2020 / January
Lynn Su /photos courtesy of SELF PICK /tr. by Scott Williams
Jack Hsu is always busy.
Still just 28 years old, with hair combed back on top and cut short on the sides, a pair of round, Hsu-Chih-mo-style glasses on his nose, he doesn’t carry himself in the tentative way of so many people of his age. He has a quick mind, a well-developed perspective on film, philosophy, and society, and a manner that suggests a maturity beyond his years.
Hsu resolved to become a film director at age 15, and immediately began working methodically towards that end. He enrolled in the Department of Radio and Television at National Taiwan University of Arts at 18, and founded his own production company at 23. That company, SELF PICK, has since generated more than a million views for its online dramas Mr. Bartender and The Bar.
Last year was especially significant for Hsu in that it marked the release of his first feature film, The Last Thieves. The movie also happened to be Taiwan’s first to take corporate warfare involving blockchain technology as its subject. Released in October 2019, the film earned Hsu the professional recognition that he had been working towards, including a Best New Director nomination from the 56th Golden Horse Awards.
Having achieved some degree of renown, Hsu talks to us about his dream and the bumpy road he has been treading to bring it to fruition.
He says his ultimate goal is to create an “immersive entertainment” world on the scale of Disney or Universal Studios, one that combines the real and the fictional into a complete sensory experience.
But when he first started his company and applied for a Ministry of Culture grant, his application was rejected for pursuing “too big a dream.”
Still committed to his goal, he attempted to film the web drama Mr. Bartender using what turned out to be a failed effort at crowdfunding.
Undeterred, he completed Mr. Bartender using money he made from other projects. Following the end of filming, he also chose to retain the set, which he continues to operate as a real-world bar.
“I’ve been following the path of my dream for a long time,” wrote Hsu in the introduction to his crowdfunding campaign for The Last Thieves. Getting here hasn’t been easy.”
The NT$50 million film divided critics, and sold few tickets during its short ten-day run in Taipei theaters.
But Hsu’s dream, daring and passion moved many people. A group of enthusiastic young netizens even started a “hundred watch-throughs” challenge to show their support for the director’s vision.
Though not a commercial success, the film has sparked a fire in many viewers’ hearts.
An indestructible love
People who have seen The Last Thieves know that the film interrogates issues surrounding capitalism, economic systems and power games.
Hsu, who cares deeply about his country and its people, speaks through his characters in a way that recalls a line from a Luo Chi-cheng poem: “I couldn’t bear to let the world defeat / The love in my heart.”
Hsu says he loves Taiwan and can’t bring himself to leave in spite of great opportunities to pursue his career abroad. His love keeps him here, while also creating expectations of Taiwan.
“Ultimately, this love and this inability to leave have given rise to disappointment. That’s why I’m trying to get people’s attention.”
He adds that the dialogue in the original script was even more biting, but says that the two executive producers dialed it back during their edits. “If we’d shot it as it was originally written, I may well have been labeled an ‘angry youth,’” jokes Hsu.
Taiwan’s first “business war” movie
Hsu and his film’s protagonist, Yin Tzu-hsiang, are birds of a feather.
Yin is a young entrepreneur facing an imperfect world. He wants to use a second-generation virtual currency to overturn an inflexible system and create a decentralized world.
Most of Taiwan’s filmmakers follow a well-worn path to getting their films made: they apply to the government for one of its few grants, and then, with this money in hand, seek out other investors. Their relative lack of funding limits their movie-making to art-house fare, a choice that is reinforced by the fact that art-house movies win awards, which makes the government look good.
“But how can the industry survive without business and capital flows?” Though Hsu isn’t quite as ambitious as his protagonist, he does want to transform the Taiwanese film industry in which he has vowed to spend his career.
With that in mind, he tried something new while working on the preproduction for The Last Thieves: issuing a cryptocurrency called SELF and using it to raise funds for the film.
The approach enabled the filmmakers to attract a different kind of investor, while also deepening the connection between the film and its audience, opening up new marketing opportunities, and providing the film industry with a chance to change.
The initiative meant that The Last Thieves was not only the first Taiwanese movie to take blockchain technology as its subject, but also the first to actually use the tech for fundraising. It was as if the film’s script shaped reality.
A world of shared experiences
Our interview with Hsu takes place at SELF Oasis, a bar on Taipei’s Rui’an Street.
It is just one of Hsu’s ventures, which include three companies and two bars.
But his goal with the bar isn’t simply the achievement of his ambitions. It’s also about fulfilling a promise to film lovers.
Sharp-eyed fans of The Last Thieves will immediately spot the S-shaped artwork in a corner of the bar: it was an important prop in the movie.
SELF, Hsu’s other bar, will also be familiar to fans of the film: protagonists Yin Tzu-hsiang (Yen Tsao) and Hsu Ching (Megan Lai) performed many of their scenes together inside its walls.
Hsu never intended to start up companies aimed at making a single movie. His every work, company and bar fits into a larger blueprint.
Under the industry’s usual business model, once a company finishes making a film, it is dissolved. At most, the company continues to manage the film’s rights. “If the producers of Cape No. 7 had planned for it, they could have used the film’s sets for music festivals after the movie’s theatrical run. If you properly establish the [production] company’s direction, strategy and target audience, you can keep many things running after the film is complete.”
It’s not like this is a new idea. Studios such as Disney and Universal do much the same thing. They first make an original film, then create all kinds of spinoff products and sensory experiences connected to the film. Each of these elements reinforces the others and creates revenue streams for the company. Meanwhile, real-estate and other investments turn it into a complete business ecosystem. But no one in Taiwan has pursued this model.
The companies in Taiwan’s film industry don’t have the financial resources to do this all at once, but they may be able to unlock the future by making effective use of the Internet and cryptocurrencies.
Using the blockchain for crowdfunding isn’t difficult. Hsu says: “Basically, I wrote up an agreement and put it on the chain. It said, ‘I want to work with you all to create an immersive entertainment ecosystem with a market value of US$100 million.’”
Hsu issued SELF through one of his companies, enticing like-minded people to buy the cryptocurrency to fund the film, and then began working towards fulfilling his commitment. He has been building the venture step by step ever since, finding ways to use box-office receipts, filming locations and rights to create a corporate ecosystem that will be worth more than US$100 million in the future.
Each link in this business chain connects to the next. As Hsu explains it, the process begins with the original story, which is broadened and expanded by its translation to film. He sees The Last Thieves as the first film of a trilogy, each film of which can be enjoyed individually or in relation to the others. Meanwhile, his conversion of filming locations into businesses creates a sort of deconstructed urban multiplex that moviegoers can “tour” and interact with, transforming them from viewers into consumers.
Many people have told Hsu that he’s too ambitious, that what he hopes to achieve is too difficult. But for all that he admits that he’s under pressure, he’s never considered giving up.
“If you think something is right and feasible, then do it! Otherwise, what are you living for?” asks Hsu. “Everything that lives is going to die. Do you want to sit around waiting to die, or throw yourself into living?”
Progress may be difficult, but we’re duty-bound not to give up. To that point, the film quotes Voltaire:
“Man is made for action, just as fire rises and stones fall. For a man, not acting is the same as not existing.”
文‧蘇俐穎 圖‧SELF PICK
15歲立志成為電影導演，為了圓夢，他的每一階段都步步為營。18歲進入台藝大廣電系就讀，23歲創業成立製片公司SELF PICK，拍攝網路短劇《Mr. Bartender》、《私室》，累積超過百萬點擊率。