by Chris Berry
Most cinephiles associate Taiwan with the Taiwanese New Wave and auteurs like Hou Hsiao Hsien and Edward Yang. But the island’s film history has much more to offer. Perhaps the best kept secret is the cycle of over 1,000 feature films made in the local Taiwanese language between the late 1950s and early 1970s. Shockingly, less than 200 survive. But after years of being neglected as low budget commercial trash, the surviving prints are revalued as a lively, ingenious, and entertaining part of local culture. Thanks to the restoration, digitization and subtitling work of the Taiwan Film and Audiovisual Institute, these works are available to us today.
Filmmaking came late to Taiwan. A Japanese colony between 1895 and 1945, it was mostly a market for films from Hollywood, Shanghai, and Tokyo. The new KMT Nationalist government that came from the mainland in 1945 shared Chinese characters with the islander population. But their spoken languages were mutually incomprehensible. The KMT stressed Mandarin as the “national language,” but the locals spoke a local version of Minnanhua spoken language they called Taiwanese. So, when local entrepreneurs started filming local operas in Taiwanese in the late 1950s, they found eager audiences, but no government support.
The Taiwanese-Language cinema that boomed until the rise of television at the end of the 1960s is full of can-do spirit and aspiration to excel on minimal budgets. US$25,000 was average, and a couple of weeks was a long shoot. Films were made in every genre from spy movies to gothic films, but especially comedies and melodramas. Of course, they had to pass censorship, which during the Cold War was very strict. But they portray the experience of the economic boom and corresponding social upheaval of the 1960s from the perspective of ordinary people rather than the glossy images promoted by the government.
Taiwanese-language cinema was very local in its themes, but also very cosmopolitan in its aspirations and its style. As a star-and-genre driven cinema, Hollywood, Tokyo, and Hong Kong were its models. Filmmakers like Lin Tuanqiu and Xin Qi, the directors of the films screened at Filmasia, had been educated in Japan during the Japanese colonial era. Xin was an energetic figure, making films at a rate of one a month in some years. Lin wanted to elevate Taiwanese-Language Cinema. Working at a slower pace, he turned out more ambitious films, but often got into financial difficulties as a result. What they share is clear awareness of international trends, adapting Japanese, English, and American novels and films into Taiwanese settings, for example.
As we watch these films today, our eyes are opened up to the diversity of Taiwanese cinema. Those of us who are used to the government’s propaganda from the Cold War years suddenly find ourselves seeing a whole other side to Taiwan. And because low budgets encouraged a lot of shooting on location, we get to see what ordinary streets and parks and homes looked in the 1960s. Finally, with its determined but comical underdog spirit, we see today’s image of Taiwan as the plucky little island that punches above its weight beginning to emerge.
Lin Tuanqiu’s The Husband’s Secret and Xin Qi’s Foolish Bride, Naïve Bridegroom: Two Very Different Pioneers of Taiwanese Modernity
by Chris Berry
The Husband’s Secret and Foolish Bride, Naïve Bridegroom are very different films, but the two directors who made them have quite a lot in common. The first film is a melodrama made in 1960, at the end of the first wave of Taiwanese-language cinema. The second is a generation gap farce made in 1967, at the height of the second wave, when the impact of the Taiwan’s economic boom was being felt. Lin Tuanqiu, the director of The Husband’s Secret, and Xin Qi, the director of Foolish Bride, Naïve Bridegroom, were both native Taiwanese-language speakers who had grown up on the island under Japanese colonialism and been educated in Tokyo. The two films indicate that they stood with Taiwanese women, the young and modernity in the struggle with the constraints of tradition and Confucian patriarchy.
The term “Taiwanese-language cinema” refers to the cycle of over 1,000 lively but low-budget commercial films made between 1956 and the 1972. They were recorded in Minnanhua, known locally as “Taiwanese” (taiyu). This is the Sinitic language spoken by the islanders who had been there for generations and traced their origins to Fujian, across the Taiwan Strait, in China. Between 1895 and 1945, Taiwan was a Japanese colony. So, when the KMT Nationalist Chinese government took control after Japan’s defeat, there was a large cultural gap between them and the islanders. The islanders did not speak or understand the “national language” of Mandarin Chinese imposed by the KMT. Misunderstandings culminated in a popular uprising in 1947, followed by 40 years of martial law along with Cold War repression. While the government supported and promoted Mandarin-language films, small private companies scrabbled together what resources they could to satisfy audience demand for films in a language they could understand.
