A GLOBAL SENSE OF TAIWAN
by Professor Robert Chi, Department of Asian Language & Cultures UCLA
The year 2011 was a watershed year for Taiwan. It was the hundredth year of its government, officially called the Republic of China or ROC. In celebration of the centennial, the Golden Horse Film Festival, Taiwan’s annual film awards, commissioned the omnibus feature film 10+10. It was a collection of twenty short films, ten by older directors and ten by younger ones, on the topic of “what is special about Taiwan.” In one of the chapters, Cheng Yu-chieh’s backstage satire “Unwritten Rules”, a fictional film crew arrives on location somewhere in Taiwan: an old amphitheater in a public park. They discover a gigantic ROC national flag made of painted wood panels fixed to the back wall of the stage.
The ROC government was founded in 1912 by the legendary father of modern China, Dr. Sun Yat-sen. Decades later, following the civil war in the 1940s, the ROC moved — or retreated, depending on your point of view — to Taiwan, and the Communists led by Mao Zedong founded a new government known as the People’s Republic of China or PRC. Even now the PRC considers Taiwan to be a temporarily estranged part of China; in China’s eyes the ROC government fell into the dustbin of history long ago. This in turn means that national symbols of Taiwan, like that flag or the very name “Republic of China” are very politically sensitive in China. So cultural products exported from Taiwan to China must not contain such symbols. Yet the economic reality is that China represents a potentially huge export market compared to Taiwan’s relatively small domestic market. This is why in recent years there have been multiple cases of Taiwan pop stars getting sucked into Chinese social media controversies — and forced to apologize — because of their perceived Taiwanese nationalism.
So the fictional crew in “Unwritten Rules” must find a way to take down that gigantic ROC flag before they can begin filming. For them it is an awkward and ridiculous task in which they need to treat the physical flag with respect while denying their own national identity and that of the film they are shooting — all for what they themselves probably consider to be a foreign audience. But when they finally manage to pry the wooden flag loose, they discover underneath an even more confounding problem. Painted directly on the wall is an equally gigantic map of China, including Taiwan, inscribed with the canonical slogan that summarizes Sun Yat-sen’s political philosophy: “The Three Principles of the People Unite China!” Not only would this slogan referring to the ROC’s founder and first president be just as taboo in Chinese theaters, and not only does it imply that the ROC, not the PRC, is the rightful unifier of China, but nowadays hardly anyone in Taiwan itself takes this slogan that seriously anymore.
As fictional and satirical as it is, this epic fail all too perfectly captures the predicament of Taiwan cinema today. While it is understandable and even laudable to try to view Taiwan and its cinema on their own terms, the elephant in the room, the reason “the Taiwan problem” is a problem at all, remains China. If Taiwan cinema is to have both a distinct identity and a secure seat in the world of cinema, it has to be non-Chinese without being anti-Chinese.
For audiences in the USA, “Taiwan cinema” has for a long time been first and foremost a national art cinema. The four most famous and celebrated filmmakers are Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-liang, and Ang Lee. Film students, arthouse connoisseurs, and museum audiences have long been familiar with their films like A City of Sadess, Yi Yi, Goodbye, Dragon Inn, and Eat Drink Man Woman. Their films and their careers are central to the standard narratives of Taiwan’s film history. According to those narratives, it was from the state-sponsored studios and the commercial entertainment industry that the Taiwan New Cinema of the 1980s emerged, featuring Hou and Yang, followed in the 1990s by a second wave featuring Tsai and Lee.
