Escape from New York: Taipei

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Many of Reverse Shot's staff writers and contributors come from and reside in locations all over the U.S. and beyond. Escape from New York is a column devoted to reminding us Manhattan-and-Brooklyn-centric moviegoers that we are not the world when it comes to cinephila. In the following weeks and months, look for dispatches by a handful of our best writers from such far-flung locations as Taipei, Tel Aviv, London, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and more.

Looking for a Taiwanese Cinema, or Hou Goes There
by Andrew Chan

It’s been said before, but cinema can do strange things to one’s sense of place in the world. If you are inclined to see movies as a form of travel, you might become obsessed with the films of a particular country or region, and then start to feel, however unconsciously, that you have some kind of purchase on what life is like there. When I decided to leave New York for a year of Chinese-language study in Taipei, I realized I had a prematurely emotional connection to Taiwan before setting foot in it and that my impressions had been built entirely on the handful of films that have been available to me as an American viewer. I was also nervous about the backseat cinephilia might take in my life, but aware that just a little bit of detective work might teach me more about a national cinema I’ve been curious about ever since I was introduced to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films ten years ago.

As someone who grew up with an awareness of being at the margins of a larger diaspora, I found the concept of an all-embracing Chinese-language (huayu) cinema that could reflect the complexity and variety of life in overseas communities (and also challenge ideas about a monolithic Chinese experience) to be a major discovery. But now that the Taiwanese film industry has shrunk due to the dominance of Hollywood films (in the worst of conditions Taiwan was releasing only ten of its own titles a year) and is inexorably being subsumed into the Chinese market under new legislation promoting cross-strait production and distribution, it has become all the more uncertain the extent to which the Taiwanese film world should accept the assimilating influence of this huayu classification. In the West, the excitement over Taiwanese cinema was never able to reach beyond the Hou Hsiao-hsien/Edward Yang/Tsai Ming-liang triumvirate. Independent filmmaking on the mainland has since eclipsed Taiwan and Hong Kong, drawing unprecedented attention partly for the sheer courage often required of its young directors and for its relevance to the narrative of an economically powerful, politically volatile PRC.

Much of the perception of Taiwanese cinema’s artistic credibility here seems to revolve not only around a handful of Western-critic-approved native auteurs, but also around the idea of each of them contributing to a larger pan-Chinese film heritage. One can perhaps trace the origins of this bifurcated perspective to the concept of Taiwan as a repository for authentic Chinese identity (Taipei’s magnificent National Palace Museum being the foremost example of the cultural treasures that post-1949 immigrants salvaged from the mainland), as well as to the notion of Taiwan as a uniquely cosmopolitan branch of Chinese society. Located in a 1920s building that was once the U.S. Consulate and later became the residence of five U.S. ambassadors, Spot Taipei Film House embodies the contradictions at play in Taiwanese cinephilia. The classical Greek-influenced architecture, tucked behind a gate and a row of tall trees, brings to mind the insidiously pristine surfaces of the U.S. embassy in Zhuang Xiang Zeng’s short The Taste of Apples (part of the seminal 1983 omnibus film The Sandwich Man, co-directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien), a film that satirized the Western presence on the island and its disregard for the local community. Enter the gift shop on the ground floor, and you are immediately greeted with a wall covered with the faces of usual suspects: Wong Kar-wai, Ang Lee, Edward Yang, Ann Hui, Zhang Yimou. Functioning much like the design shop at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, this small branch of the popular bookstore chain Eslite is filled with non-film-related, Western-style trinkets, handbags, and souvenirs, emphasizing a link between art appreciation and chic modern living. The layout can’t help but suggest that the idolization of Chinese art cinema is ultimately inseparable both from European canon-centric film culture, and from Taiwan’s own fetishization of Western hipness.

