If there was a lack of compassion in the coverage that Lou Yi-an saw in news reports regarding a series of random killings in his native Taiwan in 2014, he wanted to make up for it with when he got behind the camera himself for “Goddamned Asura.” Taking its provocative title from a mysterious online avatar who weaves in and out of the lives of a collection of young adults, the film taps into the wi-fi-connections of Linlin (Wang Yu-xuan) and Hu Sheng (Lai Hao-zhe), both gamers who play less as a distraction than as a way to fantasize about the lives they’d prefer to be leading, stuck in a humble apartment complex that has drawn the attention of a journalist named Mold (Mo Tzu-yi) for how it reflects the class divisions in Taiwan. Virtual ties become hardwired when the three have the misfortune of dining at a night market the evening that Jan Wen (Joseph Huang), the disaffected son of a tech magnate, decides to go on a shooting spree in need of attention.
If Lou opens the film with guns blazing, using footage of the attack shot by Mold, Linlin and Hu Sheng as a way into the story, “Goddamned Asura” unfolds as a slow burn, showing sympathy for all those jolted by brushing up against tragedy but witnessing one that happens in advance when a loneliness sets in for even the most sociable of his characters, actively communicating with one another in online forums where a degree of anonymity afforded by an entire identity or simply the inability to be seen allows for a freedom that the outside world does not and the burden of public interaction only adds to the pressure everyone is feeling in their lives. The film’s sympathy extends to Jan Wen, though Lou is careful to suggest less than he is misunderstood by those around him than unable to pick up on social cues that could lead him to feeling more at ease, particularly around his friend Xu Axing (Devin Pan), with whom he writes a graphic novel that illustrates his pain, and as the characters are all busy imagining different paths for themselves, Lou intriguingly folds their imagination into the presentation, seeing what would happen if fate had handed each a slightly different hand.
Earning numerous prizes locally where the film picked up a Golden Horse Award for Wang and multiple awards at the Taipei Film Festival, “Goddamned Asura” was selected as Taiwan’s official Oscar entry for Best International Feature and recently Lou spoke via a translator about how he put the intricate, multifaceted narrative together, the ways in which happenstance informed it and conveying contemporary realities about communication cinematically.
When this was inspired by a real-life incident but not a reflection of it, how did it take shape as a story you wanted to tell?
In 2014, there was a pretty shocking random killing attack that happened in the Taipei Metro and two years after that, the perpetrator was executed and in Taiwan, there was a discussion among everyone about whether we should abolish the death penalty. I read a series of news reports on this and I was inspired to think about this story. When I was writing, the whole story was quite different. I took some time to figure out the story of Jan Wen, trying to figure out the motive of this perpetrator who committed this crime and I was trying to even find an explanation for why he did this and to prove that maybe there’s a side of this person that’s unknown to other people. I was struggling with this because I think Jan Wen actually committed this [crime] and but we talked about the structure of the script and I took another three or four years to come up with the version that is closer to the story that we are seeing and in that version, I was able to add some other characters in addition to Jan Wen who all perceive this incident in a different perspective and all of them experience life-changing experience after the incidents.
In addition to these characters, I also came up with a new structure that is a what if scenario and with this new structure, I realized I was able to prove that all of them, not just Jan Wen, can actually make different decisions and we can see how they are different before and after that incident and we can see different possibilities for those characters, so I was feeling I was able to prove that people are not [destined] to be evil. Like when we talked about real-life incidents in Taiwan, people were seeing that perpetrator as just evil and I was thinking that maybe people are not just destined to be evil.
Before making “Goddamned Asura,” I made two other features and in those two films, I had something very similar to this multilayered storyline structure and I found this structure had some kind of magic in which I was able to explore different characters who come from different walks of life and different classes of society and as they perceive the same incidents, they have very different perspectives. That made me able to come up with something that’s diverse, not something that’s very rigid [where I’d] only see someone as a perpetrator or as a victim in a very simplified way, but to come up with different possibilities to observe real faces of humanity.
Once you cast the actors, are there any relationship dynamics you might not have planned for that make it into the film?
The most impressive example of this was when I first met Wang Yu-Xuan, the actress who played Linlin, and when I first met her, it was six years ago when she was still attending high school. I wasn’t sure if she could take on this role, but I realized when I met her later that she actually became very confident, which surprised me and by the time when we were shooting the film, one of the most impressive experiences for me was when we were shooting the scene between Linlin and her mother [when] they were having a fight and her mother was throwing a wine bottle at her daughter.
Originally in the script, we designed Wang Yu-Xuan to behave in a very explosive way, very angry, and she would yell, “What are you doing? You’re no different than those other bastards!” And they completed that take, but Wang Yu-Xuan actually asked for taking another chance to make another take with a very different emotion in which she tried something that stressed the emotion of being shocked — she was more calm [in the previous take] — and just say, “What are you doing?” with a little tear in her eye. She was just really shocked by the behavior of her mother, and I found this to be a little different take from the script, but I found it very interesting and I actually think it stressed the connection between that character and her mother, so at that moment, I realized I think it’s the right decision to cast her.
So another example is the character of the journalist Mold, played by Morning Tzu-Yi Mo, who actually joined the film pretty late in the process, but together, we went to see a real-life journalist as a reference when we were doing some field research. This real-life journalist was someone who was a little bit unconventional who spoke very freely and had a lot of tattoos, would have a cigarette with him all the time, so we actually thought that image was somewhat different than what they would imagine for a typical journalist to have who writes about these stories and looks to always be on the side of justice. We took that image and combined it with the current image they have for the journalist and I thought it was a good result because we were able to come up with something that was less conventional and a little bit more complex. That’s all because we were able to take in some perspective from the actor.
Something really admirable about the film is how it conveys technology – a lot of the characters have a connection with it that goes beyond communication. Was that interesting to explore?
I think that communication software or apps that people use daily, it’s already a big part of our lives and we would see people kind of making judgments on other people without a lot of evidence on the internet, so you will see that on PBT, which is the equivalent of Reddit in Taiwan and also on live-streaming, they would jump to conclusions and judge people relentlessly. That’s what I saw when I was writing this story was that people were judging the perpetrator of the incident that we were talking about, and this kind of collective criticism was in contrast with what I was trying to do, which was to come up with something that can prove people can be very mutlifaceted and people can have a lot of different possibilities. I just wanted to do something that’s different from what those keyboard warriors were doing.
What’s it like to represent Taiwan now at the Oscars?
I am very grateful and I think that no matter what the final result is, [an award is] not the most important thing for me. The most meaningful thing to me is to show this film to more audiences around the world, and I’m looking forward to distribution in more countries and to show to more audiences. That makes me very happy.
“Goddamned Asura” does not yet have U.S. distribution.