Discovering another Taiwanese cinema

Discovering another Taiwanese cinema

When in 2010 the Vesoul International Film Festival of Asian Cinema presented a major retrospective of Taiwanese cinema, the Taiwanese Government Information Office insisted on showing only recent films and limited to four, the number of films produced before the 1990s. That year, it was one of the first times (if not the first) that French audience discovered the first co-production between Taiwan and Hong Kong, “A Journey to Kwan Shan” by Yi Wen (1956 ), a film in the Taiwanese language (Taiyu) “Unfinished Love”, by Shao Luo-hui (1962), a film from the national studio, example of Healthy Realism, in color and scope, “Oyster Girl “by Lee Hsing (1963) and an example of a sentimental film from the 1970s, known as three-room films, “Posterity and Perplexity”, by Lee Hsing (1976).

Since then, things have changed: politically, Taiwan brought the Democratic Progressive Party to power in 2016 which has launched an ambitious policy of digitization, restoration and promotion of classic Taiwanese cinema. It was therefore time to dive back into old treasures, but also to discover new trends, which remain largely invisible in France. This program therefore offers a panorama going from 1962 to 2022, 60 years of cinema in all its forms, from comedy to drama.

During the Japanese colonial period (1895-1945), film production remained relatively underdeveloped. After the Second World War, the island was entrusted to the government of the Republic of China, which was then in the hands of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT, Kuomintang). The latter took refuge there from 1949 on, when its army was defeated in China by the Communist Party which then founded the People's Republic of China, while Taiwan became the bastion of the Republic of China. In its exile the KMT embarked two million refugees and the staff of a few national studios who have remained loyal. In the first years, newsreels and propaganda films of low production value were made. In addition, these films were in Mandarin, a language that the local population did not speak (depending on their origin, the Taiwanese speak Taiyu and/or Hakka). Furthermore, these films dealt with the question of exile and the reconquest of the Continent, which was very far from the concerns of Taiwanese educated in Japanese and who had had a completely different experience from newly arrived Chinese refugees.

From the mid-1950s on, the government decided to restructure the production system: it created a large national studio, called the CMPC (Central Motion Picture Corporation) on the one hand, and on the other hand, it authorized the establishment of private production companies.
At that time, in Taiwan, films in Amoy (a Fujianese language close to Taiyu) produced in Hong Kong met with immense success, which encouraged many Taiwanese investors to launch into the production of Taiyu films (also called taiyupian). Faced with the popularity of Taiyu cinema, the government tried to transform the official cinema in Mandarin and make it more commercial. It was in this context that the CMPC called on Pan Lei, a Franco-Vietnamese-Chinese, who grew up in Vietnam and who has enlisted in the KMT army as a teenager. After arriving alone in Taiwan, he became a writer, then a screenwriter before directing films that are still striking by their original tone. In 1962, he planned to produce “Typhoon” independently, but the project was taken over by the CMPC which did not have a film to present at the Asia Pacific Film Festival. The CMPC requested the replacement of one of the actress by a young talent of studio, Tang Bao-yun, a future star of Mandarin cinema. But despite this intrusion, “Typhoon” remains one of the most astonishing films of the 1960s due to its freedom of tone, its portrayal of anti-heroes and the erotic atmosphere that runs through the film. This freedom of tone, although in a different way, is also to be found in the hilarious “Foolish Bride, Naïve Bridegroom” by Hsin Chi. This 1967 Taiyu film, by one of the best-known directors of that era, thumbs its nose at the official conservative discourse which advocated a return to Confucian values (in reaction to the Cultural Revolution in the PRC). The film, starring big stars Jin Mei and Shi Jun, overturns all traditions: the boy is locked up at home by his father, while his intrepid lover does everything to see him and have him. This film is the perfect example of this low-budget production, where resourcefulness dominates, and which reflects the Taiwan of the time.

However, the 1970s, the Taiyu films declined and eventually disappeared because of the ban on local languages in public space, the development of television and a cultural policy in favor of Mandarin cinema, the Mandarin cinema started a decade of triumph of genre (martial arts films, sentimental films, propaganda films). Among these films based on a repetitive formula, some stand out: King Hu in “Rain on the Mountain”, constructs a breathtaking thriller (with a deceptively slow pace), in the closed doors of a temple which courtyards create an infinite possibility of mise-en-scène and chases that are so enjoyable and often very funny.

