In 2013, a woman in Taiwan made headlines for torturing her 18-year-old son to death along with fellow members of a religious group widely known as a cult.
In the aftermath of this disturbing family tragedy, the victim’s sister Chen-yun left Taipei and returned to her hometown Changhua for the first time since leaving the cult, and her family, five years before.
The 2019 documentary The Reason Why I Am Home takes viewers along on Chen-yun’s journey as she grapples with the death of her brother and complex relationship with her mother, a perpetrator in the crime and a victim of the cult. However, the film notably steers away from the details of the shocking incident, choosing instead to focus on Chen-yun’s emotional dilemmas as she returns to an estranged home.
Director Chang Ming-yu said that he made a conscious effort to redact details about the notorious case during post-production.
“People are most intrigued by why a mother would hurt her child, and the chronology of the event,” he said in an interview in April. “But The Reason Why I Am Home does not discuss the case itself, choosing instead to focus on how those involved handle the aftermath. This angle is more precious to me, since we seldom have the chance to see how people deal with their lives in the wake of such an event.”
“The lives of the living are much more important than the tragedy of death,” Chang added. “The intensity of the sister’s life story should not be diluted by the bizarre nature of the case.”
Throughout the ordeal, Chen-yun was constantly seeking a way to continue living.
As she wandered around her childhood home for the first time since leaving as a teenager, her eyes filled with tears at its familiarity, imagining the life that her mother and brother had lived.
“All the furniture is the same as when I left five years ago,” Chen-yun says in the film, eyes filled with tears. “So I know exactly how my mother and brother were living these past five years. This makes me feel sad.”
A good friend of Chen-yun’s, Chang volunteered to accompany her when she announced that she was going home to investigate the cause of her brother’s death.
“It wasn’t initially meant to be a film. I just thought it would be nice for her to have some company,” the director said, adding that he just wanted to be a good companion, someone Chen-yun could confide in.
In the film, Chen-yun and her mother are seen dealing with the fallout of a tragic death long after it was sensationalized and forgotten by the drama-hungry news cycle. Chen-yun said she never got an apology from her brother’s perpetrators, certainly not after she insisted on the forensic testing that eventually led to a conclusion on her brother’s cause of death. Still, Chen-yun attempts to come to terms with losing her brother and reconnects with her estranged mother.
When asked about the 4-year-long post-production process, Chang shared that he had left the footage mostly untouched due to emotional reasons. His close relationship with Chen-yun and the gravity of the subject matter made it difficult for him to approach the production process, which gave him many sleepless nights and serious anxiety.
“At 23 years old, it was a revelation to see the loss of a life and the birth of another,” he said, a reference to Chen-yun’s pregnancy. “I’ve participated in so much of her life, but not all of it has been captured on tape. How do I edit it into a film that does justice to both me and her? For four years I was avoiding the reality of producing this film.”
For Chang, the trip to his friend’s hometown provided deep insights into the controversial figures behind the case.
“Initially, I did not dare to get close to her mother. Because news reports portrayed her as this horrifying figure. But after some observation, I realized that things can never really be black or white.”
And Chang thinks cases like this will continue to happen.
“Even as society progresses, people remain mentally fragile,” he said, pointing to a “spiritual void” that may be filled by dangerous indoctrination.
Four months after moving back home, Chen-yun is married and pregnant. With her mom at the hospital as she endured the pain of childbirth, they both gained a new perspective on their relationship. As her mother helped Chen-yun out with chores and baby duties in the lingering absence of her husband, Chen-yun learns to sympathize with her mother, whose own husband had also been mostly unavailable. Ultimately, the documentary comes to a poignant end, as the pair sought solace in each other while healing from the tragedy.
The Reason Why I Am Home was the first runner-up in the Chinese documentary category at the 2019 Hong Kong International Documentary Festival and was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2020 Taipei Film Awards.
In partnership with Real Image Media Collection.