The Taiwanese-language cinema started out with recordings of local Taiwanese go-a-hi (or, in Mandarin, gezaixi) operas. Lin Tuanqiu entered the world of filmmaking because he was dissatisfied with the crude quality of these early films. The Husband’s Secret was his first hit film. Born into a rich coal-mining family in 1920, Lin went to university in the late 1930s in Tokyo, where he immersed himself in the theatre world. He was the first colonial citizen to stage a play in the imperial capital, and he also trained at Toho Film Studio before returning to Taiwan in 1943, where he continued his theatrical career. After the suppression of the islander uprising and the imposition of martial law at the end of the 1940s, Lin decided to keep a low profile and returned to the family coal business.
However, the birth of Taiwanese-language cinema drew him back into the entertainment business. To elevate the quality of Taiwanese-language films, he gathered investors in 1957 and established his own production company, Yufeng Pictures. He also built the Hushan Film Studio, with professional sound and shooting stages, make-up rooms, wardrobe, and so on. No doubt, these were modelled on what he had seen and experienced in Japan, as well as the Hollywood and Hong Kong commercial industries that Taiwanese-language cinema wished to emulate.
Given Lin’s background and ambitions, it is not surprising to find that The Husband’s Secret has much higher production qualities than many Taiwanese-language films. It is also an adaptation of a Japanese novel, which was not unusual in this era when many of the islanders still admired Japan. Although the entire plot is transposed to Taiwan, the film even has a Japanese look. In part, this is because of the Japanese-style architecture that was still commonly found in Taiwan, including sliding doors, nori door curtains, and tatami mats. Characters frequently kneel and sit on the tatami mat floors, whereas the floor is usually seen as dirty in mainland China. As well as these diegetic elements, the film is also shot in ways that are reminiscent of contemporary Japanese melodrama from the use of deep focus to camera positions set low to floor, as in Ozu films.
The plot of the film exposes the pressures on women in Taiwan. Tshui-bi is a comfortably off young married woman, but she has not produced the child expected of her as a good wife. One day, she discovers her old friend Le Hun is a single mother struggling to make ends meet by singing in a nightclub, a disreputable profession for women that appears repeatedly in Taiwanese-language films. Tshui-bi tried to help Le Hun by offering her a place to stay. But Le Hun gets a shock when she discovers Tshui-bi’s husband is her former lover. The situation soon gets more complicated. I do not want to give away too much of the plot, but what could easily have turned into an exploitative melodramatic “cat fight” between the women goes in another direction altogether. As in his other films, Lin takes a sensational and salacious plot line and shows both female solidarity and resourcefulness in the move unpromising circumstances, and a very modern resolution to the problems everyone is facing.
In Foolish Bride, Naïve Bridegroom, Xin Qi also takes the side of the young and women against social conventions. But this is a gender reversal farce from 1967, when Taiwan’s rapid economic boom was already making itself felt. Traditional values were not just being questioned, but also openly flaunted and treated as ridiculous. Bun-de and Gui-kia are boyfriend and girlfriend, but he is portrayed as a desirable but vulnerable young man pursued aggressively by all the girls in town, while his father tries to protect his chastity. Gui-kia, on the other hand, is the mischievous one who tries to persuade him to break and rules and elope. Although limited by strict censorship – the film appears to be modelled on European sex comedies of the time, but no sex was possible! – Foolish Bride, Naïve Bridegroom lampoons the conventional morality the KMT government was promoting during the martial law era. Audiences today are surprised by the amount of violence in the film, and perhaps this can be seen as a symptom of and reaction against the era’s pressure cooker combination of rapid social and cultural change with repression.
Although Xin Qi and Lin Tuanqiu shared a similar social backgrounds and contemporary values, Xin Qi did not have the resources that Lin Tuanqiu had. Whereas Lin’s films are clearly shot on sets built specially for the purpose, Xin’s films use more locations and cut more corners. Nevertheless, they have a lively and engaging energy that is all their own. Lin’s efforts to lift the production quality of Taiwanese-language cinema led him to invest more than he could ever make back at the box office, and he went bankrupt more than once. He also only directed a handful of films. Xin, on the other hand, was more of a journeyman director. He worked for numerous different producers, turning out at least 43 films in about 15 years. At his peak, he made five or six films a year, in all different genres. If Lin was the Orson Welles of Taiwanese-language cinema, struggling to survive financially and elevate production quality, maybe Xin was the Howard Hawks, a regular director elevated to auteur status by later critical recognition.
by Peggy Chiao
There was a time when Taiwanese art films became the talk of the town at international film festival circuits. Names like Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Ang Lee and others frequently appeared on festival screens as well as various medias around the world.