Emilie Yeh and Darrell Davis, two of the best scholars of Taiwan cinema working in both English and Chinese, have placed the Taiwan New Cinema in a longer history of Taiwan’s culture, society, and politics. For them, the key is the ongoing and dynamic relationship between two concepts or orientations: xiangtu and bentu. Xiangtu or “nativism” was most famously associated with a literary movement of the 1970s. The nativist writers explored the plight of everyday people, especially in rural rather than urban Taiwan. They also positioned Taiwan in the context of the late Cold War and the Third World, thereby expressing skepticism toward modernization and Westernization. The Taiwan New Cinema too began as an attempt to revisit ordinary people and real life in reaction against the prevailing industrial escapist genres of romantic melodrama, martial arts adventures, and patriotic war films. But the problem was that the Taiwan New Cinema was actually too artsy and not ordinary enough. Ironically, in rejecting those spectacular, sensationalist, and kinetic commercial film genres, Yeh points out, filmmakers like Hou and Yang opted for a modernist film language full of fragmentary narratives and cool, detached audiovisual style.
An emblematic example of this was one of the first Taiwan New Cinema films, The Sandwich Man (1983), a three-part omnibus based on the short stories of the nativist writer Huang Chun-ming. The first part, “His Son’s Big Doll”, was directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien. In this episode, a poor small-town father has to work as a walking signboard advertising the local movie theater. Part of the advertising strategy is for him to wear an eye-catching but embarrassing clown costume that renders him nearly unrecognizable. But at home after work, he realizes much to his chagrin that his infant son will only recognize him and stop crying when he is made up as a clown — a forerunner of the mortifying predicament of “Unwritten Rules”. As a result of this mixture of nativist realism and modernist film aesthetics, after a brief initial welcome at home, the Taiwan New Cinema faded at the Taiwan box office even as it became increasingly celebrated in international film festivals.
At the same time, in the 1980s and 1990s, Taiwan underwent a remarkable process of democratization. Dating back to the “Taiwanization” of the government and bureaucracy, that is, promoting both personnel and policies that were rooted in Taiwan rather than legacies of the older China-centered structure of the ROC, there emerged the orientation known as bentu. By now bentu has developed a range of connotations subtly different from those of xiangtu. The connotations of bentu include localism; the indigenous (including the non-Chinese indigenous people of Taiwan, analogous to Native Americans and Australian aborigines); and the “de-Sinicization” of Taiwan’s culture, education, and society generally.
Bentu differs from xiangtu in four ways. First, bentu is a more culturally inclusive term than xiangtu. Although the latter focuses on Taiwan too, xiangtu is based on an older idea of an ethnic or racial national community with a nostalgic homeland. It is a template not unlike the mainland Chinese nationalism that the ROC initially brought with it in the 1940s—hence “The Three Principles of the People Unite China!” In contrast, bentu embraces the mixed and ever changing heritage of present day Taiwan, including non-Chinese historical elements like its traces of Japanese colonialism; vibrant and politically savvy minority cultures like indigenous people and LGBT people; and recent immigrants from China and Southeast Asia like migrant workers and the latter day equivalent of mail order brides.
Second, with its shift from the nostalgic past as homeland to the actual present as a diverse, organic community, bentu encompasses not only the rural countryside but also the modern city of skyscrapers, corporate offices, and department stores. This is both pragmatic and realistic especially with the continuing urbanization of the last few decades. Given the relatively small size of Taiwan (the main island covers an area about the size of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island put together), rural and urban are basically next door neighbors.
Third, therefore, bentu more readily embraces rather than resists commercialization and commodification. So in the twenty-first century, especially as the tourist industry and other cultural and creative industries have evolved, Taiwan has seen a proliferation of traditional folk arts and cultural symbols reproduced and repackaged for sale—such as hand puppetry, religious festivals, and, yes, the new “traditional” national drink of Taiwan (coincidentally dating back to around the same time as the Taiwan New Cinema), chewy boba tea.
Fourth, all of this also means that bentu is oriented more toward the present and future than xiangtu is. Referring to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1989 classic A City of Sadness in which the central Lin family ends up decimated, we may say that Taiwan is now in a “post-sadness” state. So bentu style stories tend to emphasize the determination, entrepreneurial optimism, and just plain niceness of Taiwanese people.