Coming from the U.S., where Hou Hsiao-hsien has only recently been able to secure decent distribution for his films, I find it gratifying to see his face enshrined throughout this film-culture center, though it’s also funny when you learn that he currently serves as its president. A small display table offers up his legacy for sale, not only in the form of a fancy greatest-hits DVD box set, but also with postcards commemorating his key films and little blank journals bearing his autograph. To the left of the bookstore is a swanky coffee shop called (of course) Café Lumière, and in the lobby Hou’s interviews screen on a loop. Leaving aside his brilliance and consistency as an artist, there are a number of reasons that Hou has assumed the role of Taiwanese cinema’s leading elder statesman. While the other New Wave titan, the late Edward Yang, embraced his American influences and made no secret about resenting Taiwanese indifference toward his films (reportedly going so far as to decline an invitation for a Taipei retrospective after Yi Yi won at Cannes), Hou has recently focused his efforts on nurturing Taiwanese cinema and its global presence. This year he served as the chairman of the Golden Horse Film Festival, and I was finally able to see his trademark casual, no-nonsense attitude on display at one of the festival’s roundtables last November. Additionally, he has been a champion of recent populist indie hits like Cape No.7 and Taipei Exchange (films that thematically could not be more different from his own), and a vocal advisor for the local industry’s economic development.

Whereas Yang spent much of his career lamenting and occasionally lampooning the facelessness of modern, urban Taiwan, Hou’s early works chronicle salt-of-the-earth types, and the small towns and disappearing forms of culture his films have shed light upon have since benefitted from his attention. Within my first few months in Taipei, I traveled to a small mountain village called Jiufen on the outskirts of the capital, and learned that it was not until Hou shot City of Sadness there that its declining economy began to revive. Today the town’s narrow streets overlooking the Pacific Ocean are lined with teahouses and food stalls that attract crowds of tourists. At the foot of one hill, I was surprised to see a decrepit building covered with a huge vintage poster of Hou’s Dust in the Wind, obscured behind a tower of scaffolding. My second Hou-related excursion was to Sanzhi, another small town toward the north of New Taipei, and the home of the Yi Wan Ran traditional puppet troupe to which The Puppetmaster’s Li Tian-lu belonged. A modestly sized museum, which sits right across the street from Li’s current family home, chronicles the evolution of the art form as well as its newfound popularity in Europe. It also serves as a small collection of Hou-related items, ranging from a postcard written by Juliette Binoche to Li’s son (with whom she collaborated on Flight of the Red Balloon) to a wall full of the director’s film posters.

The Hou pilgrimaging was followed by a few other discoveries in Taipei’s used bookstores, most exciting of which were one Chinese-language book on Edward Yang and two on the great cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin, who speaks unpretentiously and candidly about the style he has developed working with Hou, Wong, and other Asian art-house fixtures. But aside from these initial fanboy geek-outs, my stay in Taipei has been a modest attempt to temper my own tendency for hero-worship, the kind that tends to straitjacket our understanding of Taiwanese film in the West. On the one hand this has been easier said than done, since the opportunities to explore non-contemporary Taiwanese cinema have not been as abundant as I had hoped. The Chinese Taipei Film Archive is not nearly as active or historically oriented in its programming as the Hong Kong Film Archive manages to be, and the few local video stores I’ve sought out primarily stock current, popular movies. Since bootlegging is not as widespread here, there is less of a chance of coming across something truly surprising, as I invariably did every time I went DVD-browsing on the mainland. My single eureka moment occurred upon finding a rare DVD of a film I have been waiting for years to see: the Martin Scorsese-touted A Borrowed Life (1994), whose director, Wu Nianzhen, is the star of Yang’s Yi Yi and a co-screenwriter on a number of early Hou films.

As on the mainland, Taiwanese film-viewing habits, at least among all of the young people I’ve met, center on downloading movies for free. Nevertheless there are still opportunities to keep up-to-date on cinema aside from looking for it online. Thanks to savvy local distributor Atom Cinema, which has found a way to market both the highlights of international cinema and new Taiwanese fare, major films like Certified Copy and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives have arrived in Taipei multiplexes before they had their American releases (the experience of seeing a Chinese-subtitled print of the multilingual, transnational Kiarostami film—which is partly about the smoke and mirrors of language and the thrill of making-believe in foreign tongues—remains the most exhilarating and mind-warping moviegoing experience I’ve had here so far). Along with the commercial success of local films like Cape No. 7 and Monga, which has led some to prognosticate a film-industry revival in the near future, the number of Taiwanese films in theatrical release has reportedly quadrupled within the past few years. While most of what screens here are still Hollywood movies, I’ve enjoyed delving into recent Taiwanese cinema that, without auteur or festival pedigree, has failed to make any impression abroad.

