New Film -- The Gangster's God
17, Mar 2006 15:05
Senior documentary filmmaker/director
“The social significance of a documentary is that it makes us aware of unfamiliar yet important cultural or social situations in our own or others’ communities. In this respect, “The Gangster’s God” is sure to prove a milestone in the history of Taiwanese documentaries.”
Author/associate professor of journalism, National Chengchi University
“Every year at the Lantern Festival, the Scorching of the God Handan in Taidong City is an extremely wild and unforgettable event. On that day, the ‘living Handans’ are the focus of all bottlerockets, and all eyes. ‘The Gangster’s God’ tells us of the everyday lives these living Handans lead on the margins of society, away from all the fireworks.”
Curator of the 2005 Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival/associate professor of communication and technology, National Chiao Tung University
“The underground environment in which those who take on the role of the god Handan live, their positions in society, and their crisis-filled lives repeatedly challenge the adaptability of the director. ‘The Gangster’s God’ deals with an extremely difficult subject, and depicts a world that is hard to reach with a camera. I’m delighted to see that such demanding subject matter has finally been made into an outstanding documentary film.”
PsyGarden Publishing Company planning director
“Once a year, these ‘living Handans’ stand with a sober and determined attitude on a moving dais pummeled with fireworks, receiving a baptism of fleshly pain. The cleansing of life, the dwelling of souls at the edge, and the psyche of expiation through self-inflicted pain interlace to form an explosive rite of the ‘gangster’s god.’ At the moment when they are shrouded in smoke, their flesh and skin stung, they finally find a place in which their self-identity is centered. Presented with a flowing and natural pace, this film delivers several minutes of painful ordeal that are both heart-thumping and moving.”
About the Film
Every Lantern Festival in Taidong, a group of men strips bare above the waist, and wearing nothing but red shorts, stands on a sacred palanquin, allowing people to pound their bodies with bottlerockets, singeing their skin. They are believed to be human incarnations of the god Handan. The “Scorching of Handan” has in recent years become a major event in eastern Taiwan. Those who take part in the ritual have always been shrouded in mystery, and rumored to be members of the gangster underworld. The documentary “The Gangster’s God” enters the heart of these men’s universe, recording their dramatic lives.
The film delves deeply into the local underworld community of Taidong. Filmed over the course of a year and ten months, it follows four “brothers”: an organizer of the Handan ritual, and three participants of different ages – born in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s – who all want to stand as a Handan the following year. Their lives are often unstable – during the film, one goes to jail, and another is committed to a psychiatric clinic. Can they successfully stand on the palanquin and serve as human incarnations of the god Handan?
The reason these three underworld members play the role of “living Handans” is to serve the true god in heaven. Some hope to extricate themselves from the life of the Taiwanese underworld; others are learning how to enter into it. Some have worked as hit men. Some still work as strongmen collecting debts. They have all served time in prison, and have committed various crimes. Through this ritual, we can witness the rules and relationships within this small underworld community, as well as the different values that different generations hold toward popular religious beliefs. The questions this film attempts to address are: What do the participants in this ritual gain from it? What is the relationship between popular religious faith and the social structure of this underworld community in Taidong? When they stand on the palanquin as incarnations of Handan, do they represent divinity, or evil? Are they heroes, or rapscallions?
Director Ho Chao-ti relates that when she witnessed the “Scorching of Handan” in Taidong several years ago, she discovered that the “human Handans” formed their own small community. At that time, she developed a strong interest in this special group of people. During the process of making this documentary, she discovered that these men, who have the reputation of being gangsters, often have a hard time fitting into mainstream society, but as soon as they stand on the Handan palanquin, they become the focal point of public attention. Ho Chao-ti says, “The ritual of the Scorching of Handan is an essential part of their socialization. The straighter a man stands and the longer he withstands the pain, the more worthy he shows himself to be. During the half hour or more that they stand on the palanquin, through the torment inflicted on their bodies, they are transformed from disdained, insignificant figures into redeemed heroes. This is an extremely dramatic contrast.”
The film’s music is also quite unique. Performed by Chen Guan-yu, leader of the Hohak Band, it is largely based on elements of Minnan (“ethnic Taiwanese”) music, recorded with such authentic instruments as the suona, the erhu and traditional drums. This makes the film tightly paced and extremely precise in its expression of emotions. On the day of the Scorching of Handan, Chen Guan-yu and a recording crew moved among the crowd firing bottlerockets, collecting a variety of sounds.
Unlike other films about the Scorching of Handan, “The Gangster’s God” successfully opens a window allowing the viewer to witness a world hitherto unglimpsed by outsiders. In the past, most films regarding “living Handans” focused on the colorful folk culture of the bombastic ritual itself, emphasizing its dazzling visual effects. “The Gangster’s God” films from a perspective approaching cultural anthropology, exploring how these people live. Its depth of treatment and the difficulty of its subject matter surpass previous films dealing with similar themes.
About the Director
Ho Chao-ti is a documentary filmmaker and director. Her works have addressed a broad range of subject matter, from traditional folk music to disadvantaged groups to contemporary cultural fusion. She formerly worked as a magazine managing editor, newspaper and television reporter, and community-college lecturer on film and gender issues. In the 1990s, she conducted a field survey of indigenous theater and traditional culture on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, and researched child prostitution in the newly developed special economic zones of East Asia. The works of Ho Chao-ti was invited to Taiwan International Documentary Festival, Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival, Women Make Waves Film Festival In Taiwan.
Producers Ho Chao-ti, Lin Chien-hsiang
Director Ho Chao-ti
Production coordinator Desuriee Sheng
Cinematography Wang Ying-shun, Li Chien-hsiang, Hsu Kuang-ming,
Editor Wang Ying-shun
Production Manager Lin Ju-wen
Filming Coordinator, Taidong Hsiao Pen-hsiung
Music Chen Guan-yu
Erhu: Shiao Shihwei
Suona: Kwok Chinchye
Electric guitar: Ke Chihhao
Drums, nakashi instrumental: Chung Chengda
Sound mixing Chen Guan-yu, Guanyin Wanghai Studio
Still photography Yun Gyuyeul
Lantern Festival Team
Cinematography Wang Ying-shun, Li Chien-hsiang, Hsu Kuang-ming
Sound Chen Guan-yu, Luo Sung-tse
Lighting Liao Ying-peng, Li Chia-huai, Lai Sze-hao, Peng Kui-hsiang,
Camera assistants Yu Hsin-yi, Yang Meng-huan, Tseng Kuo-feng
Sound assistant Chen Chuan-chung
Driver Chan Ping-chun
Other Works by Ho Chao-ti
Cockroach Confidential (documentary, 2005, DV, 47 min.), directed by Ho Chao- ti. Produced for National Geographic Channel International; broadcast in 27 languages in 163 countries worldwide. Language: English.
How Many Grams? (documentary, 2005, DV, 30 min.), produced and directed by Ho Chao-ti. Produced for the Legal Aid Foundation. Language: Mandarin.
County Road 184 (documentary, 2001, Betacam, 55 min.), directed by Ho Chao-ti. Languages: Mandarin, Hakka, English. Produced for Public Television Service.
Squeezebox on the Road (documentary, 2003, DV, 55 min.), produced and directed by Ho Chao-ti. Languages: Mandarin, English, Czech, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish. Produced for Public Television Service.