Sunday, November 7, 2010

Taiwan Cinema Now

I had the great opportunity this summer to be chosen as this year's editor of CineVue, the annual magazine for the Asian American International Film Festival. Besides being editor, I also contributed two articles: one on the Taiwanese films at the festival, and one on the Filipino films. Below is an expanded version of the Taiwanese cinema article; the one on Filipino cinema will be posted here at a later date.

Taiwan’s Contemporary Global Films – Beyond Hou and Tsai

Ask any reasonably informed cinephile what comes to mind when the words “Taiwanese cinema” are mentioned, and chances are good that three names will pop up almost immediately: Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, and the late Edward Yang. However, despite the critical praise and awards showered upon these directors, the fate of their films in their home country is a far different story. Although Hou and Tsai have core followings in Taiwan, for the most part audiences there have stayed far away from their intellectually and aesthetically demanding films. Tellingly, the most recent features by Hou (Flight of the Red Balloon) and Tsai (Face) are not set in Taiwan at all, but rather in France, where both directors’ films have received their warmest commercial reception. Hou and Tsai’s latest films seem to have abandoned Taiwan, just as Taiwanese audiences have mostly abandoned them.

However, in the past two years, the Taiwanese cinema landscape has changed greatly for local films. A renewed push by the Taiwanese government, and especially the establishment of the Taipei Film Commission in 2008, has created the conditions for a commercial renaissance that may in time prove to be as significant to the history of Taiwanese cinema as the 1980’s new wave that brought us Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang. Wei Te-Sheng’s Cape No. 7 (2008), a music-themed film with a parallel historical plot, was a massive box-office success that is now the second-highest grossing film in Taiwanese history, behind Titanic. This year saw the recent release of Doze Niu’s gangster saga Monga (Taiwan's foreign language Oscar submission), which broke opening-week domestic-film records when it opened on Chinese New Year. These films proved once and for all that Taiwanese cinema has what it takes to compete with Hollywood at the box office.

This renaissance is not limited to commercial blockbusters; smaller films have also been gaining favor with local audiences. Four of these films are featured in “New Taiwanese Cinema,” a presentation of the 33rd Asian American International Film Festival, in association with the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York (TECO). These films are by talented new voices in Taiwanese cinema, all first or second features eligible for the AAIFF10 Emerging Director, Narrative Feature Award. They do not partake in the austere aesthetics of Taiwanese films familiar to Westerners, but neither would any of them be mistaken for Hollywood blockbusters. They occupy a fertile middle ground rife with creative possibilities, which all four directors impressively make full use of.

Arvin Chen’s debut feature Au Revoir Taipei (also the AAIFF10 Centerpiece Presentation) is a low-key, effervescent charmer that looks kindly on those true believers in love. Directed by a California Bay Area native who apprenticed for Edward Yang, Chen’s film is a love letter to his adopted city, shot with a loving glow that exists in a different universe than the loneliness of Tsai Ming-liang. At the outset, the film’s lovelorn protagonist, Kai (Jack Yao), watches his girlfriend Faye depart for Paris. Kai composes love letters to Faye in French, and haunts a bookstore each day to bone up on the language. Susie (Amber Kuo), a pixie-cute bookseller, notices him and eventually strikes up a conversation with him. While it’s not hard to predict where things will eventually go with these two, it is a testament to Arvin Chen’s subtle writing and direction, as well as the appealing performances of its actors, that none of it feels rote or clichéd. A romantic comedy wouldn’t be worthy of its name without complications, and Au Revoir Taipei offers plenty, involving cops, gangsters, orange-suited wannabe drug kingpins, and a mysterious package. Brother Bao (Frankie Gao), an aging small-time gangster, delivers the film’s key line: “It’s nice to be in love, isn’t it?” After seeing this film, only the most stone-hearted viewer would answer that question with anything but a resounding yes.

