By Trista di Genova
Exclusive to The Wild East
Pongfong spraypaints a wall at Radio Banciao, leaving his mark. Photo: TdG
Pongfong Wu (吳朋奉) is a complex character to describe. Professionally, he’s an experienced stage and TV actor who describes himself as “something like a performance coach. I train many people who want to do art things,” including acting and voice coaching.
But personally, Pongfong’s most outstanding quality is his “extreme Taiwaneseness.” This is a man who raises the stakes on the traditional definition of “taike” — the “too Taiwanese” nomenclature that translates roughly to flip-flop-wearing farmer who graduates to Mercedes owner.
A Banciao native, Pongfong is a true Taiwanese — the guy who will show up on your doorstep in the middle of the night, wielding bootleg rice liquor and Taiwan whiskey (“I buy only Taiwan things,” he says), and who is most likely to revel all night long, like a true Taiwanese, singing old worker songs animatedly until the police come.
Pongfong models some Taiwan beer at a Treasure Hill art opening in Taipei. Photo: TdG
From childhood he’s been steeped in Taiwan’s Taoist-Buddhist temple customs, countryside folklore and “street theatre for the gods.”
“I can teach you very old Taiwanese songs. Not for business, but for love,” he says. “I didn’t study performance in school, no drama class. I go to learn in the countryside, something they would dance. Or the temple. I’d go to learn with these people — folk dancing, puppet shows.” And with deep-bodied voice, he slips into a Taoist incantation, that translates:
A drop of water
from the sky
God put these drops
into the land
This drop will
health and peacefulness
“I think Taiwan doesn’t have this problem: We don’t reject another religion. This is very noble. The problem is very political — you’re from China, I’m Taiwanese. 2-28 (Feb. 28 Incident); I think this affected us a lot.”
“It’s really crazy, they fight like brothers,” he says of tensions between “new” and “old” Taiwanese immigrants — those who have been here for generations, and the “waishangren,” (“outside the province), those who came when Chiang Kai-shek fled here with his armies in 1949.
Pongfong’s also written many scripts for plays and comedies in Taiwanese, or Hoklo language, for FM98.5 New Formosa Island Radio, the local stage — the famed Red Theatre in Taipei’s Hsimen District and others — “with dance, a little magic, big gay clothes.”
“But it’s true, I am a theatre person,” he insists. “I’m from the theater, where movements are bigger, more motion, you have to concentrate more. It’s not like acting. You don’t need to do that for the camera — it’s too much. I always say, ‘You don’t act, you do nothing.’ It’s like not acting.”
However, “I hate this job,” he says. “It’s a grind. I prefer to act. Also, I can do directing.” He insists he’s “a cooker” — a concepteur, an ideas person who puts together theater shows and shows everybody how it can be done.
He directed his first of two films at age 18, and was asked to do more film acting. Since then, he’s played in ten or more other Australian, Hong Kong and American films, such as Columbia Pictures’ “Double Vision.”
Lately, Pongfong’s been extremely busy. He spent the summer in France with the world-famous Guignolles. “My arms are really broken, because these [traditional Taiwanese] puppets are like a bottle of red wine. You can see the puppet and player, so I had to dance also,” he says of the experience.
Recently, he worked with the Taipei Arts Festival and has been acting in TV dramas. He won two Golden Bell awards this year– best actor and best male supporting role in a TV drama for his work in “Mu mian de ying.”
Pongfong picks up two Golden Bell awards this year for his roles in TV drama.
He also won a fair bit of international notoriety recently after playing the comedic character of a scooter mechanic shopowner and “the triplets’ boss” — in the made-in-Taiwan smash hit “Cape No. 7.”
“The movie, I watch it. I feel it’s so-so,” he says candidly of “Cape No. 7,” — the most successful Taiwan-made film, ever. “But we must talk about why people love this film so much in Taiwan. Now, because there are really big problems, with the economy and politics, everybody goes to hide in the theater, to escape,” he says. “In a bad economy, people always go to see movies. With all this bad news, only this film is a good thing.”
“You can say it’s a Taiwan movie,” he adds, “southern, southeast Taiwanese culture.”
Politics have greatly influenced modern Taiwan films, he claims. “It’s really crazy, they fight like brothers,” he says of tensions between “new” and “old” Taiwanese immigrants. “In the 1970s, the government gave money toward this [localized Taiwan films], and this time it’s come back. With the DPP, they would support Taiwanese (language) films; but with the KMT [Kuomintang], now you must speak Chinese in your film. ‘You, you, you, you don’t speak Chinese,'” he mimed.
And as for Taiwan’s attempt to establish a localized culture and literature, “I feel the education is a problem; the brainwashing sucks,” he says of growing up in Taiwan. “For Taiwan people, especially young people, it’s very easy to forget our history. ‘Wild history’ [folklore based loosely on history] — we’re not allowed to read about that in class. It’s self-controlling; the teachers’ brain is empty and they don’t know how to teach our children about how to take care of the land, and about our future.”