These names came from a new wave movement coined as “New Taiwan Cinema” by Western critics. It all started when a group of us, trained from Western film schools, returned to Taiwan to join the local filmmakers as a collective force seeking to change the state of domestic films.
Heavily influenced by Italian Neo-Realism, French New Wave, Japanese art films, and of course, traditional Chinese aesthetics, the new wave soon acquired support from young audiences at the time. The fresh realist style, intimate local feelings, vernacular dialogues, and occasional critique on the concurrent socio-political status became popular in local theaters. It was viewed by critics as a revolt against the previous jaded genres of melodramatic romance and “Kung Fu” operas.
The movement garnered accolades from foreign festivals and soon sailed into a major art trend together with new wave films from China and Hong Kong. Different films that evolved from different political/cultural traditions (Mainland China with its Communism, Hong Kong governed by British colonial system, and Taiwan, a renegade province from China, supported by the U.S. to fend off China) contrasted one another. The occasional collaborations between these creative voices resulted in quite a number of spectacular films.
New Taiwan Cinema also evolved from the realist movement into a new style of modernism and post-modernism. Non-linear narratives, meta-physical visual overtones, self-reflective forms exemplified in the works of Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien demonstrated how they eschewed former limitations of Neo-Realism and delved into complex zones of history, myth, and modern lives.
Meanwhile, Taiwanese films like City of Sadness (1989), A Brighter Summer Day (1991), Wedding Banquet (1993), A Time to Live a Time to Die (1985), Dust in the Wind (1986), The Terrorizer (1986), Vive L’Amour (1994), Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), have all become modern classics.
Co-production features such as Farewell My Concubine (1993), Raise the Red Lantern (1991), To Live (1994), In the Heat of the Sun (1994), and Ashes of Time (1994) among others, invariably have Taiwanese funding or talent attached. The pinnacle of these co-productions is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Directed by Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee, with actors from all three Chinese regions, and a crew of technical staff combined from both the East and the West, the film went on to win several Oscar accolades and recoup more than 200 million U.S. dollars worldwide.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon appeared fittingly at the turn of the century. Thereafter, films from the Chinese regions faced a period of tremendous changes. The phenomenal rise of the domestic Chinese market siphoned talent to head to the Mainland for opportunities. Consequentially, local industries in Taiwan and Hong Kong suffered from the heavy hemorrhaging of capital and talents.
New Taiwan Cinema movement gradually died down not only because of the loss of talent and capital, but also because after decades, the repetitious themes and styles, the over-all depressive mood of Fin de siècle, and lack of entertainment values had worn our audience interest. To the weary eyes of its previous supporters, the movement had becomes nightmares uttered by egotistical directors. As a result, local Taiwanese films represented less than 1% of the market share.
Chatter about the death of New Taiwan Cinema prevailed. After two decades since the beginning of the movement, and after the worldwide success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the new century spelled debacle for the Taiwan’s local film industry.
Concurrently, Taiwan faced internal political turmoil as elections ripped society apart. Different ethnic groups abhorred different political parties and tensions of social cleavage aggravated. It was at this time that the comedic film Cape No. 7 (2008) addressed the issues of social divide and advocated communal unity. The film appealed to the audience, and broke the all-time box office record to become the most successful Taiwanese film ever.
The 2010’s saw a new ear for Taiwanese comedies—light-hearted, idol-worshipping, and burden-free. The audience welcomed the change. Young audiences now reigned the film market. They opted for the new genre; less history-conscious, less serious themes, with no burden of artistic forms, and most of all, themes that speak to their troubles. Numerous films featuring rising stars and idols (especially male) set off a thriving trend and earned themselves the new moniker “Light and Fresh”. It’s a new, and maybe the only, sub-genre that survived during this decade.
Female producers and directors especially contributed to the success of the this particular sub-genre. The films I selected this time for Prague: Our Times (2015) and Hear Me (2010) all belong to this genre. Our Times, directed and produced by CHEN Yu-Shan, takes a nostalgic look at the rite of passage—the sweat-sorrow experience of growing up. The self-deprecating tone of an ugly duckling laments on unfulfilled romance but in the end magically regains teenage love. It was a pot boiler that follows the mega-success of You Are the Apple of My Eye (2011) to launch actor WANG Dalu into a superstar.
Hear Me, produced by myself and directed by CHeng Fen-Fen, was another “Light and Fresh” comedy. The film addressed the issue of hearing disability and strong family ties. It spoke to Taiwanese society, and thus became the box office champion of the year among Taiwan films. All three leads in the film were launched into superstardom: Eddie Peng, Ivy Chen, and Michelle Chen all later expanded their career to Hong Kong and Mainland China.
