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‘Night Bus’: An Exploration of Betrayal and Redemption

Taiwanese animator Joe (Wen-Ming) Hsieh’s 2D short follows 6 bus passengers harboring intense secrets whose lives unravel after a string of unfortunate events, wrongful accusations, and attempts at revenge.

Despite all the gore - from monkeys tearing off ears to eyeballs dangling from sockets - director Joe (Wen-Ming) Hsieh insists that his 2D animated short film Night Bus, while graphic, isn’t about violence. 

“The center theme of this film is on complex human emotions and interactions, not violence,” he says. “Violence in this film is analogous to an accessory of a clothing ensemble -- it enhances but is by no means the main attraction. And it needs to be handled with extreme care to ensure that it fits in with the plot, not violence for its own sake.”

Hsieh’s award-winning 20-minute story follows the journey of six passengers - a wealthy older woman, a husband and his pregnant wife, two construction workers and a mysterious young man - as they journey together with their bus driver along the moon-lit coast of Taiwan. While some passengers are carefully harboring intense secrets, lives begin to unravel after a necklace is stolen and a baby monkey is left orphaned after the passengers’ commuter bus accidentally hits and kills its mother. Thus begins a string of thrilling events, from wrongful accusations to switched identities and attempts at revenge. 

The short film - centered around betrayal and redemption - has won numerous awards across its journey through the festival circuit including the Grand Prix Best Short Film at the Animafest Zagreb and Best Midnight Short at the Palm Springs ShortFest. Night Bus has also qualified for Best Animated Short Film consideration at the 94th Academy Awards, and has been selected for the upcoming Sundance Film Festival, taking place from Thursday, January 20 through Sunday, January 30.

“I think mixing a group of people together, each with their own secrets and hidden agendas, will give off a unique and peculiar chemistry,” explains Hsieh, well-known as the animation director in Venice Film Festival Best Screenplay winner No.7 Cherry Lane. “I like to explore different aspects of human nature, especially those involving love and sacrifices and use different space, time and background to interpret and express them.” 

The director’s own previous animated works, Meat Days and The Present, all deal with dark, sometimes downright disturbing aspects of humanity and relationships -- be it demon possession, consuming fellow human beings, or obscure love stories. 

“All my films share a common message of self-awakening,” says Hsieh. “The characters discover their true self when struggling through adversity and finding strength to overcome it. And this self-awakening is often the pivotal turning point in all my films. And I strive to create a new style and approach for each of my films, hoping to maximize cinematic enjoyment for my audience, both visually and through the stories’ twists and turns.”

His latest short features the literal twists and turns of the Taiwanese coastal roads Hsieh has driven on many times, with stunningly beautiful, lush vegetation and rugged reefs. Hsieh says that, under a moonlit sky with sounds of waves splashing against the coast, the atmosphere “gives off an eerie quality,” which first inspired him to begin working on the short five years ago. 

Night Bus also styles cut-out character animation that might resemble a highly textured children’s picture book. But, be assured, it’s anything but family-friendly.

“Cut-out is a technique I use often to showcase the texture and detail of the characters and background,” explains Hsieh, whose background in sketching, watercolor, and oil painting gives him a keen eye. “I believe the more details, the more I can lure my audience into the essence, rhythm, and artistry of my films.”

In Night Bus, the overall rhythm is very slow, even during Hsieh’s use of cross-cutting to create a parallel story between the pregnant wife passenger and the orphaned monkey, both who’ve been wronged and, as Hsieh states, “found their inner strength in the quest for survival.” The gradual and heavy tempo not only gives the audience time to drink in all the details of Hsieh’s dark tale, but also to be fully immersed in the emotions of each scene and character. 

“There were a few scenes where I felt the need to slow the tempo to bring out a desired mood, kind of like slow-cooking to bring out the flavor,” notes Hsieh. “The scenes where the husband saw his wife watching on while he was brutally beaten, their eyes met and fused with intense hatred and rage.”

He adds, “I slow the rhythm to let the audience experience their inner feelings, the husband enraged with his wife being so cruel to let him suffer the beating, while the wife’s anger centered on the domestic violence she’s endured. As they exchanged glances again, the raging emotions intensified. And that is what I want to achieve, a gradual build up to show their inner emotions to create this mood.”

Of course, what would a horror drama be without sudden, fast-paced outbursts of violence? Though Hsieh’s film may not focus on the more action-packed beatings, it was a feature he felt strongly about utilizing. “I infused dark humor by way of ‘over-the-top’ violence, something inspired by Director Tarantino,” Hsieh explains. “Night Bus builds on suspense and selective use of violence, and that can help the build-up of emotion.”

The story has certainly received high praise from audiences. It’s achieving its goal, but Hsieh admits it’s a bit of a shock. “Quite honestly, I am rather surprised - pleasantly of course - that Night Bus has received quite a number of affirmations,” says Hsieh. “Above all, I feel extremely fortunate and proud that I can take the Taiwan Animation industry to an uncharted territory. I think we are all excited.”

The director says that Night Bus could be a turning point for Taiwanese animation and its animators. With a story so dedicated to the inner strength of the individual and highlighting the backdrop of Taiwan, Hsieh hopes the film inspires a movement.

“I believe what motivates an audience to enter a cinema is a desire to experience and enjoy an interesting story,” says Hsieh. “Despite its small geographic size and population, Taiwan is extremely rich in culture and traditions that help inspired local talents and productions, myself included. With the modest success of Night Bus on the international stage, I hope that it will inject a shot of confidence in local animators and pave a way for them to walk the international stage in the future.”

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Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at