According to film historian Daw-Ming Lee, one of the major gaps in scholarship surrounding the study of Taiwan film history is the period before the 50’s.
“Relatively few books and essays, in any language, have explored Taiwan cinema during the Japanese colonial period. In the past quarter of a century, most film studies on Taiwan cinema in the West discuss only films and their makers after 1950, especially those after the emergence of Taiwan New Cinema.” (Daw-Ming Lee)
The reason for this is because these films were never considered Japanese cinema, but were also, to varying degrees, distinguished from main land china, leaving them with a lack of cultural recognition on the international stage while also isolated as a territory.
Further complicating the matter is the fact that, in dealing with Taiwanese Cinema one also needs to navigate the competing and interconnected world of Chinese-language films and Chinese politics as a whole, with a distinct Taiwanese Cinema (and culture for that matter) only becoming truly visible in recent years with the New Wave, and even then being burdened by this complicated landscape.
“Research in world cinema addresses three major areas of Chinese-language cinema:
Chinese cinema, Hong Kong cinema and Taiwanese cinema.
Most research on Chinese-language cinema focuses on kung fu movies, authorship, political identity, gender, and aesthetics. The best-known research on Taiwanese cinema relates to Taiwanese New Cinema and authorship.” (The Film Industry in Taiwan: A Political Economy Perspective).
To truly understand Taiwanese New Cinema (New Wave), one needs to be able to understand their colonial past, as their more recent struggles to define themselves over (and depending on the lens one uses, against) mainland China has tried to locate their identity within and in relationship to this developing history. Taiwanese cinema was the earliest of Japan’s colonial industries (film markets), and can also be considered its most vibrant, which allowed the Taiwanese people to use this fact to quietly grow their culture even in in the midst of colonization.
For example, a defining element of Japanese early cinema was the incorporation and development of the “benshi”, artists who would narrate films at public showings. One of the characteristics of the benshi artform was that a different one would perform at different showings, thus making each viewing unique not only in terms of how the story was told in a particular and different flavor, but in its demonstration of and ability to highlight the cultural touch points of a given area and a regional expression. The Taiwanese took this tradition and renamed it piān-sū, which allowed its local culture to be preserved and celebrated through their particular interpretations of films showing in their Country, which at that time were largely exhibitionist films coming in from the outside. Later on, the emphasis the Taiwanese New Cinema would (and does) place on interior spaces (with symmetrical lines and spaces and walled rooms) is representative of this same sort of Japanese influence being interpreted through their own cultural and specific Taiwanese lens, as is their dedication to slow cinema and a critical focus on encroaching urbanization.
One thing is for sure. Taiwanese Cinema has played a huge and significant role in helping Taiwan to establish itself as a distinct culture and identity in what grew to be a complicated political system in China, especially as it developed from an “exhibition” state under Japanese rule to a commercial hub in relationship to Hong Kong (dominated by the Central Motion Picture Corporation, a state-sponsored studio with heavy censorship characteristic of an authoritarian state). It’s desire to distinguish itself as a place dedicated to true artistic expression and to give rise to authentic artistic voices and the concern of the Manifesto that would eventually help to bring change and a sense of definition to the Country as a whole, would be the very thing that would allow the Country to tell the story of it’s people, its place, and its circumstance. And this persists through its particular sociopolitical challenges:
“(On a sociopolitical level) Taiwan has grown increasingly isolated on the international stage. Whereas Taiwan had official diplomatic relations with almost 70 states back in the late 1960s, only 17 states currently still recognize the Taiwanese government as the legitimate representative of the Chinese people… Contrary to what its political and economic impotence might suggest, however, there is one area in which Taiwan has played a hugely important role: cinema.” (Andrew Emerson, The Beginners Guide: New Taiwan Cinema)
As mentioned, it would be impossible to avoid mention of the Tawain Cinema Manifesto, signed by 54 filmmakers in 1987, when talking about Taiwan Cinema. It criticized censorship and the governments failure to recognize film as a necessary and important artform in the sociopolitical arena, pushing for a distincly Taiwanese culture and industry and leading to international recognition. Why do manifesto’s matter? Because they speak to distinct Taiwanese concerns:
“One can think of New Taiwanese films’ lack of narrative as one way in which they sought to distinguish themselves from their Hollywood and Hong Kong counterparts. More generally, this lack of narrative also speaks to the underlying intentions of New Taiwanese filmmakers. They weren’t so much interested in telling stories as they were in evoking, analyzing, and critiquing an atmosphere and way of life.” (Andrew Emerson)
THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT
To understand the Taiwan Film industry, it’s important to understand the history of the Country.
