Movie Feature

'Panay' filmmakers Cheng Yu-chieh and Lekal Sumi talk indigenous life, culture and music

By Zaki JufriMovies - 23 November 2015 9:00 AM | Updated 3:08 PM

'Panay' filmmakers Cheng Yu-chieh and Lekal Sumi talk indigenous life, culture and music

An excavator stops midway. In front, a group of people – mostly seniors – gather, arms locked and defiantly ignoring pleas from the policemen to leave the premises.

They’re there to stop government officials from destroying a plot of land – land that has been handed down from generation to generation but via an administrative mishap, it has been repossessed – to be turned into a parking lot. 

The villagers’ cries are ignored and one by one, they are forcefully removed from their spot. The damage done.

But that patch of land is not the only one threatened. The entire village’s rice terraces, now abandoned, are in danger of being turned into a seaside resort, and perhaps with it permanently changing the locals way of life and culture.


Rahic Gulas and Dongi Kacaw in 'Panay' | Photo: SGIFF

Though based in Taiwan, filmmakers
Cheng Yu-chieh and Lekal Sumi’s moving drama ‘Panay’, a story of displacement, self-discovery and a culture in crisis can belong anywhere in the world.

“Most of us will resonate with the characters and situations in the film, because such circumstances would definitely have happened around us. So what the audience sees is actually their own stories, and not ours,” Lekal Sumi told in an interview.

Winner of the audience award at this year’s Taipei Film Festival, ‘Panay’ follows an aboriginal family in Taiwan and their bid to save their land from modern development. The movie is the opening film at this year’s Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) on 26 November 2015.

MORE: Taiwanese film 'Panay' to open SGIFF 2015

Golden Bell Award winner Bokeh Kosang in 'Panay' | Photo: SGIFF

“It’s a heartwarming film and yet at the same time, you will feel anger at the injustices that’s being done. The film’s message of fighting for what you believe in is one the reason why we chose it to open the festival,” said SGIFF festival director Zhang Wenjie.

The film begins with the titular Panay, played by aboriginal singer and TV host Ado Kaliting Pacidal, returning home to her community in Hualien County. Like most villagers, Panay works in Taipei, leaving her daughter Nakaw (Dongi Kacaw) and son Sera (Rahic Gulas) in the care of her father, played Kaco Lekal. 

Her father’s recently diagnosed cancer, however, forces Panay to rethink her priorities. She quits her job as a journalist and moves back to the village to care for her family. But she soon finds out that her home is not what it used to be.

The movie is in fact an adaptation of a documentary co-director Lekal Sumi made in 2012 when he returned to Hualien to reconnect with his aboriginal roots after military service. In a way his story is told through Panay, who also returns home to rediscover herself. After watching Lekal Sumi’s documentary, Cheng suggested that they adapt it into a feature film. 

The movie also stars Golden Bell Award winner Bokeh Kosang. For authenticity, the rest of the cast was selected from from open audition and non-actors from the Pangcah tribe, the community the film is based on.


Ado Kaliting Pacidal and Dongi Kacaw in 'Panay' | Photo: SGIFF

“Taiwanese society, by and large, does not have a good understanding of the life and culture of the aboriginal communities, and have prejudiced stereotypes of them. We hope that more can learn about the life and situation of these communities through this film, and at the same time, instil a sense of pride in the children from these communities,” co-director Cheng said.

The film took them a year to complete and according to the filmmakers, their biggest challenge was getting the crew to fully understand the people they’re filming.

The focus is about a community that is new to most. If everyone is able to establish an emotional connection with the subject, there will be richer and more accurate portrayals during filming – even if it is simply grass or wood,” Lekal Sumi explained.

A sense of realism pervades throughout the movie as the directors tackle the complex issues facing Taiwan’s aboriginal communities. Even the aboriginal cast-members faced the same real-life predicaments as their characters.

There were many times when governing bodies used their authority to suppress aboriginal communities – not allowing them to speak their own language, to use their traditional names and putting them in the frontlines. Throughout history, force and power were used against these communities to take over their land,” Cheng said.


Filmmakers Lekal Sumi and Cheng Yu-chieh | Photos: SGIFF

Aboriginal Taiwanese folk songs permeate and it plays a big part in the movie. Aboriginal music has long been recognised as one of Taiwan’s cultural treasures, especially after ‘The Elders’ Drinking Song’ , a traditional aboriginal song, was sampled by German music group Enigma for its hit ‘Return to Innocence’ in the mid-1990s. 

“Music is very common in the daily lives of aboriginals. In the early days, aboriginals didn't use written words. Hence, many historical and cultural stories are passed on through songs,” Lekal Sumi explained. Award-winning indigenous singer-songwriter Suming Rupi produced the film’s soundtrack. 

“I truly hope that the world will gain a better understanding of Taiwan’s aboriginal culture and music through this film.”

‘Panay’ opens SGIFF on 26 November 2015 | Marina Bay Sands | Tickets: $25 from Sistic

26th Singapore International Film Festival (Opening Film and Special Presentation Films)

26th Singapore International Film Festival (Opening Film and Special Presentation Films)

Date Nov 26, 2015 - Dec 04, 2015

VenueMarina Bay Sands - Grand Theatre

Ticket PriceS$15.00 - S$25.00
 (excludes booking fee)