underpinnings behind this methodology of “reshooting” that he has been utilizing in recent years.
NOTEBOOK: What was the origin of this work? What drove you to make this film about these women?
SU HUI-YU: It’s a long story, where do I start? The Women's Revenge is part of my “reshooting” series. When I use the term reshooting, I’m citing the word as it is used in the film industry, such as when they refer to “reshooting” or a “pickup.” This is when there have been some mistakes in the production and they are required to do a specific section or scene again, going back to the location to fix the issue. I try to use the word as a hint to the historical dimensions that are at play when revisiting and representing Taiwanese history as I am doing in this series, especially when looking at the 1970s or 1980s, when Taiwan was still governed by martial law.
Since 2015, most of my video works, including Super Taboo or The Glamorous Boys of Tang, use this logic of “reshooting.” In these works, I revisit a specific film, cultural event, or memory, usually focusing on situations or objects that had been previously forbidden or censored, or just misunderstood in some way. My mission is to try to use modern resources and technologies to revisit and remake these things, trying to fix some issues or offer a new perspective, or see what parts are worth rethinking or redeveloping. This is the grand background, my overall reasoning.
For The Women's Revenge, I wanted to look into Taiwanese female exploitation films from the late 1970s. These films were strongly influenced by Western or American genre films such as I Spit On Your Grave, which had been imported into Taiwan having gained popularity first in Hong Kong and Japan. Following this popularity, local companies and filmmakers began creating their own versions of the female exploitation genre in our country. This only started happening after 1979, carrying on through to late 1980s, roughly a decade prior to the lifting of the martial law.
NOTEBOOK: Was there a reason why this started happening in 1979?
SU: I think it’s because of this time delay. The Taiwanese New Wave didn’t happen until the early 1980s. Some people might have seen Western genre films via underground circuits or private screenings, but not publicly in a cinema. Taiwan is a very unique country; we had the longest period of martial law imposed by a government in the twentieth century, lasting nearly 40 years, starting just after World War Two. [Note: Syria’s martial law lasted for nearly fifty years, having been evoked in 1963 and then rescinded in 2011, but this was split over two centuries.] Everything here was well controlled: what sort of movie you could make would be determined by the government of the time. We never had the chance to make anything really crazy, bloody, or bizarre. Prior to the emergence of these genre films, we only had propaganda films, political films, historical or war stories, or romantic films. In those last 10 years before the lifting of the martial law in 1987, more and more of these kinds of cases appeared: cheesy stories with cheesy effects in which women are tortured and then take bloody revenge against the men who had wronged them. It was like a subconscious explosion or an expression of desire. People knew that sooner or later the country would open up, but they could not wait anymore.
Unfortunately, even though some of the scripts of these films are fairly creative and some of the script writers were women, the finished films were made primarily for a straight male audience. That’s why you’ll see a lot of nude or sexily dressed women in these films. The revenge part is not the key point for the audience, and the feminist ideals that might have been seen in the scripts are often lost. That’s why it’s called exploitation. However, when you review these films today you can still see some creative possibilities, or traces that remain from the original concepts. Revisiting them, we have the chance to do things differently. We can choose a leading character from one film, a remarkable image from another, and reinterpret, redevelop, and reconstruct, mixing everything up to create a new version.
As you know, compared to our neighbors in China, Japan, or Korea, for instance, Taiwan is quite progressive. We were the first country to legalize gay marriage in Asia, and society is quite open to different cultural ideas. Now we have the space and the freedom, I think it is time to reimagine the possibilities that these films offer, and find the most interesting version from that feminist core.
NOTEBOOK: Did you see these exploitation films recently or at the time? More broadly, I’m interested in the cultural objects you encounter in your films, such as the book in Super Taboo, the film in The Glamorous Boys of Tang, and the exploitation films for The Women’s Revenge. Do you find them through research, or are they relics from your own past? How personal are these objects to you?
SU: Yeah, this is an important and interesting question to me. There are two layers. One is my personal memories, and the second is a kind of collective memory. When I was a kid in the 1980s, I only saw posters or TV advertisements of these films, but never had the chance to watch them. As a child, this sort of encounter still has a strong impact. In Taiwan in the 1980s, we had these cheap, local style fast food restaurants for workers and students, in which we would spend lots of time during the afternoons. These restaurants always had thousands of posters on the walls, showing all sorts of horror movies, exploitation movies, or gangster movies that you couldn’t otherwise see. Also on the midnight TV show we have, you had a chance to see the trailers for these films. This was strong enough for me, it gave me an impression. So, this is a personal memory, but it’s blurred and incomplete. It was three decades before I actually got to see the films. Last year, I decided that I wanted to reshoot them and went to see them at the Taiwan Film Centre, and then went back with my collaborators in order to study them further.
NOTEBOOK: In your approach to historical subjects then, are you drawn to popular histories or more hidden histories, stories that have been erased or marginalized?