This reaches back to the overthrowing of the Qing Dynasty (1911), and the establishing of the Republic of China and the Chinese Nationalist Party (under Dr. Sun Yat-sen). With Taiwan having been ceded to Japan and made a Japanese colony following the war in 1894 and not made a part of China until 1946, their relationship developed somewhat estranged from both Japan and China for a good part of its most recent history. This would lead to Taiwan being the place where the Chinese Nationalists, following the civil war in the late 1940’s, would flee and establish roots when Communist Rule (under Mao) overtook the Republic of China. Here the Nationalists would begin to think about their Chinese identity, refusing to disassociate from the ROC under communist rule and essentially creating the two state structure (the PROC… Peoples Republic of China, and the ROC). Taiwan became something of a safe haven due to protection from international forces (including the U.S.).
It is because of this precarious position, of being considered a province and a Country, and being under the Nationalist Party, the provincial government and military rule, and encroaching influences and pressures coming from those protecting them from Communist China (Western influence), that the film industry was forced to build itself from the ground up, essentially establishing itself as the honest and integral voice of its people from within these political entities.
THE POWER OF LANGUAGE AND THE RELEVANCE OF ART
A hugely important facet and characteristic of Taiwan’s cinematic identity was the ability of their specific language to persist through both Japanese and Chinese rule, both of which positioned Taiwan primarily as an exhibitionist territory (and in the case of Hong Kong, committing them to commercial and genre films). This protecting of and dedication to their language allowed them to build their culture, imagine (and reimagine) their past, and discover their story without being consumed by these external forces, even with (and through) the development of the”Central Motion Picture Corporation (CMPC)”, the unifying of Chinese Cinema into a single entity. And given how dedicated (and successful) Hong Kong was to producing mainstream and commercial films, their connection to the story of their people through language was what allowed them to begin to develop a serious film industry built on artistic creativity rather than money.
“By the end of the 1970s Taiwan audience was antipathetic to the unimaginative remakes or copies of “national policy films,” martial arts swordplay wuxia pian, and kung fu films, as well as romantic Chiungyao films and melodramatic wenyi pian, causing a significant decline at the box office. It was against such a sluggish economic environment that a fresh group of young writers and directors began to make different and original films.” (Daw-Ming Lee)
This dedication to artistic and creative value would lead to the influential Taiwanese New Cinema movement and the infamous Manifesto that would help give it concrete definition and form.
“Most films made by Taiwan New Cinema (TNC) directors were successful, both critically and commercially, from 1982 to 1984. After 1985, when many of their films did not do well, such as Edward Yang’s Taipei Story (1985), critical voices against Taiwan New Cinema started to appear in the press, and such critics gradually formed an alliance with the traditional film industry (“old” cinema). The conflict between filmmakers and critics who supported and opposed the TNC extended from newspapers and journals to the jury meetings at the 1985 Golden Horse Awards. Contrary to the animosity shown against Taiwan New Cinema films in Taiwan, international film festivals in Europe and North America began to celebrate the TNC films, especially those by Hou and Yang, which won numerous awards beginning in 1986. Facing the unfriendly press and film critics, discrimination from the local film industry, and an apathetic government, the TNC filmmakers and their supporters finally issued the “Taiwan New Cinema Manifesto” in 1987, criticizing the government, press, and certain film critics.” (Daw-Ming Lee)
The key, characteristic of the Manifesto?
“In the manifesto, the 54 New Taiwanese filmmakers expressed three major concerns. First, they criticized the Taiwanese government for its policies towards filmmaking, claiming that it was more interested in promoting “political propaganda” and “commercial filmmaking” than “cultural activities.” Second, the 54 signers also criticized the mass media for its refusal to treat cinema as an important part of artistic culture. And third, they also attacked Taiwanese film critics, asserting that said critics tended to “support the idea that Taiwanese films should emulate those of Hong Kong and Hollywood.”
