How can you judge a nation’s cinema from nine films, a handful of lectures, and a few discussion panels? The simple answer is that you can’t. The best you can do is to gather all of the images, interpretations, and comments, and see what they amount to. Then, if you’re lucky, the picture of a nation will begin to emerge. It will be incomplete, perhaps a bit fuzzy, but still more than the empty screen you started with — a first step toward understanding.
Last weekend Yale’s Whitney Humanities Center hosted a conference entitled “Double Vision: Taiwan’s New Cinema, Here and There.” The forum invited film scholars and directors from across the United States and Taiwan to take part in a four-day exploration of Taiwan’s cinema since 1980. Organized by Dudley Andrew (director of Graduate Film Studies at Yale) and James Tweedie (post-doctoral fellow at Yale’s Center for International and Area Studies), the conference invited such renowned figures as cultural theorist Frederick Jameson and award-winning filmmaker Ang Lee. With a relentless schedule of screenings, lectures, and interviews, the conference illuminated the problems facing contemporary Taiwanese cinema, and the avenues through which Taiwanese filmmakers are addressing these problems.
The curtains go down for the first time. The lights dim. Taiwan comes to life on the screen.
Our first exposure to the cinema of foreign countries usually comes through those nation’s most famous directors — think of Kurosawa for Japan, or Goddard for France. In the case of Taiwan, think of Hou Hsiao-hsien. Gaining notoriety in the 1980s, Hou Hsiao-hsien is credited with introducing modern Taiwanese cinema to the West and with starting the so-called Taiwanese New Wave. And so the first film of the conference was his “City of Sadness” (1989). It is the story of four brothers coping with the chaotic years following Japan’s relinquishment of Taiwan after World War II. Winning the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival (as Kurosawa’s Rashomon did 38 years earlier), City of Sadness was Hou’s break-through film and it opened the foreign festival market and foreign art houses to Taiwanese cinema.
The screening of “City of Sadness” (shown twice on Friday night, just to emphasize its necessity) was followed by Hou’s earlier and more personal film, “A Time to Live and a Time to Die” (1985). If “City of Sadness” depicts how politics can infiltrate and disrupt family life, “A Time to Live” shows how the family can overcome adversity by simply refusing to disintegrate. What exists throughout the film is the space of generational memory — the nostalgic space created by images of people and places unique to Taiwan. Hou’s movie frame becomes an area where thoughts and feelings are rendered visual. The prolonged duration of his shots (rarely are they less than a minute long) and the unwavering composition of his subjects create a time and a space of meditative retrospection. This kind of cinematic patience is unfelt anywhere in current American theaters.
With Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films lingering in our minds, we proceed to the second day of the conference — a day for words as well as images. Frederick Jameson arrived on campus, and with him he brought the question, “Is a National Cinema Possible?” At first this may seem paradoxical, since the conference itself was founded on the notion that, yes, nations do produce cinemas and that, yes, nation can be studied through their cinema. Yet Jameson’s question was not meant to confuse, but rather to set the groundwork for the discourse that was to follow.
With his presentation, Jameson continued the line of inquiry that he started in his influential essay “Remapping Taipei.” Namely, how can Third World cultural production adequately represent the nation when faced with powerful global influences, both cultural and economic, that affect its genesis and reception? This question proves particularly salient in the case of Taiwan, which over the past half-century has been under the direct influence of Japan, China, and the United States. The films on Friday evening offered an interesting response to this dilemma.
While the rest of Yale’s campus reveled in Halloween festivities, a rapt audience sat inside the Whitney Humanities Center to see a double feature by director Chen Kou-fu. “Double Vision” (2002), a sci-fi thriller about a Taiwanese cop who teams up with an FBI agent to solve a string of religiously-motivated murders (think David Fincher’s Seven), was followed by “The Personals” (1998), about a retired female doctor who hopes to find a husband through newspaper advertisements. Chen Kou-fu was on hand to answer questions in between the two screenings. He discussed his motives behind making the films: “It’s nothing that Taiwanese cinema has tried before, but I know that the audience is there for this kind of entertainment film.”