Rather than simply replacing xiangtu by some chronological or logical sequence, however, bentu represents an alternative reconfiguration of some of the same concerns as nativism. For example, like basically everywhere else in the world, filmmakers in Taiwan are still caught in the dilemma of art versus commerce. In fact, the overarching inescapability of that dilemma, its high financial stakes, and its resulting deep impact on filmmaking may be what makes cinema distinct from other art forms. Yet it is the unique concrete factors shaping this dilemma that make cinema distinct in different places. For filmmakers in Taiwan, the decline of their film industry over the 1990s and 2000s has pushed them to rely heavily on offshore funding and markets, and on entrepreneurial and artisanal modes of organization and production. So what used to be felt as an imperative to politically significant cultural expression now seems more a question of negotiating through the maze of audience tastes and marketability: in short, from Taiwan as a twentieth century nation to Taiwan as a twenty-first century brand.
One of the emblematic events in this new configuration for Taiwan was the signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in 2010. This trade agreement between the ROC and the PRC covers a range of products, industries, and issues including cinema. Henceforth there would be a quota of ten films per year imported into Taiwan from China for theatrical release, to be determined by lottery. At the same time, there would be no limit on the number of Taiwan films imported into China. For Taiwan filmmakers, this is an improvement from the previous rule, under which Taiwan films had to compete for slots in the general annual quota of foreign film imports into China. The inequality of import quotas on the two sides under ECFA makes sense in light of the basic disparity in both market size and annual film output, China being relatively large and Taiwan relatively small to begin with. (The history and calculation of China’s film import quota are rather complicated, but suffice to say that even now, foreign films imported under the most advantageous revenue sharing deals are officially limited to 34 per year. In practice most of those end up being Hollywood blockbusters—which is why Taiwan films had almost no chance, and why the future of the film quota is cloudy now with the recent trade war rhetoric being lobbed back and forth between China and the USA.)
So ECFA promised much more open access to a potentially huge export market for Taiwan cinema. The first Taiwan film exported under ECFA was Night Market Hero (2011). It is an archetypal bentu comedy celebrating one of Taiwan’s most iconic neighborhood-microcosms-cum-tourist-attractions, the urban “night market” full of cheap goods and amazing local foods. In an all too familiar contemporary allegory that is paradoxically highly political while remaining judiciously nonspecific, the night market denizens band together in a grassroots movement to fight corrupt local government officials and corporate real estate developers who are conspiring to take over their “homeland”. This film opened in Chinese theaters in July 2011, just four months before 10+10 premiered at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Film Festival. Such proximate timing only made the predicament dramatized in “Unwritten Rules” all the more poignant.
In a more philosophical and global light, this most recent configuration of factors shaping Taiwan cinema is also not uncommon around our present day world. Globalization has seen the worldwide evolution of what the British geographer Doreen Massey once called “a global sense of place”, or what the French philosopher Michel Foucault even earlier proposed by the tongue twister “heterotopia”: grasping the identity or character of a place in terms of its openness and connections with other places rather than in terms of closed, self-containing boundaries. In other words, Taiwan, like any other place whether defined as large (a whole country) or small (a neighborhood, a shop, a theater) is now to be understood as a hub, a nodal point, or a crossroads in a network of relationships, some at short range (for example, other neighborhoods in the same city) and others at long, international range. And what makes any particular place distinct and unique is not some essential thing that comes from within but rather the particular combination of things that intersect there.
