Inspired by real events, Lou Yi-an’s Goddamned Asura is one of the most haunting and thought-provoking of this year’s Oscar submissions for Best International Feature Film. It depicts the events surrounding a random killing incident which entangles a web of interconnected characters. Awards Radar recently caught up with Lou Yi-an to discuss the film’s themes and his approach to exploring goodness through violence. Below is an edited version of that conversation.
Shane Slater: What inspired this film?
Lou Yi-an: Many years ago, there was a real, random killing attack in Taiwan in 2014. So that was a pretty shocking event in Taiwan back then. And there was a series of news articles that were talking about random killings and killers in these incidents. Surrounding that incident was the topic of whether to abolish death penalty in Taiwan. It was a pretty hot topic that people were talking about. And I was thinking about the question, “Who really deserves to die?” And I wondered, “Whose sin is so big that it couldn’t be forgiven?” So I came up with this story about the demons in the eyes of the media. Maybe they have some unknown sides to them that may be pure, but people just don’t know about.
SS: The film follows numerous interconnected characters. Was it always conceived that way? Are they inspired by real people?
LY: I designed their stories to be connected in the first place. I wanted the six characters, including the perpetrator, the victim, the families and friends of the perpetrator and the victim, and also a witness to their lives to to be intertwined together. They originally don’t know each other, but because of this incident, their stories starts to intertwine together. And I also wanted to bring different characters from different classes of the society to use different perspective to see the same incident. And I think through that, I can see different sides of the society that way.
I think all the characters are based partially at least, on either myself or people surrounding me. For example, I used to study advertising back in college and that’s partially why I designed the character Vita to be working in the advertising industry. Also, there’s a character who’s a journalist. That was also based on some journalists that we know and in fact, this film was inspired by the news articles by a journalist actually. All these personalities partially comes from that. When it comes to Linlin, I also went to a bad school like she does. So a lot of my friends surrounding me during that time, some of them sell drugs as well. So yeah, a lot of them characters are based on my experience and maybe experiences with people surrounding me.
SS: The decision to open the film with the cell phone footage of the attack was so striking. Was there any special meaning behind it?
LY: I decided to open with that footage very early on when I was writing the script. I wanted to just use something that’s cool and very realistic. I want to communicate with the audience very directly in the first place what is going to happen in the film. But if you remember, the first line I put into the film was “I had a dream.” So after the phone footage, we see the character waking up and saying I had a dream. So I was trying to hint that maybe it’s just a dream and also hint about the inner side of the character that’s maybe a little violent. And some of his anger and his temper that’s within him. I also want to just let the audience be a little unsure about who did that and did that really happen.
SS: The film explores fate and choice. But I found it interesting that even in the alternate storylines there is still violence, like it’s inevitable. What was the message you were trying to convey?
LY: I think before I developed the idea of putting a what if scenario into my script, I was trying very hard to prove that a character like this who commits such a crime also has a lot of different possibilities. But I couldn’t do that when I was trying to write the script because I think he did what he did. And I just couldn’t find a way to prove that he can also be pure or be good. But after I came up with the idea of putting a what if scenario in the film, I actually was able to use different contexts to show that the character also has some unknown sides that can be pure and good. And if we look at the victim in the alternate ending, we see that he is actually just a civil servant but he can also be evil or violent.
So how do we really judge people by what they do? Are they just simply demons? Can we just judge them based on what they do? And do they really deserve to die because of that? Because like we can see for the civil servant, he doesn’t do a lot of bad things in the first story, right? He was just good, working and doing his job there. But he becomes a killer in the alternative ending.
You mentioned violence, but I actually think through violence, I can prove that people can be good. I think through the story I put in the film, the distinction between good and evil becomes blurry because of that. And I hope that people can use a more tolerant point of view to see people and to judge people. And to think about the question of whether they really deserve to die.
SS: On the topic of the death penalty, what has been the audience response to the film in this regard? Do you get a sense that the film changed people’s minds?
LY: Our team didn’t talk too forcefully on this topic back in Taiwan, because of all the controversies. But also because I want to bring the focus of the film back to the essential nature of humans. Like I said, I was trying to talk about forgiveness and who really deserves to die. And I really just wanted to restore people after what they do. Restore them back from demons or gods, back to humans.
SS: Congratulations on the film being selected to represent Taiwan for the Oscars. I’ve noticed the recent Taiwanese submissions have all explored complicated relationships between parents and children. Is it just a coincidence or is it a common topic in Taiwan right now?
LY: I think the way of education in Taiwan families are comparatively more authoritative. And I think the storytellers in Taiwan must have seen that and put that in the stories. But I think that is changing in the society. But I also want to say that I didn’t want to focus too much on the parenting or family relations in the film. Just like I didn’t want to make the comments that it’s because of his father that he commits the crime. I didn’t want to say that and comment on that. I just see this kind of universal phenomenon in Taiwan and put it as a background and setting in my film.
SS: Can you tell us anything about future projects you are working on?
LY: I am actually writing the script for my next project right now. It’s a TV series about bartending, actually. The characters will be including the bartender and the customers surrounding this character. And I still want to talk about humanity and just the nature of people. I’m trying to bring people from different classes and with different backgrounds together and kind of show different sides to them when they’re just gathering there to have a drink.