Night bus

Society & Culture

A harrowing ride down the coast of Taiwan

This article was originally published on Neocha and is republished with permission.

Strangers on a bus. Each of them has a secret. Like the best Hitchcockian stories, they all have skeletons in their closets, and once a necklace is stolen in the dead of night, the chain of events that begins to unravel feels unstoppable, like falling dominoes. Viewers are taken on a ride directly into the dark abyss of human nature. This is Night Bus, a 20-minute horror short by Taiwanese director Joe Hsieh that made its way around film fest circuits in early 2022.

Night Bus is Hsieh’s third short film, a follow up to 2006’s Meat Days and 2014’s The Presentand it extends the themes of his earlier work to make this ride into the personal hells of its riders something truly memorable. Along with making deep impressions, the film is also winning awards—at Sundance, Night Bus granted him  the Short Film Jury Award for best animation.

The premise of Night Bus is a simple one, but the story’s twists and turns may catch people by surprise. A mother monkey is shown swinging from the trees, with her baby clutching on. Viewers are then taken inside of a dingy bus station where two silhouetted lovers are embracing as the wind rages outside. Two soot-faced workers smoke outside, waiting for the bus’s arrival. Someone is shown on their knees, peeking beneath a bathroom stall in the station—a second later a man and a woman come out of the bathroom and walk outside towards the bus, which has finally arrived. “Hurry, get on board,” says the driver. “Last bus of the day.”

An old lady and a mysterious man in a button-up shirt are the final two characters making their way onto the bus. She demands help with her luggage while complaining about having to take the rickety bus due to her car being in the shop. Once on board, the title flashes onto the screen, and a gloomy, dreamlike score by Ned Young plays out. These beginning two minutes sets the tone of the film, introducing the characters before they get onto their fateful bus ride, and before their secrets are revealed.

As the bus drives through the night, most of the passengers fall asleep, but in the the old lady wakes up, noticing that her pearl necklace has been stolen.  This singular event becomes a catalyst for the series of distressing events that engrains this nightmarish ride into the audience’s memory.

Night Bus, like Joe Hsieh’s earlier short films, is easily identifiable by its aesthetic. Hsieh primarily uses the “cut-out” technique in the crafting and production of his shorts. “Sketching is my favorite way to create cut-out animations,” he says. “I start out sketching my characters with pencil, then scan into the computer for coloring, edits and body/facial movements. I am always looking for new ways to improve my skill to make the movement more smooth and graceful.”

There are a few moments in Night Bus that can be described as shocking. With Hsieh’s work, shock factor is an important factor to the story, with the mood and atmosphere culling inspiration from  horror manga stories by the likes of Junji Ito.

“I do like horror manga and love Junji Ito’s works too,” remarks Hsieh. “In fact, I’m most inspired by live action suspense films. As a big fan of Hitchcock, I also love Psycho, Vertigo, The Birds and Rear Window. I love the way the characters in the film put the audience in their shoes, deep in suspense.”

In Night Bus, Hsieh wanted to replicate that same sense of suspense, and the film’s plot unveils itself like some of the bleakest film noir. “To reveal who stole the old lady’s necklace is only secondary and a step to revealing the hidden secrets of the rest of the characters—the real point of the story. I was also very much inspired by strong female characters in other horror films or thrillers, like Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs.”

The pace of Night Bus is another reason for its hypnotizing power. The animation style,  unraveling plot, and ominous music builds towards those shocking reveals and a devastating climax. According to Hsieh, the pacing of animation is very important, especially for horror stories. “For me, the pacing is always important for the development of the plot, and it changes by the emotions of the characters in the film.”

Additionally, the score in Night Bus goes a long way in cultivating the sense of mystery. “I spoke with my composer at a very early stage, around when I was writing my proposal,” says Hsieh. ”During production, we had very close and regular discussions. I explained to him every character in every scene to ensure he came up with a dramatic score. I believe in his work and since we have collaborated for many years, he understands me and my style very well. He even gave me advice for my stories.”

All in all, Night Bus is a bitter story designed to leave viewers with a sour taste in their mouths. This bus ride is, in a way, society in miniature—showing the rich pitting the lower class against one another, a disregard for mother nature, the tendency for selfishness, and how thin the line between love and hate can really be. When it gets to its fiery climax, only the innocent characters survive, and the audience is left pondering about how one decision can lead to a chain effect of unforeseen consequences. 

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Contributor: Ryan Dyer
Chinese Translation: Olivia Li