This global sense of place has become especially palpable in contemporary world cinema. The idea of defining when and where a particular film was made has for a long time been just a convenient fiction. Given the complexity of film as a product, it was always possible that different people worked on a film in different places, at different times, and doing different things. This of course has become even more obvious as coproductions, tax incentives, and outsourcing have become so common in commercial filmmaking. An extreme and therefore representative example of this is Ang Lee’s 2012 film Life of Pi. Most of the live filming was done in Taiwan, and some of the visual effects work was done there as well. (Interestingly, there is some precedent for the latter; some of the animation for Disney’s original Tron was done in Taiwan in 1982.) The main reasons for this choice of production base for a film whose story has almost nothing to do with Taiwan were financial — namely, government support — and Lee’s desire to help the film industry of his native country. It is hard to convince anyone that Life of Pi is a Taiwan film in any conventional sense. Yet the way that industrial trends and labor flows crisscrossed to make it, along with its on screen story about a tiny boat floating on the vast Pacific Ocean, could hardly make for a better allegory about Taiwan. Unfortunately the long term impact of Life of Pi for Taiwan’s film industry has been minimal so far. Despite its box office performance, critical praise, technical achievements, and awards captured, only a few Hollywood sized foreign productions have followed, including Lucy (2014) and Silence (2016).
One of the positive long term effects of the Taiwan New Cinema as it evolved into today’s bentu cinema was the cultivation of sophisticated film audiences both in Taiwan and abroad. This has stimulated the growth of academic film studies in Taiwan, including both critical film studies and film production training. Nowadays it is both maddening and heartening to discover each year that all the best screenings at the Golden Horse Film Festival and the Taipei Film Festival are sold out weeks in advance. Another long term benefit is the legitimation of Taiwan cinema as an academic subject abroad. Ironically enough, by now it has already become rather boring for a graduate student to write yet another thesis on Hou Hsiao-hsien even though the director himself is still alive and well. This begs the question of what else there is to study about Taiwan cinema, and how to find out about it.
With this evolution of Taiwan cinema there continue to be plenty of films that remain below the radar or off the radar entirely for audiences abroad yet deeply resonant at home. One of the most celebrated bentu films in recent years was Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above. This 2013 film was a documentary tour of Taiwan consisting of breathtaking aerial photography; it tapped into both local pride and the very strong interest in environmentalism in Taiwan today. The director and cinematographer, Chi Po-lin, became a heroic figure, a sort of Taiwanese man with a movie camera. His death in a helicopter crash while filming a sequel in 2017 was followed by nationwide mourning and commemoration. On a different level was Story in Taipei (2017), not to be confused with Edward Yang’s recently restored Taipei Story (1985). Propelled by fans on social media, this “so bad it’s good” film that started on just three screens became a full blown cult hit within days of its release. When Story in Taipei was brought back for a second run a month later, I had to buy my ticket three days in advance.
All of this is to say that Taiwan films still do appear in film festivals, museum retrospectives, indie theaters, video shops, and online platforms often enough to keep interest here in the USA and elsewhere at a low but steady simmer. When I proposed and co-curated with Shannon Kelley a Taiwan film series at the UCLA Film and Television Archive in 2014, the organizing principle was that global sense of place described above. Almost immediately we agreed on the series title What Time Is It There? in homage to Tsai Ming-liang’s 2001 film. That title phrase signals both distance and intimacy; it is one of the first things you say when you make an international phone call to someone you already know. Throughout the series we highlighted the movement of people and their stories into, within, and out of Taiwan, from Japanese colonists to Filipino workers to Taiwanese people of mixed foreign parentage. Then when Paul Malcolm and I followed up with a new What Time Is It There? film series at UCLA in 2017, we added a further curatorial consideration on top of the original principle of Taiwan as hub: what else is there besides the Taiwan New Cinema and those four major directors that everyone already knows about? What about all those below the radar films?
Godspeed was one of the films that we featured in the 2017 series. It was released theatrically in Taiwan in 2016 and had its Los Angeles premiere in our series. The director of Godspeed, Chung Mong-hong, was born in Taiwan in 1965. After getting an MFA in filmmaking at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he began working in Taiwan in the 1990s on television commercials as well as documentaries. Godspeed is Chung’s fourth feature film. The first three are Parking (2008), The Fourth Portrait (2010), and Soul (2013). His films have been featured at film festivals in Asia, Europe, and North America, and they have won numerous awards at the Taipei Film Festival and the Golden Horse Film Festival. Godspeed was nominated for a wide array of awards around Asia and won the award for Best Film from China or Taiwan at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2017.
