Written by Jessie Tu
Literary documentaries are a unique subset of storytelling that can pose many potential difficulties — most obviously, their attempt to take a purely theatre-of-the-mind discipline onto the big screen. How can the visual and auditory sensibilities of filmmaking evoke the wondrous and vast psyche of the characters her father created on the page?
The biographical documentary of a leading literary figure might ease the pressure — have a select group of people talk about how the said literary figure’s works influenced them and their craft.
The subject of Chu Tien-Wen’s latest documentary, Unfulfilled Dreams (2020) is her own father, the immensely prolific author Chu Hsi-Ning, and his work and marriage to his wife, Liu Mu-Sha, an extremely prodigious writer in her own right, and a translator of Japanese texts.
Despite publishing more than thirty books in his lifetime, Chu Tien-Wen’s own life is enough source for its own story — at twenty-three, he escaped Nanjing in 1949 in the Chinese Civil War and arrived in Taiwan on the last Sunday of April 1949.
He began writing letters to Liu Mu-Sha, finding a communion with a spirited intellectual and thinker.
Chu Hsi-Ning’s eldest daughter, Chu Tien-Wen, a renowned novelist herself, leads the storytelling in this 155-minute film, gathering her two sisters in a room and reading aloud their parent’s letters to each other.
“Literature is for the continuation of life, the eternal home of the soul,” Chu Hsi-Ning wrote to his future wife in his first letter to her.
“It expands space, extends time. The sound of my soul will still tremble in the souls of millions of reads.”
We watch as one generation retells the story of the previous generation. It is the act of love, of self-knowledge. Writers know they owe everything to their parents — everything comes back to childhood. Everything is an inward gesture toward looking at your own upbringing.
When do we begin to understand our parents? Perhaps this is the same question as when are we ready to look clearly and fully at ourselves?
Chu Tien-Wen carries old photographs of her parents in their youth, retracing their steps, the places they lived, the homes where they penned their books. Along the way, we hear from prominent academics and novelists, a polyphonic layering of thoughts and affectations drawn from the mind of her parents.
Chu Hsi-Ning’s modernist works are widely read in Taiwan, and spread to China decades ago — his “primitive and unrestrained style” and “random, slapdash language” appealing to younger generations of readers. Throughout the film, we hear snippets of his character’s wandering thoughts, directly from the texts, white text on a black screen, etching itself through time and space.
Chu Hsi-Ning died in 1998. For the last ten years of his life, he worked on The Family history of Hua Taiping, a story concerning his father and grandfather.
For children of writers and artists, we carry that duty on, retelling the stories of those who came before us. That duty is a compulsion too strong to deny. The duty has something to do with truth, I believe — of insisting on the existence of someone important.
In one of Liu Mu-Sha’s letters to her husband, she writes, “Love is not a feeling that lasts forever but friendship is. The pursuit of truth is more important.”
This tender homage to her parents is Chu Tien-Wen’s pursuit of truth, and it comes in the form of a gorgeous cinematic poem.
Unfulfilled Dreams (2020) is steaming on demand from 16-30 September 2021.