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Culture Vulture

Taiwan new wave films still making waves

Taiwanese movies, with small stories but big themes capturing a society in flux, are still influencing film-makers today

Taiwanese films might have lost out to mainland Chinese ones at last Saturday's Golden Horse film awards, but Taiwan cinema works by the likes of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang are still making waves today, some 30 years after they emerged.

Acclaimed auteurs such as China's Jia Zhangke, Japan's Hirokazu Kore-eda and Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul are among those who spoke of their debt to these films in Flowers Of Taipei: Taiwan New Cinema, a documentary screened at the recently concluded Singapore Writers Festival.

The Thai film-maker says Hou's films remind him of home.

"His works deal with memories... he made me firmly believe that memories are full of value."

Singapore's Anthony Chen, who picked up Cannes and Golden Horse awards for his 2013 movie Ilo Ilo, has also paid tribute to the Taiwanese masters. The alumnus of a mentorship programme headed by Hou's Golden Horse Film Academy has named Yang's masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day (1991) as his all-time favourite film.

For Jia, what was remarkable was the close bonds of the players behind Taiwan New Cinema. The group of close-knit young artists worked together on scripts, acted in one other's movies and helped raise funds for one another's movies.

The new film movement unspooled in 1982, with In Our Time, or Guang Yin De Gu Shi, made up of four short stories charting childhood to adulthood. Films such as The Sandwich Man and Growing Up (The Story Of Hsiao Pi) followed a year later.

Unlike the martial arts films or the Chiung Yao romance flicks popular in Taiwan in the 1960s and 1970s, the new cinema largely eschewed movie stars for unknowns. Instead of distant dynasties or make-believe romances, it mainly focused on the here and now.

The films captured a society in flux - as Taiwan industrialised, the young moved from small towns to the big cities, as reflected in The Boys From Fengkuei (1983) by Hou.

The movies showcased film- making talents including Ko I-chen and Wang Toon and were a breath of fresh air from the studio movies before them.

The naturalistic feel of the "new" movies was sometimes borne of necessity.

As writer Hsiao Yeh, a scriptwriter who is a key figure of the movement, shared at a dialogue after the documentary, the use of long takes was partly to avoid close-ups of amateurs who cannot act.

Many of the stories in the Taiwan New Cinema works are personal.

For instance, Dust In The Wind (1986), directed by Hou, is based on the love story of scriptwriter Wu Nien-jen, another key figure of the movement whose real name is Wu Wen-ching. His village sweetheart, Jen, moved to work in Taipei while he left for the garrison island of Kinmen to serve his military service. She left him for another man two years later. (His pen name means thinking of Jen.)

It explains why many of the movies feel intimate and "small" in a good way, with the individual writ large. In contrast, the individual is sometimes nowhere to be found in 1980s movies by Fifth Generation Chinese directors such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, which seem to be interested in exploring things on a collective level, a point alluded to by Chinese film-maker Wang Bing in the documentary.

While the Taiwan films delve into small, intimate stories, there is nothing small about their themes.

Hou's A City Of Sadness (1989) looks squarely at the Kuomintang's (KMT) massacre of the native Taiwanese after KMT forces fled to Taiwan after losing a civil war on mainland China; Yang's A Brighter Summer Day (1991), which takes its title from an Elvis Presley song lyric, is a four-hour epic that brings to life the heady experience of being a teenager in 1960s Taipei, unmoored in a martial patriarchal society awash in American pop culture.

In 1971, the island found itself in an existential crisis when it was replaced by the People's Republic of China in the United Nations.

The soul-searching sparked by this brought about a flourishing of Taiwan's indigenous literary arts, out of whose soil grew the New Cinema movement that in turn put the diplomatically isolated island firmly on the world (cinema) map.

As Mr Marco Mueller, former director of the Venice Film Festival, noted in the documentary, Taiwanese movies were scarcely noticed at film festivals until A City Of Sadness won the top Golden Lion prize at the Venice event in 1989.

While the island has waned in influence with the rise of mainland China, the gems of the Taiwan New Cinema remain one of its gifts to the world, no less precious than the jadeite cabbage in the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

•The writer is a former Taiwan Correspondent of the paper.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 29, 2016, with the headline 'Taiwan new wave films still making waves'. Print Edition | Subscribe