The Chinese title of Godspeed is Yi Lu Shun Feng. This phrase is a common idiomatic expression that one uses to bid farewell to someone who is going on a trip, like the French bon voyage or bon vent. Like the latter phrase, the words yi lu shun feng are literally wishing that someone’s entire route will go smoothly, with the wind. But in urban mythology there is a catch. You should not say this phrase to someone who is going to travel by airplane because airplanes need to go against the wind in order to generate lift for takeoff and landing rather than with the wind. In a worst case scenario, then, to wish someone going on an airplane trip yi lu shun feng may sound a bit ominous. Godspeed is built around two trips, one from Taiwan to Thailand, and one from the city of Taipei in the north of Taiwan to the city of Kaohsiung in the south. As the ambiguous title of the film foreshadows, neither trip turns out smoothly.
This irony of hidden meanings or mixed feelings in the title phrase is a central motif in Godspeed. Chung Mong-hong is known for films that operate in a grey area between comic predicaments and serious drama. For example, Parking begins with a man who is in a hurry to get home for dinner; he parks his car in front of a bakery to pick up a cake for his wife, but then when he emerges from the bakery just minutes later, he finds that he has been blocked in by another car. This begins a long and twisted quest to find the owner of the double parked vehicle. In Godspeed we can see this kind of tonal mixture in terms of genres. The film may pull you in several different directions according to whether you think you are watching a road movie, a buddy comedy, a gangster film, or a social satire.
One of my favorite things about being a movie fan is when you watch one film and see, as if through a dusty window, like ghosts or double exposures, traces of other films. In Godspeed probably the best example of this is in the character of the taxi driver. He is played by the veteran Hong Kong actor Michael Hui. He is best known as one of the three Hui brothers, a multitalented trio of siblings who were a hit beginning in the 1970s in television, film, and pop music. They are generally remembered for more upbeat things like variety shows on television and Hong Kong comedy films like Games Gamblers Play (1974), The Private Eyes (1976), and Chocolate Inspector (1986). In Godspeed it is a bit uncanny to watch a now much older and weatherbeaten Michael Hui play such a serious role—yet he nevertheless plays it with a bit of a deadpan.
Casting a recognizable foreign star is of course a common marketing strategy. With regard to Hong Kong talent in a Taiwan film specifically, the Taiwan New Cinema offers a classic precedent: Tony Leung playing the fourth brother Lin Wen-ching in A City of Sadness. The differences between these two examples, however, are instructive. In Hou Hsiao-hsien’s film, Leung impersonates a native Taiwanese man who is deaf and mute. It is a well known behind the scenes anecdote that Leung had been cast in advance precisely for his box office appeal. (An earlier plan for the film had Chow Yun-fat as the male lead.) But since Leung could not speak Taiwanese dialect convincingly, Hou and his writers decided to make the character deaf and mute. Leung’s character therefore appears to be solitary and singular but gets drawn inexorably into the middle of the political fray of postwar Taiwan. In the process he ends up personifying xiangtu Taiwan.
In contrast Michael Hui simply plays his “real” self in Godspeed, a Hong Kong man called Old Hsu. That nickname is based on Hui’s own surname pronounced in the Mandarin dialect that is standard in Taiwan. Unlike Lin Wen-ching, Old Hsu is both ordinary and sociable from the beginning. Paradoxically, that is what makes him stand out. After all, what more ubiquitous—and talkative—a character could there be than a taxi driver? And what more fitting a guide through the unwritten rules of bentu Taiwan could there be than a taxi driver from Hong Kong?
This article is part of Synergetic Film’s Darkroom, a print and online magazine covering independent, foreign and documentary films as well as the cultures that spawn them.