These past few years have been full of cinematic milestones for Asian Americans. Fresh Off the Boat season six hit TV screens (and laptops), while Crazy Rich Asians insisted on some long overdue decadence and romance, finally free of Orientalist tropes or tokenization. Despite the commercial success and generally good reception of both, I couldn’t help but still feel unrepresented. As a third culture kid, I could connect with bits and pieces of the Asian American topics, but the other side of me, the “fresh off the plane” Asian side of me, felt that there was something missing — my roots. One critique I hear a lot from Taiwanese folks is, “this show [Fresh Off the Boat] isn’t Taiwanese at all!”
To which I respond, “It’s not, it’s for Asian Americans.”
So what TV shows or films help me feel close to my Taiwanese heritage?
When I talk to Taiwanese Americans at workshops, usually someone asks, “Are there any good Taiwanese movies?” What comes to mind are rom-coms like You’re the Apple of My Eye or Cape No. 7 — but neither of those, I feel, fully capture Taiwan’s essence. At the same time, something like Formosa Betrayed seemed a bit too heavy handed. A few weeks ago, I found the right answer: documentaries. While documentaries are typically more serious, the human emotions and stories behind them are universal.
Documentaries was thus the theme of the first-ever Taiwan Film Festival in Boston. Initially, I was expecting to review films similar to popular hits like On Happiness Road or Seediq Bale, but instead I was greeted with six documentaries. I watched all the trailers and was extremely excited. I was asked to join the team and I made it my mission to use these films to not just spread the different human stories of Taiwan, but generate a dialogue about the complexities of Taiwan.
Late Life: The Chien-Ming Wang Story
If Linsanity is a documentary about a star’s rise, Late Life: The Chien-Ming Wang Story is the story of a star’s fall from grace. Jeremy Lin may be the current star of Taiwanese Americans, but back in 2006, Chien-Ming Wang was all the buzz. He was the first Taiwanese pitcher to step on the MLB mound, and for the New York Yankees no less. If you thought “Linsanity” was hype in America, the entire island of Taiwan was up on their feet whenever Chien-Ming played. Taiwan’s newspapers would sell 300,000+ copies whenever he played a game.
However, this documentary isn’t about the “entire country wakes up at 4am to watch Yankees game” Chien-Ming time, but instead about his recovery from a fall. His fall started with a series of injuries from his foot to arm. “You’ve achieved so much,” people said. , No one would accuse him of underachieving, or doing too little; he could have ended his story there. However, he strived to be back on the big stage again. “I just want to be back in the Major leagues, even if it’s just for one day.”
As I watched this, I couldn’t help but think about Jeremy Lin. After Linsanity, Jeremy went onto the Rockets, and then the Hornets, before landing in the Brooklyn Nets where he sustained a serious injury. Jeremy has not been able to stay on any team for more than 2 years since then. I don’t want it to happen, but what if Jeremy ends up dropping out of the “Majors” and into the “Minors,” never knowing if or when he’ll make it back?
While the star of “Late Life” is of course a man renowned for athletic triumph, the story focuses more on his extraordinarily resilience. The story is of the support he received from his friends and family and a reminder that it takes a team to win the game of life.
The Lost Black Cat Squadron
While people may think Taiwan is currently under tensions with China, this films reminds us of a time when it was even more rense. In 1949, the Republic of China (ROC) lost the Chinese Civil War to the Communist Party and fled to Taiwan. Then, in the 50s, the Cold War hit and America was afraid of the rise of the Red Communist. Using the ROC as an ally, United States helped train ROC pilots to fly U2 spy planes over China for recon.
The Lost Black Cat Squadron documentary starts out like Top Gun meets Bourne Identity with lots of secrecy and espionage . However, it evolves into a thrilling story of abandonment and betrayal. Two of the pilots were drowned over China and were believed to be dead. However 20 years later, they were found to be quite alive and released from captivity, only to be denied entry back into Taiwan. The government they had served and lost 20 years for was worried that the two pilots had defected to China and were considered a national threat. Stuck between two lands, one which was never home, the other which denied them a home, these two pilots turned to the American government and were finally able to move to the United States.
Movies like this remind us of Taiwan’s perilous history and its episodes of paranoia. We often watch movies of America in the past and imagine America in a time of war and struggle, but when we think about Taiwan, it’s always filled with food, laughter and romance. It’s difficult to see the island so paranoid that they would deny entry to two men who sacrificed 20 years of their lives as prisoners of war. It’s important to acknowledge the complexity of our past and how these can be represented in the media.
Our Youth in Taiwan
With the bloom of Taiwan’s democracy, civil movements are becoming a more feasible and popular way for direct civic engagement among citizens. Our Youth in Taiwan captures the experiences of two prominent student activists, Bo-Yi Cai and Wei-Ting Chen.
This film is well-known because of Wei-Ting’s status as a celebrity activist during the Sunflower Movement, but the big student movement wasn’t the focal point of the film. If I had to summarize the film, it would be about personal character growth. Both Bo-Yi and Wei-Ting started out as naive and pure-hearted optimists, but slowly saw the not-so-perfect reality of a young and volatile political environment. It was disheartening to see their hopes for democracy shatter, but at the same time, their perseverance towards what can sometimes feel like an impossible future for Taiwan was very inspiring.
I have seen three of the six movies to be shown at the festival. Maybe I’ll follow up with the remaining three, but even now, I feel confident that these six films represent a side of Taiwan that is hard to capture through any conventional action movie or romantic flick. The first time I saw the film festival on Facebook, it was marketed as “The FIRST Taiwan Film Festival in Boston.” I can’t wait to see what is to come with the second, third and beyond.
I am so excited to see how this film festival will introduce Taiwan in all of its complex glory to New England. More and more, through many voices and mediums, our story will be told.
Check out all the films that will be shown at the festival here: https://www.taiwanfilmfestival.org/short-film
If you are in the Boston area, make sure to buy your tickets here:
Use the promo code “TA.org” to get discounted tickets
Eric Tsai grew up in Taiwan and graduated with a BS in Computer Science from Rutgers University. He was Vice President of the Rutgers Taiwanese American Student Association. After graduating, he was involved in Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA) workshops and helped organize multiple UN4Taiwan/Keep Taiwan Free rallies. He co-founded OFTaiwan as a way to help Taiwanese Americans learn more about Taiwan. Through the organization, he has spoken to multiple college Taiwanese American Associations and has been invited to hold workshops at ITASA conferences. He is fluent in Taiwanese, Mandarin, and English. He is currently based in Boston but is hoping to move back to Taiwan soon.