Bullets ring out in a crowded night market in Taiwan’s capital Taipei, hitting random strangers. As shoppers flee, a journalist tackles the shooter, bringing him down.
The aftermath of the incident, played out from various viewpoints, exposes deep fault lines in Taiwanese society.
“I decided to depict a random killing after reading news articles about a similar occurrence in 2014,” says Lou Yi-an, director and co-writer of Goddamned Asura, which has been selected as Taiwan’s submission for the best international feature category at the 2023 Academy Awards.
“People debating the death penalty called the perpetrator a demon, which made me uncomfortable. What kind of person deserves to die because of a crime he committed? I wanted to explore the real person behind that debate.”
Goddamned Asura is Lou’s third feature, after A Place of One’s Own (2009) and White Lies, Black Lies (2016).
Lou tells the story from several viewpoints: A workaholic media manager, a manga artist, a gaming-obsessed clerk, a struggling student living in subsidised housing. Each one is depicted with unusual insight and sympathy.
“It’s funny you bring that up,” Lou laughs in response to my description, “because some people say I am not very good to my characters, I don’t really like them, I hate them – things like that.
“So let me say that I used my own background and personality to build them. I want to show that everyone has a dark side, including me.
“I realise that I make excuses for myself, for my behaviour, and that’s what I do with my characters as well.
“They come from different classes, and they all have their own flaws and deficiencies. I try to find the reasons for their actions. I’m asking if their sins are too big to be forgiven.”
Lou splits the film into chapters that replay the shooting from different angles – and with different outcomes. That idea of incorporating “what if?” scenarios came to him late in the writing process.
“I was trying to show how Jan-wen, the shooter, could be innocent,” he says of the character played by Joseph Huang Sheng-qiu, “but I couldn’t make it work without changing what he did. So I let the six main characters redo their stories in different ways.”
No matter what the scenario, life is still cruel in Goddamned Asura. Linlin (Wang Yu-xuan, who won best supporting actress at the 2021 Golden Horse Awards for this role) could be a brilliant mathematician, but she is held back by her poverty.
“I wanted to tell the audience that it’s just not that easy for a girl from the bottom of society,” Lou says. “It’s hard for her to make changes, to have a different life.”
Lou admits that his past films were dark, and that he tried to give his characters here more possibilities.
But at the same time, he makes their situation like that of Sisyphus from the Greek myth, who in the underworld is forced to push a boulder up a hill for all eternity, only to have it roll back down as he nears the top.
“The harder my characters want to climb uphill, the harder I want to pull them down. We all do things in life over and over again, even though they never work.”
Lou says the night market was the hardest location to film. Only for an hour before midnight, when the market shut, were there few enough people to control the scene. After midnight, with the stalls closed, the market looked too empty.
To make matters even more complicated, Lou had to film several versions of the shooting, working in bits and pieces, choreographing actors and extras for each separate take.
“The rest of the scenes were much simpler,” he says.
Lou doesn’t like doing rehearsals because he doesn’t want his performers following the script too closely. Occasionally he adjusts scenes by adding lines of dialogue, depending on how actors react to each other.
“The way I work with actors is pretty relaxed,” he says. “There’s no set way of doing things. We will talk about what they feel on set, and they perform in the way so that they’re comfortable.”
An especially powerful scene takes place in prison between Jan-wen and his mother, played by actress Ding Ning. As she begs her son to accept a plea bargain, Lou has the camera push in slowly on the performers.
“In that scene, they were reacting to each other in ways that weren’t in the script,” Lou says.
“They would suddenly be silent and look down. Those silences disrupted the tempo I wanted to use to establish their emotions, but what they did was actually more interesting.
“That’s not something you can just rehearse and get. I think it’s important for actors to really live in the moment. [Ding’s] reactions were very organic.
“She gave a perfect performance every time I said ‘action’. Ding is a mother herself, so I didn’t need to do anything to shape her emotions on set.”
In another scene, Linlin’s mother throws a bottle at her during a fight. At first, Lou wanted Wang’s reaction to be an angry one.
“But she had a different interpretation. She responded coolly, she just stopped and stared at her mother, tears in her eyes. I thought she was amazing.
“Her take was actually richer than what’s in the script. I really love it when actors give me things like that.”
The “Asura” in the title of the film comes from a character in an online game that the characters play.
“Asura is a Hindu god who represents anger and violence,” Lou says. “You know, my original title was ‘Starting Over’, which my producer and I both agreed was missing something.”
In Lou’s eyes, the six main characters in Goddamned Asura make up a cross-section of Taiwanese society. “They represent different colours, and they all come together to form a kind of kaleidoscopic image.”
As for Jan-Wen, the shooter? What does he represent?
“I wanted to show the audience that he’s just a kid,” Lou says.
“He happened to take a divergent path. I sometimes think if I made other choices when I was 18, I would be a totally different person now. Then I wonder which one is the real me.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.