The documentary Yilan: A Taste of Home (2020) features a cultural exchange between Basque Chefs and the Yilan local culinary scene. It’s not only a film about food, but also a sense of local pride, the passion of dedication to one’s homeland, and welcoming foreign guests with open-arms. It’s a sweet film by TSENG Hsing Ying, and it details Yilan’s famous agricultural products and delicious cuisine.
Each year, we witness more women participate in the creative world of filmmaking. They bring a sensitivity and delicacy which differ from male filmmakers. Veterans like Sylvia Chang, HSU Feng, Angie Chai and myself join hands with young talents to explore new reaches of story-telling. We tried to carry the spirit of the New Wave, directed, and produced quality films. We are proud to say that we were part of the force that did not succumb to the male dominant world.
by Ondřej Pavlík
Aesthetically progressive festival films are often presented as unique pieces of art that reflect the personalities of their visionary directors. What is rarely discussed is that these art motion pictures, intended primarily for choosy cinephiles, may be viewed as episodes or sequels to a popular series. The only difference being that it is not a mainstream franchise, a Hollywood studio or a TV showrunner what gives it the assurance of an established brand and the feeling of continuity, but the name of a respected auteur. One of those names is undoubtedly Tsai Ming-liang who, after the turn of the millenium, outgrew the original context of the Taiwan New Wave and has since become a regular guest at a festival circuit thanks to prestigious awards and international co-productions and has turned out to be one of the most famous figures of East-Asian slow cinema. After a series of purely non-narrative documents, Tsai’s last film Days is a motivic return to some of his earlier pieces from the ’90s or ’00s, it brings delight to experts on the director’s filmography and feels a little like a new and exclusive episode of a show that has been released after a long-hiatus.
The series-like aspect of Tsai Ming-liang’s work is closely linked to the director’s unbreakable bond with Lee Kang-sheng, his go-to actor and a long-time partner. Similarly to the character of Antoine Doinel in a loosely connected series of films by French director Francois Truffaut, Lee Kang-sheng as Hsiao-kang (or just Kang) reappears in Tsai’s films as the character of a chronic drifter. Despite advancing years, his journey does not document the process of maturing and ageing. Rather, it depicts recurring instances of body paralysis, diseases or social exclusion and various kinds of erotic adventures, from shy voyerism through accidental incest to endurance porn race. The director uses Kang to explore extreme limits of the human body that are never primarily oriented towards dynamic action and self-improvement, but are presented either in the form of helplessness or border sexuality. It almost feels as if Kang, in his lowest moments, needed care also because he has experienced a long series of experiments with his own body.
Aside from this, Lee Kang-sheng’s health struggles have yet another dimension that can simply be called documentary. Crippling neck muscle pain that Kang’s character in The River (1997) suffers from reflects similar medical problems the actor had previously experienced himself. In Days, the motif of neck and back pain re-emerges, only this time it is accompanied with acute symptoms. Kang leaves his Taiwanese home to treat his chronic disease, undergoes electro-acupuncture therapy with burning mugwort and walks in the city with a neck collar. The metaphorical and actual climax of his therapeutic stay in Bangkok comes with an erotic full-body massage given to him by a Laotian young man, Non. The element of queer sexuality returns in connection with a sick body, but in contrast to Tsai’s earlier films it includes a much more pronounced component of regeneration.
In Tsai’s work, body suffering is seldom unrelated to the outside world. It usually entails a feeling of isolation or emotional exhaustion as if these were the suspected underlying causes of painful symptoms. So, how does Days fit into this framework and what new or special aspect it brings as another episode of a series capturing Kang’s life journey? As opposed to hopelessness-soaked The River, Tsai Ming-liang is in the later career stage more willing to accept benevolence, nurturing, and even a tinge of sentiment. The massage scene distinctly stands out as a moment of relief, partly due to its unusual length as well as close-up shots and warm light in the hotel room. The quiet ambience of the sequence is complemented by Kang’s blissful moans in reaction to Non’s skilled massaging of his weary muscles.