Chen’s movies stand in stark contrast to the works of Hou Hsiao-hsien. They are constructed and marketed with the intention of box-office success (“Double Vision” is the highest-grossing domestic film in Taiwan), whereas Hou’s films are oriented toward the less commercial festival circuit. But don’t write off Chen Kou-fu as a sell-out. His comments the following day revealed that the state of Taiwanese cinema is more troublesome than we realize, and that he is fighting for its survival the best way he can.
“Where can we get the production money to go on making more films? It’s almost impossible,” said Chen. Taiwan produces only 20 films a year — less than most individual Hollywood studios.
Chen’s films seem to respond to Jameson by saying that, yes, the influence of greater, hegemonic cultural forces are felt in the East. But at least his movies have a Taiwanese director with Taiwanese sensibilities in control. The shadow of Hollywood looms large over the landscape of international cinemas, especially those of the Third World. The appetite for big-budget action films and star-studded dramas seems universal. American exports control over 96 percent of Taiwan’s film market, while domestic productions comprise only 2.2 percent of the economic pie. To quote Chen, “When you look at the numbers, it’s devastating.” In a world where bootleg DVDs flood out of neighboring Hong Kong for less than 70 cents a piece, and where first-run features can be viewed on cable television after only a month in theaters, the future of Taiwanese cinema seems to lie beyond its own borders.
Enter Ang Lee. Undoubtedly the most acclaimed Taiwanese filmmaker working today, Ang Lee is something of an exception. Born in Taipei and trained at the National Taiwan College of Arts, Lee then moved to the United States where he completed his education at New York University and began making films about his homeland. After his Taiwan-inspired trilogy of “Pushing Hands” (1992) “Wedding Banquet” (1993), and “Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994), Lee went on to direct a series of U.S. productions, culminating in his most recent work, “The Hulk” (2003). Ang Lee spoke to a capacity crowd on Saturday about his much-beloved millennial film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (screened prior to his interview) and about his influences as a director. “I just hope more [Taiwanese directors] do the popular movies so both the high culture and the pop culture can prevail to the world, can influence the world, can exchange with the world,” Lee said.
Ang Lee presents a third alternative to Taiwanese filmmakers — at the other end of the continuum drawn through Hou Hsiao-hsien and Chen Kou-fu. Hou makes Taiwanese films in Taiwan. Chen makes Hollywood-style films in Taiwan. Lee makes Hollywood films in Hollywood. Each filmmaker grows further and further detached from the native “nutrition” that Taiwan has to offer (to use Chen Kou-fu’s term). And yet, as expected, the further away they move, the more commercially successful they become, both in Taiwan and elsewhere.
Hours of images and hundreds of subtitles later, the conference came to a close. Andrew’s coat and tie from two days ago had become just a button-down shirt, and along with the formal attire went the scholarly formality. A seminar-style discussion entitled “Directors/Directions/Diversions” preceded the final screening on the bill, Edward Yang’s “Yi yi” (2001). A poetic and deeply moving depiction of one family’s life in 21st-century Taipei, “Yi yi” represents the most acute disjunction between Taiwanese filmmakers and the Taiwanese audience.
Edward Yang refuses to release his movie in Taiwan, apparently over the lackluster reception of his and other Taiwanese filmmakers’ previous works. While “Yi yi” continues to amass worldwide acclaim and has been heralded as the re-introduction of Taiwanese cinema to Europe and the West, domestic audiences still can’t see their own artist’s work on the screen. Yet it doesn’t seem to matter (as Edward proclaims with his gesture) because it’s not certain people would see it even if they could.
As the capstone to the conference, and as the most elegantly constructed film on the docket, it seems appropriate to end with a quote from the film itself. In the final scene of “Yi yi,” a young boy reads a letter to his deceased grandmother. He stands before her coffin and says in a quiet voice, “I want to tell people what they don’t know and show them what they haven’t seen.”
As long as Taiwanese filmmakers struggle to make movies — and struggle they do — people will be listening and watching — somewhere in the world.