Finding inspiration in the devastation of the 921 earthquake


On the morning of Sept. 21, 1999, a 7.5-magnitude earthquake struck central Taiwan, killing 2,415 people, severely wounding 11,300, and destroying more than 50,000 buildings throughout the region. The 921 quake, as it came to be known, was the second deadliest in the country's history.

On that day, Mark Jarrett, a recent graduate of the University of Georgia, was living in the city of Taichung (Austin's sister city), not far from the quake's epicenter. He had moved to the country not long before and found work as a kindergarten teacher. The 921 was the first earthquake he'd ever experienced, and ever since, Jarrett says, "Taiwan has been tattooed on my psyche."

For his first feature film, The Taiwan Oyster, now-writer/director Jarrett called on his experiences as an expatriate living in Taiwan to tell the story of two American men who embark on a road trip through their temporary homeland to bury the body of a dead friend. Though the film doesn't deal directly with the events of Sept. 21, 1999, death and ghostliness permeate every scene.

"I was pretty removed at the time of the earthquake," Jarrett says. "But after it hit, the entire town had to go sleep out in the parks for a week or two. You became friends with people really fast because everything was intensified. It was a really important time for me because I thought there was a very good possibility that I was going to die in that moment."

For Jarrett, the 921 earthquake, for all its horror, resulted in an intensity of experience that colored his entire understanding of life in Taiwan and gave the island a mystical aura. "Taiwan was kind of a magical place for me," Jarrett says. "The foreigner crowd I was in was living on the outside of the civilization, so you're almost like a ghost. People just barely paid attention to you; you just existed outside of everything."

Years later, after reading Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and finding in its themes of blood, land, death, and place a kinship with his experiences in Taiwan, Jarrett began writing a script about two Americans searching for adventure and meaning along the country's beautiful East Coast Highway. With the help of co-writers Jordan Heimer and Matt Jarrett (Mark's brother), Jarrett came up with a script that tried to capture some part of the essence of Taiwan from its picturesque countryside to its neon cities, from its detached expat community to its violent gangsters.

Getting The Taiwan Oyster made required Jarrett and his small cast and crew to perform repeated acts of low-budget, guerrilla filmmaking in a strange land and by the seat of their pants. They took to calling it "punk-rock filmmaking," where monetary and bureaucratic limitations weren't allowed to interfere with their vision.

"We didn't want to sacrifice any scope because of budget restraints; we refused to limit ourselves to one location," Jarrett says. "Once we decided to do it, the train had left the station. People said we needed a certain amount of money, and we said, 'Fuck it, we are going to make it if it's just my brother and me and my iPhone. We're gonna make a movie, and you can get on or get off.' And I think that sort of momentum was helpful to have.

"It's amazing the things that came together as we just blindly bowled forward. Every step of the way we got superlucky. I hope other people feel that magical element when they're watching."

The Taiwan Oyster

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The Taiwan Oyster, Mark Jarrett, Matt Jarrett, Jordan Heimer, 921 earthquake

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