For his part, one of the masters of official cinema Lee Hsing filmed the astonishing and very Confucianist “Execution in Autumn” (1972). Favorite film of its author, it is also set behind closed doors, but this time in a prison, where a violent death row inmate, former spoiled child eventually accepts his sentence and fulfills his duties towards his family. The film offers Taiwanese actor Ou Wei, Lee Hsing's favorite interpreter, his most complex role very shortly before his premature death. Even more intriguing and a true (re)discovery is Mou Tun-fei's film, “The End of the Track” (1970). This film, which had been missing for many years, was brought out of oblivion in 2017, thanks to the work of the Taiwan Documentary Film Festival. The young director, after the failure of this film, went into exile in Hong Kong where he became known for making particularly violent and bloody films. In this low-budget film, the director described the friendship between two young teenagers, one of whom dies accidentally. No film from this era has ever filmed youth, its passion and its despair in such a powerful and moving way. This film is like the missing link of what arthouse cinema could have been in Taiwan before the New Wave of the 1980s.

This program pays a tribute, of course, to the New Wave, but we chose to focus on two relatively little-seen and recently restored films: “In Our Time”, an omnibus film which contains, among others, Edward Yang's magnificent short film “Expectation”, in which a very young teenager discovers desire and jealousy; “The Daughter of the Nile” by Hou Hsiao Hsien that the director has long disowned (one wonders why as the film is so beautiful). The film is indeed a little different from the previous ones (it features the famous singer Yang Lin), and traces a very accurate portrait of the pivotal period of 1987 at the dawn of the lifting of Martial Law, while unbridled capitalism and gangsterism swamp over the island.

After the success of the New Wave, the CMPC tried to relaunch this momentum ten years later, and allowed the emergence of a new generation of filmmakers. Ang Lee returned to Taiwan to film “Drink Food Men Women” in 1994, after the worldwide success of “The Wedding Banquet” two years earlier, and tenderly describes a family whose daughters each try to find their place, around meals cooked with love by their widowed father. For his part, the same year, with “Vive l'Amour”, Golden Lion in Venice, Tsai Ming-liang shows a much less friendly Taipei, but his crossover of three solitary souls in an empty apartment oscillates between Jacques Tati and Antonioni. Hou Hsiao Hsien in these same years continued to explore visual possibilities and heartbreaks in the mag nificent “Flowers of Shanghai”, his first foray into Chinese fiction in 1998.

Over the last ten years, Taiwanese cinema has become rarer in festivals and yet it continues to create a unique filmography of filmmakers trying to escape the domination of commercial genre cinema. In a style that could be reminiscent of Tsai Ming-liang, but remains quite personal, Chienn Hsiang with “Exit”, winner of the Netpac Jury Prize, grand jury prize and crtic prize at Vesoul in 2015, is an example of this demanding cinema which comes up against production difficulties (It will take six years to film his new opus “Increasing Echo”). As for Chang Tso-chi, he is known for his very dark films but “A Summer in Quchi” (2015) is an exception, a delicate story of a grandfather forced to take care of his grandson during the summer holidays. In another genre, but still set in the countryside, the hilarious and very dark “The Great Buddha +” by Huang Hsin-yao, focuses on two losers who are spectators of the lives of others and sketches a vitriolic portrait of corruption and religious sects in Taiwan.

Finally, how can we not salute the dynamism of the female directors who are gradually establishing themselves. First of all, Sylvia Chang, actress turned producer and director, who likes to paint sensitive and complex female characters, like in “Murmur of the Hearts” (2015). But also Zéro Chou who for her latest film, “Untold Herstory” (2022) gives a voice to the women who were imprisoned on Green Island during the period of Martial Law (1945-1987). Finally, Laha Mebow, one of the only directors of indigenous fiction whose very touching family chronicle “Gaga “(2022) follows an Atayal family (her tribe) who tries to survive economically even if it means embarking on a risky political game. Filmed without pathos or romanticization, the film delivers a bittersweet image of a long-exploited and despised community trying to preserve its traditions and dignity.

Finally, Taiwan is a country that is particularly welcoming to filmmakers from elsewhere, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Burma, but also France! This will be the opportunity to discover the latest fiction (in parallel with his latest documentary in competition) by Jean-Robert Thomann, a regular at the festival since 2009. This time, with “La Saveur du gingembre” (2022), he combines his love of Jacques Demy, the whole film is sung, and his love of the island!

In 19 films, a journey through 60 years of Taiwanese cinema through side roads where another history of Taiwanese cinema emerges.

Wafa Ghermani

Lecturer at the National Central University de Taïwan, programmer spécializing en Taiwanese Cinema

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