SU: Prior to the 1990s, most of the information and resources in Taiwan had been manipulated by the authorities. You could never see the full picture of any history. Pop culture and the mass media, and also schools and educational resources were all arranged by the government. When we had the social democratic movement, society began to gradually open up, but lots of things had been erased or not disclosed.
A few years ago, the national archives were established and it was decided that a system needed to be built to preserve and interpret our national histories. A lot of artists, myself included, offered their creativity towards rebuilding or regenerating, towards trying to find a new way of telling our histories and uncovering the parts that had been missing. These female exploitation genres used to be part of our collective memory, but lots of people have forgotten about these films, and they also never thought about what kind of ideologies were behind them. I tried to find the unconsciousness of these films, the invisible mental states or unconscious desires behind these kinds of works that we need to discover. For me, it is a question of bio-politics, or of body politics.
NOTEBOOK: That was actually my next question. I wanted to ask why you were so attracted to body politics, to issues of gender and sexuality? It manifests differently in each work, but this is something that is present in most of them.
SU: Over the past 100 or 200 years, Taiwan has been strongly influenced by certain kinds of conservative values that discourage individualism. We were not encouraged to express our emotions or our bodies. Anything that relates to the individual or to personal identity has been historically discouraged. Even now in modern Taiwan, you can still smell traces of this ideology carrying through from previous generations. On the streets, young people never try to be sexy or fancy; they are always polite, serious, or safe. We don’t have a very strong party culture. Before the 1980s, we never had a rock n’ roll concert in Taipei. Even now that society has been totally democratized and we should feel free to do anything, something in our subconscious inhibits us. My hope is for my art to try to open that up, and find a chord in our mental or metaphysical state that releases us. Some societies have Christian issues, we have Confucian issues. To me, any conservative ideology that can affect us, is not, to me, a good thing and needs to be analyzed.
NOTEBOOK: Do you see your films as rebellious or radical then, or is it more that you feel they shouldn’t have to be considered as such?
SU: I think even violence in artwork or our imaginations could be healthy if it is used in the right way. We have BDSM culture which is a game in which people get hurt for fun. Eventually, no one gets truly hurt, it’s just a structure or a power game from which to start. I feel that even violence, or so called “radical images,” might offer some creative energy to our soul.
NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about the choreography of the performers and the camera-person. It’s very elaborate. How do you plan these movements, and are there any elements of spontaneity?
SU: It is precisely designed, prior to shooting. First, I will do lots of drawings for each section that I plan to shoot. For The Women’s Revenge, ten images appeared in my head. A lot of the images for this film were inspired from baroque historical paintings. In art history, you can find an infinite amount of violent scenes. They really love it. Then, I talk through my I envisioned with my collaborators and we then work through the process together, with the camera-person working out the space and the movements required and measuring them out. Then we work out what effects and make-up we will need, and what camera techniques to use—such as slow-motion with a high-speed camera. For this film I spent a lot of time with the costume designer trying to find a theme color for the women, which became red and black-and-white, because this appeared in the posters for the films a lot. For costumes and hair, we used a lot of references from 1980s fashion magazines. For the actors, it’s a long process through which we try to shape their personal characters. We have workshops where first we try to open their mind and build trust. They have a theoretical mentor to lead them psychologically, and an action director to teach them how to fight and hurt each other safely. Gradually, we build their body language, their poses, and their mental states. For the final workshop, we separated the men and the women and told them to not talk with each other for three days. The women had transformed themselves so much that when the men came to the shoot, they were pretty scared.
There is a secret to this film. I’m actually in it. It’s really hard to tell but I am one of the six female squad members. The last one, who is mostly in the shadows, is me acting as a woman but with deep-fake technology used over my face. We used the face of a famous star from the 1980s, Lu Shao-fen. Deep-fake technologies are used mostly for porn videos or for fake news, so I think it's interesting to appropriate this technology. I think there is an invisible line between this idea of a fake video and the kind of female exploitation films of the 1980s. In some sense, they have the same mental structure.
NOTEBOOK: When you were talking about the exploitation films that you were working from, you said that the original films were mostly about the bad things that happen to these women, the rapes, the attacks, and less about the revenge. In your reshooting, the focus is mostly on the act of retribution. How did you decide what to show and what not to show?
SU: It was a very interactive process. In the workshops, we all shared our personal experiences, and then watched the films together and exchanged opinions and personal experiences, including the sexual part of our memories. From this, we figured out of the new focus for the project: what we should abandon and what we should focus more on. We decided the most exciting part was the revenge, when the women are killing and torturing the men.
Then we thought about who would be our target audience if we were to make this film again, and we decided that women should be in the spotlight. Unlike the films from the 1980s, for our reshooting, women are the ones who have to be entertained and pleased. Now is the time for women again.
Later, the psychedelic parts appeared, like when the camera goes through the women’s vagina into another world. These moments are against logic. We wanted to create multiple layers and a dreamlike world that doesn’t make sense at all. Every part has a meaning, but they are not logically connected. In the chaos, you can build a storyline if you want or you can just let go and let an explosion happen in your brain.