Taiwan’s John Hsu: From avid gamer to machinima maker and major film director

By HIFF News | November 12, 2020

Filmmaker John Hsu, an avid gamer, turned this hobby with his penchant for black and slapstick comedy, into a foundation that would launch his career as one of the most exciting Taiwanese content creators working today. Therefore, HIFF40 is excited to host A CONVERSATION WITH JOHN HSU as part of HIFF XR and the SPOTLIGHT ON TAIWAN presented by Ministry of Culture of Taiwan and Taiwan Academy in Los Angeles.

Remember to attend  A CONVERSATION WITH JOHN HSU on November 13, 5:00pm HST. This event is free, but requires a reservation. Click here to book your spot!

Hsu started playing video games when he was five years old, and it was only until he went to Shih Hsin University to pursue a film degree that he utilized his formal film education and his love for video games and gaming language that he merged the two together to make his mark on the media landscape. Along with his friends, he founded the machinima production group AFK [email protected], which used computer graphics engines to create cinematic productions. AFK created many viral videos and web commercials over the years, leading Hsu to accumulate skills and creativity not practiced in standard film production and education.

His path to becoming a film director was nearly accidental, and began with his graduation project SERVER #15 (第十五伺服器), a refreshing short film integrated with video game attributes. For example, a character’s intelligence level will increase when studying, or their health bar will decrease when they get in a fight. The film was nominated for Best Experimental Film at the Taipei Film Festival.

The SERVER #15 concept was then used to create Hsu’s TV movie debut REAL=ONLINE (請登入線實), a satire film about three players switching between reality and the game and confusing desire with real life, which won him best director at the 2005 Golden Bell Awards. Due to public support, Hsu decided to continue down the path of becoming a filmmaker.

Hsu then went on to produce more successful shorts including INTOXICANT (匿名遊戲) in 2008, AFTER DARK (黑暗之後) in 2011, THE GREAT ESCAPE FROM CAFÉ CITY (小清新大爆炸) in 2013, and THE WEATHER REPORT OF THE END (阿爸的天氣預報) in 2015.

Hsu would jump into the fray as a pioneer in Taiwan as was one of the few film directors actively trying to create virtual reality (VR) films. In 2017, at the invitation and sponsorship of the Kaohsiung Film Archive, Hsu filmed YOUR SPIRITUAL TEMPLED SUCKS (全能元神宮改造王), which was invited to the Sundance Film Festival as the first VR film from Taiwan to be screened at its New Frontier program, as well as at film festivals in Australia, France, Germany, Spain, Turkey, the Netherlands and HIFF last year. He would repeat his VR success again as the co-director of GREAT HOAX: THE MOON LANDING, which had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in August.

For his first feature-length film, Hsu was asked to helm the film adaption of a video game called DETENTION (返校). Hsu had mentioned that he was a big fan of the video game when it first came out in 2017 and had expressed to the game creators that they should make a film adaptation. They then asked him to take it on.

As a loyal player of the game, he wanted to develop a film with unique vision and introduce the story to more people. The other challenge was to find a balance between meeting the expectations of players of the original game and helping those who have never played the game better understand the storyline.

Lastly, another goal of DETENTION was to educate young people who knew little of Taiwan’s White Terror history. Three years later, the film was released last winter in Taiwan and was a big, commercial success!

But, let’s go back to where it all started for Hsu, where his work in machinima as a university film student put him on the map and became the impetus for an eclectic and successful millennial filmmakers career.

Check out these three pretty zany machinima videos that we have chosen: 

To see more of Hsu’s machinima work with his group AFK [email protected], head over to their official YouTube channel