S. Leo Chiang’s ISLAND IN BETWEEN: Observations of Kinmen and Liminality

Film documentarian S. Leo Chiang has been contemplating liminality, or in-betweenness, throughout his entire body of work, but “ISLAND IN BETWEEN” is his first film navigating the concept as it relates to his home country of Taiwan.

From the official overview: “The rural Taiwanese outer islands of Kinmen sit merely 2 miles off the coast of China. Kinmen attracts tourists for its remains from the 1949 Chinese Civil War. It also marks the frontline for Taiwan in its escalating tension with China.
Filmmaker S. Leo Chiang weaves lyrical vignettes of tourist visits and local life with his own narrative as someone negotiating ambivalent personal bonds to Taiwan, China, and the US. ISLAND IN BETWEEN explores the uneasy peace in these islands, and contemplates Taiwan’s uncertain future.”

We were grateful to attend its California premier as part of the New York Times Op-Docs block of the San Francisco Film Festival this week, and to speak with Leo about his fascination with subjects that “find themselves in the margins,” including himself.

I was most struck by the sun-soaked scenes and how they evoked Taiwan’s natural and imposed states: the beautiful amber sunsets, how they cast Kinmen’s beachfronts with an almost meditative glow; but also the sun motifs of the Republic of China flags that are everywhere on an island that remains tethered to its military relevance. I kept thinking about the sun: how it illuminated the cityscapes of China, just 2 miles away and visible to the naked eye from Kinmen. And the sun as a state symbol, as a part of a military uniform that defends one side from the other.

ISLAND IN BETWEEN has the intimacy of a personal story (Chiang’s father had served as a military doctor at Kinmen and his parents’ visit was captured in the film), but largely avoids a specific perspective of or from its people. Rather, interspersed with his own narration and memories, Chiang deftly observes the residents of Kinmen, where propaganda and tourism must somehow converge to sustain life. This is a place where the beaches are also lined with anti-invasion spikes, where aging military outposts offer faded Nationalist murals as photography backdrops. It is a beautiful place where terrible things have happened, where terrible things could happen. And these are the people who have made it a home.

I’d come to the island expecting one story, he shared with us. But instead, the real, lived experiences of Kinmen offer a different kind of thesis. ISLAND IN BETWEEN is not really a documentary about the Taiwanese people’s fight for freedom or the looming possibility of war.

Rather, it is about the furtive life they’ve made in the gulf between peace and invasion, the everyday life that carries on when neither are guaranteed. This margin of tranquility and tension – where the residents are largely safe but military drills occur daily – resonated with Chiang as a transnational navigating Taiwanese, American, and Chinese spaces in his personal and professional life.

I found ISLAND IN BETWEEN to be a gentle but profound meditation on what resilience can look like: the determination to exist in between, somehow, here and now.

Please look for ISLAND IN BETWEEN, soon on New York Times Op-Docs.

About S. Leo Chiang: S. Leo Chiang is a filmmaker based in Taipei & San Francisco. His film, Emmy- & Gotham-nominated OUR TIME MACHINE, has played at over 75 film festivals worldwide, winning 10 awards. He directed two episodes of the Peabody-winning PBS series, ASIAN AMERICANS. His previous films include the Emmy Award-nominated A VILLAGE CALLED VERSAILLES, OUT RUN, MR. CAO GOES TO WASHINGTON, and TO YOU SWEETHEART, ALOHA. Leo has been a Sundance-Time Warner Fellow, a Rockwood JustFilms Fellow, and a Co-Chair of New Day Films. He has served as a mentor/trainer for the Hot Docs CrossCurrent & Blue Ice Fellowships, the CNEX Chinese Documentary Forum, and the CAAM Fellowship. He is the Co-Director of A-Doc, the Asian American Documentary Network, and a documentary branch member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.


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