One day near the end of 2000, my wife suggested we go and see a drumming performance by a group from Taiwan. The style is traditional Chinese, using the big red drums. Drumming, I thought, who doesn’t like to watch and listen to drumming? I said yes immediately. At the performance, I saw something more than drumming, as did the entire of the audience, I’m sure. The special something was the drummers themselves. During the performance, they didn’t say one single word yet I felt as if they had spoken tons to me. The act of drumming was the tip of the iceberg of their art. It was apparent that they were more than musicians. I was mesmerized, hypnotized, pulverized, as was the majority of the audience, as they all stayed for the Question and Answer session afterwards. It was their commitment and concentration that affected us in the audience. I soon learned that their pure, unadorned performance was the result of years of training on a mountaintop, in the discipline of drumming, meditation and martial arts.
A week later, I found myself visiting the drummers of U Theatre on their mountain on the outskirts of Taipei. They didn’t know who I was or what I wanted but were kind enough to meet with me. It was cold and misty when I arrived on the mountain. They were practicing Tai chi in Chinese monkish outfits. The sight was amazing. It was like visiting the Shaolin Temple or stepping into ancient China.
They were generous in their reception when I proposed to them the idea of making a film of and about them. “A documentary?” they asked. “No,” I said, “a feature film, featuring all the drummers.” Ms. Liu Ruo-yu, the founder and Artistic Director of the theatre group offered herself and her group to me as research subjects. I asked them about their daily routines, their own personal motivations and their trials of tribulations of being in this extraordinary group. What emerged from my months of research was a touching, mythical yet real-life martial arts story. For instance, there was no electricity on the mountain and they took turns cooking everyday. When they built their wooden structures on the peak they had to carry the lumber up the mountain themselves. In doing so, their bodies and minds were exposed to more than pure training for their arts. They were forming character.
I set about creating a fictional story. To contrast their somewhat traditional Chinese ways, I created a story about a corrupt cop from Hong Kong in his thirties, breaking down emotionally and morally, who gets rescued by the drum troupe. In the end, they save not only his life but also his soul. The screenplay was good but upon reflection, a man in his thirties going through major transformations and reevaluation of his life is a common occurrence. It happens everyday. It lacked the difficulty of a person changing his life when he is not due to change.
I threw out the screenplay and shifted the protagonist’s age to early twenties and to contrast the drummers even more, I decided to set the young man in the world of the triads. In the end, the story revolves around a rebellious and angry young man from Hong Kong who meets this group of Zen drummers in Taiwan. In the process, everything that he knew is thrown into question when he is surrounded by this austere group of drummers. The process is a realistic existential quest for the self.
Like the Zen master who strikes his students with a soft stick on the head to clear their heads, the striking of a drum and its reverberation can metaphorically and literally wake up a person’s soul.
The next big challenge was to assemble a group of amazing actors to complement the drummers in the film. Please check back in October for blogs on the pre-production process of “The Drummer.”