Interview: Director Huaug Hsin-yao on ‘The Great Buddha +’ at Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema

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CHICAGO – Season Six is one of the most successful for Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema (APUC), as they present gems from the Asian film world that provide mind and cultural expansion. Recently, as part of their Taiwan Cinema Days, APUC brought in director Huang Hsin-yao of “The Great Buddha +,” a meditation on class, religion and the ever present eye-in-the-sky video of the current era.

“The Great Buddha +” (the “+” sign is a mischievous wink at the film’s beginnings as a short) focuses on a life survivor named Belly Button, who collects recyclables for a living and uses his free time to hang with Pickle, the night guard at a statue factory that specializes in images of the Buddha. The factory CEO is Kevin, who specializes in having sex with as many women as possible. He also has a dash camera in his Mercedes, which Belly Button and Pickle infiltrate to indulge in the footage, but one video tells them more than they wanted to know. In addition, director Huang Hsin-yao narrates the film as it unfolds, another wink of satire in his story structure.

Pickle (Cres Chaung, left) and Belly Button (Bamboo Chen) in ‘The Great Buddha +’
Photo credit:

Season Six of the Asian Pop-Up Cinema features a diverse line-up of films, with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, China, India and Hong Kong all represented for the Spring of 2018, all with English subtitles. Screenings occur at the AMC River East 21 in downtown Chicago, with other various locations for special events and a number of free screenings. APUC is curated by veteran film programmer Sophia Wong Boccio. Upcoming films in the series include…

A VILLAGE DOCTOR’S CHOICE (China) Saturday, April 14, 2018… Directed by Zhou Yu-Pan, this a free screening co-sponsored by the Chicago Chinese Consulate. Click here for details, screening venue and seat reservations.

VILLAGE ROCKSTARS (India) Wednesday, April 18th, 2018… Director Rima Das will appear on behalf of the film. Click here for details. spoke to director Huaug Hsin-yao on themes in “The Great Buddha +,” through an interpreter. You are definitely commenting on human motivations versus religious expectations. What were you ultimately saying about man’s relationship with religion in ‘The Great Buddha +’?

Huaug Hsin-yao: I’m not talking specifically about religion, I’m using the Buddha as a symbol for humans regulating themselves in society. My question in the film is ‘what is the ultimate moral rule?’ There is no expectation for wrongdoing from religion, what becomes wrong is the human relationships and human interactions. The names of the lower class characters… Belly Button, Pickle, Sugar Apple, Peanut are meant to give them less status, while the authority characters all have full names. What were you trying to get the audience to understand in naming characters this way?

Huaug Hsin-yao: Those were characters nicknames, which were based on what their occupations were, and made them easier to ignore as human beings. But if you take the nickname Pickle, you can choose to have a pickle with a meal or not, it’s just a side item. But if you do have it, it does change the taste or of the meal. A ‘belly button’ is not a useful body part, except when we’re in the womb…. during that time it is our vital life connection. In that way, the nicknames meant something.

Human Sin-sation in ‘The Great Buddha +’
Photo credit: Sex is a motivating theme in the film, both for Kevin and Belly Button. Who has a healthier attitude toward sex between those two characters, and why?

Huaug Hsin-yao: When it comes to sex, I have no judgement on what is a ‘healthy attitude.’ [laughs] Sex is necessary for life, but the character of Kevin overdoes it, and it just becomes an expression of exploitation, wealth and power. With Belly Button and Pickle, their voyeuristic tendencies make sex very narrow for them… it only exists in pornography and their imaginations. The black and white cinematography is gorgeous. What adjustments did producer/cinematographer Chung Mong-Hong make to the digital platform to create your vision, and what black&white films did you study to get your particular look?

Huaug Hsin-yao: The film was shot in color, and was adjusted afterward, but while I was on the set, the playback monitor was only in black and white. I didn’t have a specific set of films as influence, but I do respect the work of Bela Tarr, a Hungarian director known for ‘Werchmeister Harmoniak.’ So what was behind the decision in the use of color in the film, as to where you used it?

Huaug Hsin-yao: The short film version of this film, ‘The Great Buddha,’ was underfunded, so the use of black and white was a way to make it more realistic… the settings we were using didn’t look authentic in color. When I extended the film to feature length, I knew I wanted to keep the black and white, but the challenge was how to use the color in the film.

That’s why the dash cam footage is in color, it became something that was mysterious, and that was what Chung Mong-Hong brought to the table. Black and white was the authentic life, and the voyeuristic footage of the dash cam that Pickle and Belly Button were watching became the fantasy.

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