Filmmakers in Taiwan have always had their sights on the world and not just the nation. For one, the concept of nation in Taiwan is tricky, especially through decades of colonization, American influence, and rapid globalization. When we think of the globalization of Taiwanese cinema, we typically think of the international film festival success of filmmakers like Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, and Tsai Ming-liang. But we can also observe that filmmakers in Taiwan have long travelled abroad to study filmmaking, and they have long depicted Taiwanese characters moving overseas to study, do business, go on vacation, or simply imagine what it means to belong to both Taiwan and the world. We might think of these films as the predecessors of Taiwanese American cinema as we think of it today.
My research on this question formed one of the chapters of my book Worldly Desires: Cosmopolitanism and Cinema in Hong Kong and Taiwan. For the chapter, I dove into films from the 1960s and 70s, and I’m sharing some of them here, along with some more recent titles. Many are hard to find, let alone with English subtitles. Many of the 1960s-70s films were produced in a propagandistic ecosystem, and so their representations of “Taiwanese Americans” are framed through the needs of the nation. In fact, never is the term “Taiwanese American” ever used. Instead, characters are “Huaqiao” or “liuxuesheng,” scattered across the world but still culturally, economically, and politically tied to a homeland.
I like to imagine these were the kinds of films my parents may have been watching growing up in Taiwan, imagining the challenges and adventures ahead of them when they stepped off the China Airlines flight in the 1970s. Eventually their kids would grow up and lead lives unimaginable in these films from Taiwan. They may even make films of their own, a subject for a future list.
Through the Years (Richard Chen, 1964)
While studying film at UCLA, director Richard Chen made an animated short The Archer that combines Chinese folklore and western elements, all with an English-language soundtrack. He also made the semi-experimental Through the Years, a hybrid fiction-documentary film about westward expansion in the U.S. and the significance of Chinese rail workers. In other words, he was exploring an Asian American subjectivity before such a concept existed in cinema. Another important bridge between Taiwan and Asian America is that Richard’s sister Betty Chen was a key figure in the early years of Visual Communications, the Los Angeles-based media collective.
Trailer for another of Richard Chen’s works, 上山 The Mountain
Home Sweet Home (Pai Ching-jui, 1970)
The title says it all. While this is a film about six students from Taiwan studying in the United States, the moral balance of the film is about them realigning with their true home: that of bustling Taipei and an up-and-coming agricultural wonderland in central Taiwan. There is sexual impropriety and adultery, the sort of thing that draws clear lines between who go abroad for the right reasons, and who’s simply trying to dabble in western vices. It’s also a lively ensemble piece, the product of a filmmaker who himself studied overseas (in Italy) and made a number of stories about overseas students and their exploits. See also Accidental Trio (aka Not Coming Home Today) (1968) and Two Ugly Men (1973).
Love Can Forgive and Forget (Liao Hsiang-hsiong, 1971)
The Taiwanese American is the hole in the middle of Love Can Forgive and Forget. The comedy is how that hole gets filled in. We learn of a teenage girl who moved to the U.S. when she was young. She went missing after a plane accident, and her family can’t bear to let her grandfather in Taiwan know. And so they bring in the teenager’s lookalike Meihong (played by the ever magnetic Judy Ongg) to play the part of the Taiwanese American, stereotypes and all. It’s a playful ruse that brings Taiwan and Taiwanese America together. Interestingly, ten years later, a darker version of this same set-up plays out in the ghostly My Cape of Many Dreams, directed by the master of the Chiung Yao drama, Liu Li-li.
Long Way from Home (Liu Yi, 1974)
By the 1970s, we get a number of productions actually set in the United States. Ting Shan-si’s overseas student drama The Eternal Love (1978) is set at the University of North Carolina. Long Way from Home is the most star-studded. Featuring Brigitte Lin and Charlie Chin, stars of the Chiung Yao romances so popular throughout that decade, Long Way from Home brings domestic melodrama to the Bay Area. There is a Berkeley engineering student who moonlights as a Chinatown waiter. There are the touristic scenes set by the Bay while sentimental rhapsodies play over slow motion courtship. It’s a romanticization of travel, a cautionary tale, and a valorization of the nation in one.