The search for love also drives the title character of Håkon Liu’s debut feature Miss Kicki, played by the wonderful veteran Swedish actress Pernilla August. One fascinating aspect of the Taiwanese films at AAIFF10 is that they present Taipei as a truly globalized city; the hybridity of identity and culture that results informs what happens both behind and in front of the camera. Miss Kicki, like Au Revoir Taipei, is made by a filmmaker not born in Taiwan; Liu was born in Norway to a Taiwanese father and a Norwegian mother, spending his childhood in Taiwan and going to film school in Sweden. Miss Kicki was written specifically for August, and she rises to the occasion tremendously, portraying an instantly memorable character. Kicki returns to Sweden after many years abroad to reconnect with her son Viktor (Ludvig Palmell), who has been raised by Kicki’s mother. Kicki takes him with her on a trip to Taiwan, not telling her son her ulterior motive for going there: searching for Mr. Chang (Eric Tsang), a long-distance lover. Largely improvised, Miss Kicki has a unique eye for Taiwan, presenting such places as the Taipei 101 building and Sun Moon Lake in ways we’ve never quite seen before, investing its fish-out-of-water scenario with a vivid electricity.

Cheng Yu-chieh’s second feature Yang Yang, like Miss Kicki named after its protagonist, puts issues of racial and cultural identity at its center, focusing with intimate intensity on its Taiwanese-French lead actress, Sandrine Pinna, who appeared in Cheng’s previous feature Do Over (which screened at the 2007 AAIFF). Pinna plays a track runner whose mother (Shelly Yu) has recently remarried her track coach (Chu Lu-Hao), now making her stepsisters with her friend Xiao-Ru (Her Sy-Huoy). This seems like a beneficial arrangement, but Yang Yang’s mixed-race identity soon causes major problems. Yang Yang is admired for her unusual, “exotic” looks, but this attention is a double-edged sword; it makes her feel like an outsider and objectified by others. Xiao-Ru’s boyfriend Shawn (Chang Ruei-Jia) becomes attracted to Yang Yang, a situation that eventually drives an irreconcilable wedge between the half-sisters. Yang Yang abandons her athletic career to pursue acting and modeling, where her looks are a major asset but are still a source of tremendous internal struggle. Yang Yang has elements in common with Taiwanese art films, especially the sustained long takes and unhurried pacing.  But it also shares some affinities with certain American independent films, most especially those termed (accurately or not) “mumblecore,” populated by young people who awkwardly feel their way through life, acting impulsively, their motivations as hazy to themselves as they are to others. Yang Yang’s racial/cultural identity adds a fascinating layer to this.

Cho Li was a producer on Miss Kicki, and her debut feature Zoom Hunting raises interesting ethical issues related to the creative process.  Cho’s film is a thriller in the Hitchcock Rear Window mode, with allusions to Antonioni’s Blow Up thrown in.  In contrast to the almost fairy-tale Taipei of Au Revoir Taipei, the Taipei of Zoom Hunting is more dangerous and menacing, full of secrets and illicit behavior.  Cho replaces the male gaze of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window with the female gazes of two sisters: Ruyi (Ning Chang), a fashion photographer; and Ruxing (Zhu Zhi-Ying), a mystery novelist.  Ruyi stumbles upon photographic evidence of an affair between a man (Wen Sheng-Hao) and a woman (Zhou Heng-Yin) married to other people, paralleling the novel her sister is trying to write.  With a deadline looming, Ruxing asks Ruyi to continue her surveillance so she can gain inspiration for her novel and get herself unblocked.  The film’s mystery deepens, and the line between what is real and what is fictional becomes increasingly blurred.  Cho is adept at both creating suspense and illuminating the emotional lives of her characters.  Zoom Hunting’s prodigious command of genre tropes adds yet another facet to the amazing diversity of contemporary Taiwanese cinema today.

So there you have it: in just the four films featured in AAIFF10’s “New Taiwanese Cinema” showcase, we have an incredibly dynamic and eclectic snapshot of some of the best new voices in Taiwanese film.  There is the quirky romanticism of Au Revoir Taipei, the mother-son conflict of Miss Kicki, the almost painful intimacy of Yang Yang, and the nail-biting suspense of Zoom Hunting.  These and other recent Taiwanese films are this national cinema’s best hope of breaking out of the arthouse ghetto and appearing in places where regular folks can enjoy them.  New Yorkers, this is your chance to get in on the ground floor; these films suggest that the names of Chen, Liu, Cheng, and Cho will, with time, promise to be worthy enough to be spoken by cinema fans with the same reverence as Hou, Tsai, and Yang.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

These movies look great. Thanks for shining a light on them!