Li Shiyong, PhD student, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University
Wang Wenxing’s Family Catastrophe (1973) and the two-volume Backed Against the Sea (the volumes were published separately, the first in 1981 and the second in 1999) are classics of Taiwanese postwar modernist literature. Wang’s innovative literary language has been called “recondite” – the writer’s interrogation of traditional ethics in Family Catastrophe, the protagonist’s self-created existential landscape in Backed Against the Sea, and even the Wang’s styles of writing and living have both puzzled and intrigued readers.
The Man Behind the Book (2007), directed by Lin Jingjie (The Most Distant Course), is one of six releases in the first “The Inspired Island: Eminent Writers of Taiwan” series. The documentary looks at writer Wang Wenxing’s life and times. With “searching” as its theme, the film employs a “suspense” format, dividing the narrative into twenty-one “clues,” beginning with “Library” and ending with “Behind the Bedroom Door.” Scholars Li Oufan, Ke Qingming, and Ye Weilian, writers, and friends provide both clues and answers. Thus the film searches for “signs” of the writer, each clue introducing a particular aspect of Wang’s life: Born in China’s Fujian province in 1939, Wang came with his family to Taiwan in 1946; in 1948 he lived in Jizhou Temple, on Taipei’s Tongan Street; he began writing as a student in National Taiwan University’s Department of Foreign Languages and Literature, founding Modern Literature Magazine with fellow writer Bai Xianyong (Pai Hsien-yung); after performing military service he traveled to the US, where earned a master’s degree at the University of Iowa; he returned to Taiwan in 1965, and taught at his alma mater until he retired in 2005.
Lin Jingjie has discussed the difficulties encountered when he began to film –the writer’s life, it seemed, was too quiet and uneventful. Conversely, when Wang’s novels were published, their format and content sparked a great deal of controversy in Taiwanese literary circles. By conducting interviews, examining manuscripts covered with intricate lines and symbols, and filming Wang Wenxing at work – hunched over his desk as though he were a sculptor with mallet and chisel – The Man behind the Book attempts to capture the writer’s spirit at the moment of creation.
Additionally, the director uses animation, jazz improvisation, footage of the writer reading his work, and a scene from a theatrical adaption of Family Catastrophe to allow viewers to experience the materiality of the language Wang attempts to carve out in the process of literary creation – the linearity, imagery, even the symphonic sound of Chinese characters. The director followed Wang Wenxing for twenty months, filming the writer in a variety of settings – teaching in a classroom, lecturing at a symposium, returning to Suao Township’s Nanfangao in Yilan country, setting for Backed Against the Sea. At film’s end the camera finds him in a Catholic Church, where he is attending Mass, the writer’s pious expression strikingly similar to his work, enigmatic and intriguing.
Documentary Film The Inspired Island: The Man behind the Book Trailer
(Source: Fisfisa Media Co., Ltd.)