– Film Inquiry: A Beginner’s Guide to New Taiwan Cinema
A PRESENT AND FUTURE INDUSTRY
Most of the world knows China through the films of Hong Kong. It is one of the fastest growing industries in the world with its export of film sitting just behind that of the U.S.. These films play internationally, have the necessary budget and funding, and have the benefit of a strong commercial industry backing them. And yet, it is the filmmaking coming out of Taiwan that remains most crucial to the building of the Chinese identity, the same industry that helped build Taiwan and develop it according to its distinct language, culture and story. The problem that the Country still faces is for these films to continue to find the opportunity to influence the mainland with its commentary and representative voice. Without money and the commercial heft of Hong Kong, it needs to operate in relationship with Mainland China, which is a complicated endeavor given censorship, still competing political interests, and their equal desire to find and maintain a degree of independence.
What Taiwan does have that Hong Kong doesn’t though is a recognizable presence at international film festivals. This is something that its creative and artistic voice has allowed to prosper in recent years.
“If we regard Hong Kong cinema as crowd-pleasing entertainment, then Taiwanese films are more art-oriented. Hong Kong cinema focuses on commercialism, while Taiwanese cinema emphasizes ideology or aesthetics.” (Taiwan: A Political History)
Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-liang, and Ang Lee are three distinct Taiwanese arthouse Directors who helped pave some inroads on the international and festival market stage, begging the question of a distinguishing Taiwanese identity. Regarding the future, “the question is not only about whether the Taiwanese film industry should focus its efforts on art films or commercial films, but also about how the Taiwanese film industry has coped with the dramatic rise of the whole Chinese-language film market.” (The Film Industry in Taiwan: a Political economic study).
Building their industry based an intrinsic artistic value and dedication to the craft has allowed Taiwan, despite the censorship rules, to invest quietly and subtly into its filmmakers, whereas Hong Kong has devoted its time to building an industry. Two very different approaches with very different concerns and very different outcomes. It is here that Taiwan’s cinematic identity will likely continue to be defined. Films like the sweeping and epic A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY, A CITY OF SADNESS, and THE PUPPETMASTER are definite examples of Taiwanese New Cinema, all award winning films which filtered the particular Taiwanese Manifesto as a local and nationally focused cultural concern. They represent stories and events that place an emphasis on character (and psychological study), Nationalistic concerns (external narratives), and an interior focus (internal narratives). Yang, known for TAIPAI STORY and the exceptional YI YI, (and TERRORIZERS), are examples of the focus these films are able to give to one of Taiwan’s most pressing concerns- urbanization. In particular, my favorite New Taiwan Cinema film, the spiritual epic A TIME TO LIVE AND A TIME TO DIE, is a wonderful and compelling fusion of all these elements. Likewise, for one of the earliest representations and works from the New Wave, Chen Kunhou’s GROWING UP is a great place to see this movement being set in motion, representing a truly patient and touching story of Taiwan through a story that reflects both time and place.
Where ever you start in exploring the Country through film, and it is likely you will begin to explore Taiwan through its New Wave films (which in and of themselves reflect a diversity within their shared focus and characteristics), what is immediately evident is the level of awareness and intelligence present in these films. As a cultured representation of a people defined by persistence, patience and awareness, these films refuse to rush their narratives. They hold a real ability to reflect, but with a past-present-future focus. And above all, they show a spirited refusal to give in to outside pressure, to conform, creating some of the most honest and integral artistic films available. A true inspiration, and an industry that will be exciting to watch develop even further.
Here is my working list of films for my watchlist, some that I have seen and some that I am working through:
Film in Taiwan by Daw-Ming Lee
Berry, Chris and Fei Lu, editors. Island on the Edge: Taiwan New Cinema and After.
Roy, Denny. Taiwan: A Political History. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003.
Tweedie, James. The Age of New Waves: Art Cinema and the Staging of Globalization. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Yeh, Emilie Yueh-Yu and Darrell William Davis. Taiwan Film Directors: A Treasure Island. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
Yip, June. Envisioning Taiwan: Fiction, Cinema, and the Nation in the Cultural Imaginary. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.