What I’ve found has been mixed, with the overwhelming majority being sentimental comedies and feature-length soap operas (for example, the by-the-numbers gay teenage drama Eternal Summer and the Filipino immigrant-themed Pinoy Sunday). Out of economic necessity, so much of Taiwanese filmmakers’ energy has gone into television dramas, music videos, and commercials, and the influence of those forms is apparent. And since much of what is made here has little chance of winning over either mainland audiences (the record-breaking Cape No. 7, one of the handful of Taiwanese films to screen in China recently, was met with a lukewarm reception) or foreign fans anticipating the next Hou or Tsai, filmmakers are forced to confront the problem of addressing a Taiwanese audience that has on the whole seemed reluctant to support local voices. But two of the winners at last year’s Golden Horse Film Awards provide glimpses of a promising younger generation of directors. Both Chang Tso-chi’s When Love Comes and Mong-hong Chung’s The Fourth Portrait, which have been making rounds at a few foreign film festivals, are family dramas centered on potentially sensationalistic issues—the former tackles unwanted pregnancy; the latter, child abuse. Both resist sentimentality and easy psychology, and also deal frankly with sex and death minus the stylistic disaffection that has become so common post-Tsai.

Along with Seven Days in Heaven, an uneven but more commercially successful indie comedy from last year, these films offer the kind of pointed critique of Taiwanese culture that gets obscured in the aestheticized urban alienation of Tsai’s work or Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Millennium Mambo. As all of the New Wave titans have in their own ways branched out into international settings and more globalized subject matter, the sense that these stories are valuable because of their cultural particularity, their lack of interchangeability with anything going on in mainland or Hong Kong cinema, is all the more acute. Though cinema quickly becomes dull when it’s reduced to being just a mouthpiece for the nation, my half-year in Taipei has already attuned me to how even a temporary place of residence can subtly shift one’s critical allegiances and interests.

Within the past ten years, Netflix, YouTube, and various forms of free streaming and downloading for film lovers of all persuasions have ushered us into an age in which it’s easy to feel that we have unlimited access to even the most obscure corners of the film universe. Audiences are no longer restricted to what is released theatrically or on video, and the increasing ease of finding foreign films online can give an American cinephile the sense of being a world citizen. But it’s important to remember that location still plays a large role in determining not only the films we get to see but also our awareness of what’s important to seek out and the social conditions that dictate what gets made and distributed. After I had moved to New York from the South, where access to non-Hollywood films was scarce, it was inevitable that my two years in the city would be the most exultant cinephilic experience of my life. The sheer number of films at one’s disposal on any given day, and the staggering variety of those films, leads one to ignore the possibility that any kind of provincialism might be cultivated within such an embarrassment of riches.

But certainly in America we have little sense of the urgency with which a small territory—one whose autonomy and sovereignty are constantly being contested, even from within—struggles to create a national voice onscreen, and how this competition for global attention affects its filmmaking for better or worse. Many of the contemporary Taiwanese films I’ve been able to catch up with are invested in the task of simply putting the island on the map: Pinoy Sunday circles again and again around the Taipei 101 landmark, while Au Revoir Taipei ostentatiously uses locations such as the city’s 24-hour Eslite bookstore. According to Taipei mayor Hau Lung-bin, such films are most important for functioning as “a successful campaign for the city,” a stimulus for tourism. And since most Taiwanese films remain under-seen both at home and abroad, this emphasis on forcing Taipei onto the global stage seems not just a political preoccupation but, in some ways, a purely practical one.

As a critic who has developed a special interest in a regional cinema, how should I navigate between my beliefs in the concept of aesthetic greatness and the value of being a generalist, and a contradictory impulse to measure films on the illusory scale of social representativeness? It’s hard to say, but watching The Social Network—the supposed “film of our generation”—with an audience of mostly Taiwanese youth, I wondered if and how the desire for zeitgeist-tapping expression might be manifested in their moviegoing, and how it could possibly be fulfilled in a movie culture dominated by American films. Maybe it’s a useless question, or merely a foreigner’s false projection. Or maybe it demonstrates one of those foolish hopes at the heart of cinephilia: that all this artifice can make a place and its people realer to us and to themselves.

Photo by Andrew Chan.