2023.10.27 [Event Reports]
How to Turn Off Your Sympathy


©2023 TIFF

Writer-director Hsiao Ya-chuan and actors Bai Run-yin, Liu Kuan-ting and Eugenie Liu fielded questions from a packed audience on October 27 following the world premiere of their family social drama, Old Fox, playing in the World Focus/Taiwan Renaissance 2023 section of the 36th Tokyo International Film Festival.
Hsiao told the audience that he “wanted to make a movie about what it means to be concerned with the feelings of others over one’s own.” To that end, the director and crew paid meticulous attention to the film’s period setting, aiming to “create a world” in late ’80s Taiwan that reflected a pivotal moment between the country’s developing status and today’s developed economy.
In the fall of 1989, 11-year-old Liao Jie (Bai Run-yin) lives in a rundown flat with his father (Liu Kuan-Ting), who works at a restaurant to support them. Both father and son dream of buying their own place and opening up a hair salon, but they are priced out of a growing economy. Others in the local community turn to the stock market, while Liao Jie befriends his landlord, Boss Xie, nicknamed Old Fox (Akio Chen).
Xie proceeds to teach Jie values very different from those of his father. When struck with a moment of compassion for a stranger, the Old Fox instructs his budding protégé to tell himself: “None of my damn business!” As Liao Jie tries to emulate the calculating Old Fox, he grows increasingly annoyed with his earnest but average father.
Liu and Bai create an intimate father-son dynamic in the film, and Hsiao told the TIFF audience that he chose them both for their versatility. Hsiao had worked with Liu on a short film in the past and praised the actor for his ability to play “all kinds of characters, from scary to weak people.” While the character of Liao Jie’s father was originally written for a more mature actor, Hsiao was convinced that Liu—who has played single fathers twice in the past—could take on the role’s gravitas.
Bai, who is technically Liu’s sempai despite his young age, is known in Taiwan as a child acting genius. Hsiao said that the film was fortunate to have him in such a complex role. “Those who are moved by the film owe it to his performance,” said the director.
Both actors discussed how they were able to assume their roles. Liu said that the flat itself felt so natural that it didn’t take much work to get into character once he walked onto the set. His character, moreover, is someone who’s more concerned with the feelings of others than with his own, which also allowed him to readily take on the role of a father concerned for the well-being of his son.
Both Bai and Liu tried to imagine how characters growing up in the late ’80s or early ’90s would feel. They read lots of novels, turned off their cellphones, and even avoided certain foods to get into the setting and period. To stave off boredom, Bai even went analog: “I played a lot with a Rubik’s Cube.”
His skill with the toy was so masterly that he apparently made pupils out of the rest of the staff. Eugenie Liu, who played the role of Boss Xie’s secretary, joked: “I wish I could have been Bai’s secretary instead.”
All four of Hsiao’s films, including Old Fox, were produced by legendary director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, whose retirement was officially announced by his family just days before the film’s premiere. Hou’s family revealed to the media that he has been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Hsiao said that the Taiwanese auteur always checked his scripts and the edits for all of his films. But he was also repeatedly scolded by his “scary” master. “When I know his name will be in the credits,” joked Hsiao, “I know that I can’t do anything weird.”
Turning serious, Hsiao reflected on Hou’s significance to his career. “He’s a very important person to me,” he said. “He didn’t just teach me about filmmaking, but about how to live.”
Q&A Session: World Focus Taiwan Cinema Renaissance 2023
Old Fox
Guest: Hsiao Ya-chuan (Director/Screenplay), Liu Kuan-Ting (Actor), Bai Run-yin (Actor), Eugenie Liu (Actor)

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