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An ex-con’s morals are tested in Malaysian director Sam Quah Boon Lip’s The Free Man.

Inspired by a true story, the Taiwanese crime drama follows A-Jie (Ming-Shuai Shih), a young man on a journey of making amends for his criminal past. Desperate for a fresh cycle in his life, A-Jie begins to work a laundromat under the authority of a tyrant named Tsai-Tzai (Ming-shiou Tsai). At this small establishment, he works alongside Tsai-Tzai’s niece, Hsiao-Chih (Cincin Jao), a young woman with a physical disability, who longs for liberation from her abusive uncle.

Every night A-Jie becomes a witness to his boss’ cruelty towards Hsiao-Chih. And every night is a new test of self-control for A-Jie, who must hold back his need to defend Hisao-Chih at the risk of losing the normal life that he’s so close to obtaining.

At 30 minutes in length, The Free Man is a thrilling story about shame, atonement and freedom, as seen through two strangers who, in spite of polarizing lives, share a common struggle.

The Free Man, which was honoured with the top three prizes at Taiwan’s Golden Bell Awards in 2014 (including best short movie and best director), is the only Asian film, out of 10 finalists, in contention for the Best Live Action Short Film at this year’s Academy Awards.

I spoke with Quah Boon-Lip to talk about the real-life story that inspired The Free Man, the concept of good versus bad, and seeking atonement for past sins.

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ScreenPicks: I understand that The Free Man is loosely based on a true story that happened in Taiwan over twenty years ago. Can you talk about that?

Quah Boon-Lip: “This is a true story about Tang Ying Shen. He left home in the Alishan mountains at the tender age of 18 to earn a living but was unfortunate to have met with an unkind employer who mistreated him. Succumbing to the pressure of being constantly tortured, he lost all senses, killed his employer and was sentenced to death.”

ScreenPicks: And what was it about that story that connected with you and made you want to explore it on the big screen?

Quah Boon-Lip: “I chanced upon this story when I was doing research for a debate competition during my university days and it left an impression, mainly because I could strongly relate to it. Being alone in a foreign land myself, I am blessed to have met the right people who has guided and nurtured me. Being in the same circumstances, Tang Ying Shen was not as fortunate and I truly felt for him, which inspired me to create this film.”

ScreenPicks: The film deals with the themes of freedom, redemption, and morality. A-Jie is a man making amends for his criminal past so that he can earn his freedom, but when he’s placed in a situation like this where another man is abusing a young woman, his morals are tested. And yet as a viewer, you can’t help but root for him to violate his probation and defend her. As evident in this film, why is it hard to label people as simply “good” or “bad”?

Quah Boon-Lip: “In the film, A-Jie, who was scarred by his past, is yet again being forced into a situation where he has to choose. No one will take his word over his boss’ if he reports him and desperately wanting to stay away from any trouble, A-Jie decides to turn a blind eye. However, his conscience does not allow him and so, to save Hsiao-Chih, he took matters into his own hand. Although his actions were cruel and extreme, it was the only way he knows how. I believe that ‘good’ or ‘bad’ cannot be determined by what we see on the surface but rather, to take into consideration the reason and circumstances that entails.”

ScreenPicks: Along with A-Jie, this film is equally about Hsiao-Chih’s own quest for freedom from life with her abusive uncle. Without spoiling the ending, she makes a very bold, life-changing decision. Why was it important for her to make that choice over A-Jie?

Quah Boon-Lip: “Unlike A-Jie, Hsiao-Chih is like a caged bird, being physically challenged and left in an abusive home, her only choice is to face her uncle. A-Jie’s presence serves as a force, giving her strength and courage to take fate into her own hands and make a change. However different, her choice is similar to A-Jie’s, her final action was not for freedom, but because it was the only thing she could do.”

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ScreenPicks: In a way, you could argue that the process of cleaning clothes, which opens the film, is a metaphor for cleansing your sins and starting out fresh. There’s a notable scene where Hsiao-Chih showers away her blood and feelings of shame while still fully clothed. And there’s even a scene where A-Jie is framed like the clothes in a laundry machine. What does this film tell us about shame and second chances?

Quah Boon-Lip: “Everyone must have committed at least one thing they would want to cover up, and although it might have gone unnoticed, the sense of guilt that one feels does not go unnoticed. With their own fare share of guilt or shame, A-Jie and Hsiao-Chih realized that they are not to avoid going round and round like a tumbling washing machine, but rather, they need to face their own demons in order to gain freedom.”

ScreenPicks: Of course, cinema is such a subjective experience. Each person takes away something different from a film. Having screened The Free Man in festivals around the world, what has been some of the most memorable viewer responses that you’ve received?

Quah Boon-Lip: “I have viewers who told me they have managed to read between the lines and understood what I wanted to express through a simple frame or scene, and this has made me very happy. This has given me affirmation that my efforts have managed to bring this film to a higher level and bring meaning to the viewers who watched it.”

ScreenPicks: I want to talk about your influences as a filmmaker. Growing up, what were the films or filmmakers that first inspired you to pursue filmmaking? And are there any current directors whose work you admire?

Quah Boon-Lip: “My favorite is Mr. Ang Lee. The acuity of his characterization on humanity and views towards current social issues are something I strongly admire, and is a role model of who I would like to become. To me, his best work is The Life of Pi, where the story was narrated through a fantasy world, leaving audiences to contemplate long after the movie ends. Following his ideology, I try to depict in my film a debate of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and the need to explore all basis, inspiring my viewer to think further.”

ScreenPicks: Not only is The Free Man the first film from Taiwan to compete at the Oscars for the best live action short film category, but it is also the only Asian-produced film of the ten finalists this year. How does it feel to be representing the Asian filmmaking community on the international scene?

Quah Boon-Lip: “I am deeply honored, but this is not mine alone. I owe it to each and every cast and crew of this film. Each has contributed in their own way to make this a success. Filming The Free Man was not without hardship and tears and with perseverance, we have managed to come this far. Being nominated top ten for the Oscars is beyond our imagination as we have to compete with so many outstanding works from all over the world. We are blessed that with this, we have the opportunity to share as well as to learn from other filmmakers.”

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All 10 Best Live Action Short Film contenders are listed below.

“Ave Maria,” Basil Khalil, director, and Eric Dupont, producer (Incognito Films)
“Bad Hunter,” Sahim Omar Kalifa, director, and Dries Phlypo, producer (A Private View)
“Bis Gleich (Till Then),” Philippe Brenninkmeyer, producer, and Tara Lynn Orr, writer (avenueROAD Films)
“Contrapelo (Against the Grain),” Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, director, and Pin-Chun Liu, producer (Ochenta y Cinco Films)
“Day One,” Henry Hughes, director (American Film Institute)
“Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut),” Patrick Vollrath, director (Filmakademie Wien)
“The Free Man (Zi You Ren),” Quah Boon-Lip, director (Taipei National University of the Arts)
“Shok,” Jamie Donoughue, director (Eagle Eye Films)
“Stutterer,” Benjamin Cleary, director (Bare Golly Films)
“Winter Light,” Julian Higgins, director, and Josh Pence, producer (Innerlight Films and Prelude Pictures)

The nominees for the 88th Academy Awards will be announced on Thursday, January 14, 2016.

(All photos are courtesy of Sam Quah Boon-Lip.)