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Documentarian | Tang Shiang-chu

  • Date:2020-06-04
Documentarian | Tang Shiang-chu

  • Name: 湯湘竹
  • Born: March 21, 1964
  • Birthplace: Hsinchu
  • Did You Know That …?
  • Veteran documentarian Tang Shiang-chu, who is equally well-versed as a sound engineer, calls a tattered green parka that he has worn since the beginning of his film career "his tabard and comrade." The familiar jacket appeared on stage when Tang received the Outstanding Taiwanese Filmmaker of the Year prize at the 2019 Golden Horse Awards.

"Shiang (湘)" refers to China's Hunan province. "Chu (竹)" refers to Hsinchu in Taiwan. "So my name stands for a Hunanese who was born in Hsinchu, Taiwan. My name encapsulates my father's nostalgia." The acclaimed documentarian always introduces his name this way. Born to a family that migrated from China, issues surrounding his own identity — and the nostalgia shared by his father's generation and those who were forced to leave their hometowns — have always accompanied Tang's cinematic journey of self-discovery.

Having traveled far and wide, Tang knows by heart what it means to be an outsider. From one documentary to another, the award-winning filmmaker offers viewers a glimpse of confounded identities when one travels to a foreign land.

Described by the Golden Horse jury panel as a figure who "has built a bridge for the inheritance of Taiwan's cinematic arts ever since he joined the New Taiwanese Cinema movement as sound recording engineer," Tang was drawn to the film industry mainly because of his admiration for Taiwanese film director Hou Hsiao-hsien's (侯孝賢) work "Dust in the Wind (戀戀風塵)." 

After graduating from the Theater Department at the National Taiwan College of Arts, predecessor of the National Taiwan University of Arts, Tang began his career in advertising but soon became a sound engineer and an apprentice to Cannes-winning sound editor Tu Duu-chih (杜篤之). "Back then, I was young, my thoughts were pretty simple and straightforward, and I just wanted to approach Hou," he said.

Tang vaulted into prominence after winning two Golden Horse Awards for best sound effects with acclaimed films "The Most Distant Course (最遙遠的距離)" by director Lin Jing-jie (林靖傑) in 2007 and "Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (賽德克·巴萊)" by Wei Te-sheng (魏德聖) in 2011. Apart from lending his professional expertise to more than 120 films, Tang also documents Taiwan's indigenous communities as part of his conscious pursuit of identity through lenses.

Tang's works include three documentaries that are affectionately known to Taiwanese audiences as the "Homecoming Trilogy (回家三部曲)" — "How Deep is the Ocean (海有多深)" in 2000, "How High is the Mountain (山有多高)" in 2002, and "How Long is the Road (路有多長)" in 2009. Then in 2013, Tang released "Pusu Qhuni (餘生-賽德克.巴萊)," a work on the Wushe Incident of 1930 when a group of Seediq people rebelled against Japanese rule.

"How Deep is the Ocean" follows Tang's Tao friend Mamuno's homecoming journey to Orchid Island, a fist-shaped island off the southeastern coast of Taiwan. As the film progresses, viewers discover along with Tang what life is like as a Tao and the intertwined relationship between humans and the forces of nature.

"Pusu Qhuni," on the other hand, takes an intimate look at how people move on with their lives amid the percussive effects of historical incidents. The 154-minute film features Seediq survivors who were forced by the Japanese colonial government to relocate to Alang Gluban in Nantou County after the Wushe Incident. "Pusu Qhuni" also presents first-hand accounts of descendants of the other party involved — Japanese authorities.

From 2004 to 2007, Tang traveled to the United States, China, and Russia to film "Chiang Ching-kuo (尋找蔣經國)," a five-part documentary-series that takes a close look at the life of a controversial figure who was widely regarded as the mastermind behind Taiwan's economic miracle and the lifting of martial law in 1987.

"Only by staying close to the parties concerned can we see historical realities more clearly, and be more sympathetic and understanding of the circumstances of those involved," Tang said when speaking of what drove him to take on the enormous project. The series won best directing for a non-drama program and best film editing at the 42th Golden Bell Awards.

In his winning speech at the 2019 Golden Horse Awards, Tang dedicated the Outstanding Taiwanese Filmmaker of the Year honor to his family for their unwavering support. With the enormous workload and demands of the film industry, family life is almost inconceivable, the 56-year-old said.

Reflecting on his career as a documentarian, Tang said he was deeply inspired by a magazine founded by late writer Chen Ying-chen (陳映真), which offered him another perspective to observe and partake in this world. As to what the future holds, Tang said he believes movies exist to touch people, even if just one member of the audience walks away a changed person.