By guest contributor Brian Hu, a film curator and educator with a focus on Asian and Asian American cinema.
Where does one start with Taiwan cinema? While it was barely scraping by with a couple dozen features per year in the early 2000s, the Taiwanese film industry had once been one of the world’s biggest, churning out a combination of local Taiwanese-language productions, big propaganda epics, and Hong Kong co-productions. This is a formidable history, one that has chronicled Taiwanese history (and its distortions), that has shaped the way we envision and listen to Taiwan, that has captured the imagination of Asia and beyond, and that has been hailed as one of the most artistically accomplished film capitals in cinema history.
We can start from the beginning, from scrappy producers in the 1950s or even a pre-history of documentaries during Japanese colonization. Or we can start with the box office hits and biggest stars. We can tell the story of the Golden Horse Awards, Taiwan’s answer to the Oscars. There are many ways to slice the (scallion) pie, so let’s go with one film per director, to give a sense of not just representative films, but also the many angles from which we can see Taiwan. On that note, let’s stick to only films set in Taiwan. Apologies to the great King Hu and Li Han-hsiang, who made unforgettable films shot in Taiwan but set in China. There are some notable omissions here, but rest assured, they may be coming in future lists…
The Husband’s Secret (Lin Tuan-chiu, 1960)
It perhaps says more about me that my favorite of the Taiwanese language films of the 1950s-60s isn’t the much-loved comedy Brother Liu and Brother Wang on the Roads in Taiwan or the iconic Fantasy of the Deer Warrior, but the thunderous love triangle melodrama The Husband’s Secret. Combining desire and sex, the domestic and the nightclub, The Husband’s Secret had a distinctly Japanese flair that perhaps spoke to director Lin Tuan-chiu’s time spent in the land of Mikio Naruse. With its innovative frames-within-frames and flashbacks-within-flashbacks, and a frankness about sexuality, The Husband’s Secret is proof that Taiwanese-language film was in some ways thinking bigger than the KMT-backed Mandarin productions.
Good Neighbors (Lee Hsing, 1962)
Lee Hsing’s greatest film (Execution in Autumn) is set in imperial China, but of his Taiwan-set ones, my heart is with the endearing comedy Good Neighbors about waishengren and benshengren tensions in the years after 2/28. The film industry tended to draw a clear line between Taiwanese and Mandarin cinemas, but Good Neighbors straddled languages and cultures with a light, inoffensive touch. The film reworks a similar storyline in Hong Kong’s The Greatest Civil War on Earth (1961) about a Shanghainese migrant living next to a Cantonese speaker.
The Story of Mother (Sung Tsun-shou, 1973)
The same year he made Outside the Window, which would launch the career of Brigitte Lin and vault Taiwan cinema in a more youthful direction, Sung Tsun-shou directed The Story of Mother, for me the climax of the Mandarin cinema’s family melodramas that dominated the 1960s and early 70s. You have estranged family, cheating mothers, sacrifice (oh, the sacrifice!), and an ending that will stop you in your tracks. Why this one works so much better than the Lee Hsing color dramas, and what made Sung the perfect Chiung Yao-era director, was how he was able to push the genre beyond the constrained ethics of a perfect society.
A Time to Live and a Time to Die (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1985)
Until the Taiwan New Cinema of the 1980s, films from Taiwan treated the island as an amorphous place: an unnamed territory, a bastion against Communism, a stand-in for ancient China. The Taiwan New Cinema gave Taiwan a name, a history, a culture, and an ethos. It explored the rootlessness of displaced populations, it considered Taiwan in its cultural complexity, it proposed multiple claims on Taiwan rather than a mythic one in China’s image. Most of all though, it asked us to see and hear ordinary Taiwanese people anew, often from the ground-up, often in long takes, often in their mundane but keenly observed lives. A Time to Live and a Time to Die is the exemplar of the movement, a film that spans decades, with a family that speaks three languages, in front of a giant tree that stands firm through the social and generational shifts. Hou has made more impressive films (see A City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster) but none captures the wayward reverberations and silences of a family like this.