Land of the Brave (Lee Hsing, 1981)
After the U.S. severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1978, the overseas student film recommitted to national values. In Land of the Brave, we meet several students who studied overseas, including in Japan, Italy, and the U.S. The film celebrates those who return to the nation (“the land of the brave”) and who discard the “scent of the westerner.” The U.S. returnee in particular is keen to apply his agricultural education to building the Taiwanese economy. If it all sounds propagandistic, it is. However, director Lee Hsing, one of Taiwan’s greatest, pulls it all together convincingly under the rousing banner of the film’s theme song “Descendants of the Dragon,” sung by Lee Chien-fu. Trivia: that song was later covered by Lee Chien-fu’s nephew, none other than Taiwanese American Leehom Wang, who himself returned a cultural hero, though he’s more recently been dismissed as the kind of overseas sexual deviant we see in the Pai Ching-jui films.
The Wedding Banquet (Ang Lee, 1993)
Ang Lee occupies a special space between Taiwan and Taiwanese America. Raised in Taiwan, and going to America for higher education, he famously spent the 1980s trying unsuccessfully to get a film career going. His breakthrough came with the help of the Taiwan Government Information Office. As Taiwan’s box office dwindled, the government looked beyond its borders for new talent. Through a GIO screenwriting contest, they found such a talent in an NYU grad whose winning scripts, Pushing Hands and The Wedding Banquet, would occasion co-productions between Taiwan finance and U.S. locales. The Wedding Banquet was the international breakthrough: a domestic comedy about a gay Taiwanese man hiding from his parents back at home the fact that he’s gay. Hugely influential, endlessly discussed, and still beloved, The Wedding Banquet is one of the great works of Taiwan and Asian American cinema.
Kangaroo Man (Emily Liu, 1995)
Hot off The Wedding Banquet came another American-set family comedy produced by the Taiwan government’s Central Motion Picture Corporation. Director Emily Liu actually worked on Ang Lee’s Pushing Hands, and like Lee was a graduate of American film schools, in this case UCLA. Adapted from a book by fellow Taiwan-raised, US-based author Lily Hsueh, Kangaroo Man is about a man who, through a miracle of science, is able to become pregnant. There’s a way in which such a seemingly incongruous mutant of a man could only exist in some faraway galaxy (America!), and it similarly feels quintessentially from the gaze of the homeland that such an incongruity (and as with The Wedding Banquet, a queerness) can be rendered wholesomely Confucian.
Modern Republic (Blacky Ko, 1995)
It seemed inevitable that the quintessential ABTs – Jeff, Stanley, and Steven of L.A. Boyz – would, after taking Taiwan by storm through their American-accented Taiwanese, foreign muscles, and rapping skills, would star in their own feature film. Modern Republic aims to mythologize their own humble beginnings as California kids with hip-hop dreams. And yet, this is very much a Taiwanese imagination of ethnoburb life: cool 90s kids hanging out with multiracial crews, wooing white girls, and passing by cops on horses. As wild as that is, I’m most flabbergasted by the all-star cast/crew they assembled around the Boyz: actors Lee Tien-lu (the legendary Puppetmaster himself!) and Yang Kuei-mei (fresh off Eat Drink Man Woman and Vive l’amour), and the greatest cinematographer of his generation Mark Lee Ping-bing (of In the Mood for Love and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films). The film has to be seen to believed. It’s a testament to just how much of a hold the figure of the Taiwanese American had on Taiwan in the 1990s.
On Happiness Road (Sung Hsin-yin, 2017)
Extraordinary on many levels, On Happiness Road is the rare Taiwanese animated feature for grown-ups, as well as an exhaustive chronicle of recent Taiwanese history. It centers on Shu-chi, who grew up in Taiwan but is now living in New York. The passing of her grandmother occasions her return and a remembrance of four decades and the road from happiness to the United States. The film captures Cold War Taiwan’s fascination with Americanness and even depicts a multiracial child of a U.S. soldier. This is the important pre-history of immigration, the director’s self-reflection growing up in a Taiwan torn in so many cultural and political directions, before slinging her an ocean away.
Salute (Yao Hung-i, 2022)
It’s refreshing to see the story of a Taiwanese in America that is liberated from the pressures of identity and nation. If anything, it’s the burgeoning identity of a dancer on display in this jaw-droppingly awesome documentary about Fang-Yi Sheu, who studied in New York at the Martha Graham Dance Company in her 20s, and then developed a binational career one of the most important modern dancers to ever hail from Taiwan. Salute is a visual feast. Not only because we get to see Fang-Yi in action, but because it interprets her childhood, her move to America, and her ascendancy to stardom through impeccably choreographed and photographed dance routines.
More from Brian: Director’s Picks: Ten Films from Taiwan to Watch