Typically for Tsai, Days uses the language of the body and its sensory experience as the primary means of expression. In its effect, it is more tactile here than in the director’s earlier dramas, owing also to a more relaxed tempo and rhythm and the generous length of individual scenes. Detailed observation of daily activities, such as cooking, resting or going for a walk, makes it possible to include a bittersweet musical theme from Charles Chaplin’s Limelight without coming off as being too melodramatic. Tsai Ming-liang had incorporated cinephile allusions in his works before, but rarely he tied them so closely together with the emotion of fleeting interpersonal affection and subsequent sadness. In Days, he manages to put all this in an anonymized milieu of a modern Asian megapolis and easily interconnects an interest in present reality and passing encounters that take place there on a daily basis.
by Pavel Sladký
“It’s like a prayer. I don’t know if the other one can hear me and I am not even sure if I am honest enough,” confides one of the characters in Yi Yi while speaking to comatose grandmother. A family chronicle that Edward Yang made as his greatest – and, unfortunately, the last – achievement is an extraordinarily complex portrait of the present time. And not only in Taipei.
The story spans between a wedding and a funeral and touches upon many aspects of today’s life. It takes place in a world that is dominated by money and business relations and, to a certain extent, serves as its critique. But at the same time, apart from the impact of business it deals with the issue of family and humanity influenced by the media, spiritual questions and the role of death in the lives of the surviving friends and family, it thematizes the role of art and creativity and reflects communication struggles in an increasingly atomized society. The problem of the Taiwan community is not material deprivation, but disconnection. “I can’t see what you can. And you can’t see what I see,” says 8-year-old Yang Yang who promises to use the camera to “tell people what they don’t know”. That’s one of the reasons why he may be viewed as director Edward Yang’s alter ego.
For me personally, the most important aspect of Yang’s film is the portrait of interpersonal communication. The title Yi Yi: A One and A Two alludes to something easy, which seems to be in direct contrast to what we see. Why is the world so different from our expectations and why is it so hard to live without disappointing or hurting others? This question, giving the film a potential of melodrama, is being asked on several occasions by multiple characters. At least those who show consideration to others. Yi Yi presents a divided world in which businessman NJ cannot make a deal with someone he understands the most and whose innovative yet risky project makes a lot of sense to him. His wife, full of pain, leaves to join a convent while her mother is on her death bed. Her son cannot make himself talk to an elderly woman in a coma. Others find out they soon run out of things to say. They repeat trivialities, cannot find words. Perhaps one should accept these banalities and express them openly. They are simply not sure. None of the characters decides to open up and speak to the comatose woman about their troubles with love, breakups, burn-out and other problems. Confiding to someone is difficult. “Sharing” – which together with “following” is one of the key words of today, but with a shifted or even distorted meaning due to social media – is even harder. And so the film characters find themselves in the same situations as their parents. A helping hand is often a reason to say good-bye. Problems between couples repeat over and over. A Japanese IT specialist has a Taiwanese lookalike. The breakup of a daughter and the breakup of a father are juxtaposed in a sequence of scenes.
Others who visit the ailing grandmother during her last days feel remorseful or take their sessions with an unresponsive person only as their duty. Cute Yang Yang, teased and harassed by girls in the neighbourhood, is not among the main characters and yet he, in a way, epitomizes the spirit of the film. At first, he attempts to take pictures of mosquitoes in a room and then hands out to his relatives photos showing the back of their heads. In terms of mutual communication, these portraits are quite pitiful. But the boy accompanies them with words and perspective the subjects cannot have and he wants to provide it himself. This is where the meaning of any art work comes to life. Another reflection of creative or artistic values represents (diegetic) music and the way it is unusable in real life, elusive and yet indispensable. The film’s melancholic original score composed by the director’s wife Kai-li Peng is completed by, for example, Gershwin’s Summer Time, Bach or Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, rather than songs of the time.
Yi Yi distinctively reflects the legacy of modernism and new waves. It was Edward Yang and also Hou Hsiao-hsien who in their earlier works including A Brighter Summer Day (Yang, 1991) or A City of Sadness (Hou, 1989) narrated family chronicles that echoed the heritage of European post-war cinematography, such as neorealism and modernism. This way they were able to depict key moments of Taiwan history, no matter how politically inconvenient. Reflecting their own growing up, they described the experience of being in a youth gang, uprootedness and the search for new perspectives. After studies in the US and his return to Taiwan, Edward Yang became a leading figure who helped organize artistic and social activities that inspired many filmmakers at the time. Despite the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival for Yi Yi, his work still has not gained a broader international acclaim, which is, by all means, undeserved.
Still today, Yi Yi can be celebrated as a sensitive work giving space to a number of characters through emphatic distance. Or a formally refined film working with the motifs of symmetry, pairs, reflections on glass architectural surfaces, parallels in the lives of characters and repetitions in life cycles. In this respect, “One by One” would perhaps be a more fitting title than “A One and A Two”. It is impossible not to view it as a portrait of a time period that continues to this day. After two decades, not much in the film has aged and some aspects have become even more prominent than before.