A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang, 1991)
The Taiwan New Cinema movement churned out masterpiece after masterpiece. Director Edward Yang is responsible for (at least) three of them. A Brighter Summer Day is the towering accomplishment, not just for its grandiosity (it clocks in at four hours), but for its latitudinal view of a sprawling city in crisis. It’s the 1960s. The White Terror is reigning violent havoc on political dissent. Teen bands are covering Elvis. Young lovers find each other in the darkness. There will be a murder. Like few films before it, A Brighter Summer Day captures the weight of cultural change, and the fragile shoulders of a generation stepping up to carry it.
A Brighter Summer Day (full movie) is available to purchase or rent here (YouTube Pay to Watch)
Blue Gate Crossing (Yee Chin-yen, 2002)
While Taiwan New Cinema filmmakers found unprecedented international success, the domestic film industry crumbled. The early 2000s were despondent times for local film, but it also meant it could be reimagined from the embers. One of the most important results of an anything-goes industry is the surprising prevalence and success of queer films, from Formula 17 to the enchanting Blue Gate Crossing, a light-footed and utterly charming high school romance that set in motion a new genre and made stars of Gwei Lun-mei and Chen Bolin.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-liang, 2003)
Tsai Ming-liang portraits of urban alienation reached apocalyptic proportions with The Hole and Goodbye, Dragon Inn, the latter which also served as an allegory for the end of cinema as we know it. Here, we watch an audience watch a movie. The movie is King Hu’s Dragon Inn, one of the crowns of Taiwan cinema. The audience is sparse, distracted, crawling about like insects, cruising for attention. There may be ghosts. Practically free of dialogue and made up of Tsai’s signature hypnotic long takes, Goodbye, Dragon Inn may bid farewell to one notion of film, but births a cinema glorious and strange in the process.
Drifting Flowers (Zero Chou, 2008)
Along with Tsai Ming-liang and Mickey Chen, Zero Chou is the great chronicler of queer Taiwan onscreen. When she broke on the scene in the 2000s, she was one of the few out feature filmmakers in Asia, and her film Spider Lillies made her a sensation on the international LGBTQ circuit. Her follow-up, Drifting Flowers, floats across years and lifetimes, featuring a triptych of women finding love, captured with an other-worldly sense of shivering beauty as hypnotically fleeting as the flowers of its title.
More reading: [TaiwaneseAmerican.org] Director Zero Chou on “Spider Lilies” and the Evolution of Taiwanese Queer Cinema
The Falls (Chung Mong-hong, 2021)
Not since Tsai Ming-liang had there been a filmmaker to completely reimagine Taipei visually as Chung Mong-hong. His early films like Parking and The Fourth Portrait were bold, searing portraits more influenced by music video and commercials than the New Cinema. His characters were similarly freed from the earlier generation’s realist impulse, allowing Chung’s creative impulse to run free. The Falls has a Murakami-esque balance of passion and play. Set during the pandemic, the film revels in the unpinnable psychologies of a mother and daughter in confinement – their motivations as unreliable as the film’s bold approach to narrative.
The Falls is currently available for streaming on Netflix US.
Gaga (Laha Mebow, 2022)
While indigenous journalists and scholars made documentaries in the 1990s, indigenous narrative filmmaking didn’t gain traction until the 2000s. Cheng Wen-tang’s “aboriginal trilogy” and Wei Te-sheng’s Warriors of the Rainbow made important strides, but from a Han Chinese perspective. Umin Boya’s Kano was a box office box office hit, but it’s Atayal director Laha Mebow who has had the most sustained career writing and directing indigenous stories. Her latest, Gaga, is about protecting one’s ancestral land, maintaining tradition, and standing up for family, but with a comedic, even relaxed, tone that’s modest and joyous, comfortable in its own identity.
Brian Hu is an Associate Professor of TV, Film, and New Media at San Diego State University. He is also the artistic director of the San Diego Asian Film Festival, for which he curates an annual Taiwan Film Showcase. Other curatorial works include programs for the Criterion Channel and the UCLA Film & TV Archive. He is the author of the book Worldly Desires: Cosmopolitanism and Cinema in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and co-hosts the Asian American film history podcast Saturday School with Ada Tseng.
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