Issue 114 – The Uses of Enchantment

Taiwanese Cinema
Taiwanese Cinema

The homeland of Hou Hsiao-hsien is looking at new ways to enchant cineplex audiences, and turn them from Hollywood fare to local film. John Orr reports on the current state of Taiwanese cinema, and profiles some of the new talent on display at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival.

The Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival is always a showcase for new Asian film, but recently has confirmed a new direction for Taiwanese cinema – exploring the textures of contemporary life with a sense of enchantment. This goes beyond thought-provoking documentary – an attraction everywhere for low-budget projects in the digital age – and gives us a new aesthetic in which the camera is critically observant but highly self-conscious, and often blurs the boundaries of fiction and reality. This does not mean a reaction against the arthouse films of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang by which Taiwanese cinema has been defined for so many years. Rather it takes their artistic advance into a documentary idiom all the while enhancing their trademarks – location shooting, rejection of Hollywood studio practices, honing the camera as an observing instrument, and using non-professionals in key roles.

Taiwanese Godfather
Without doubt, Hou remains the Godfather of Taiwanese cinema, encouraging young filmmakers through his film school and preserving an executive role to oversee new projects through his company 3H Productions. One of the festival events this year was the FIFA award to Hou (following those to Scorsese, Oliveira and Bergman) for his devotion to film preservation in Taiwan: partly with his prompting, the government has now made a decision to invest in a massive film restoration archive for the island. And in the new Taiwanese features he was also here by proxy. While away in Paris filming Orsay, a quartet project with Olivier Assayas, Raúl Ruiz and Jim Jarmusch, two of his ex-assistant directors were putting finishing touches to their features for this year’s festival. En Chen’s Island Étudeand Hung-i Yao’s Reflections show Hou’s legacy in different ways, yet have a life and look very much of their own.

Hou’s dilemma now is easily put. Earlier classics like City of Sadness and A Time to Live and a Time to Die are still admired; they had signalled for many Taiwanese the role and dramas of ordinary people in the tragic birth of a nation that escaped its Japanese colonists in 1945 only to find itself subject to the bloody Kuomintang dictatorship forged by Chiang Kai-shek and his mainland exiles. Yet while Hou’s global reputation has soared, the mood in Taiwan has changed. The austere formalisms of Hou and Tsai, their precise long-shot staging and meticulous long takes that enthral critics worldwide, leave many local audiences cold. The new films are hungry to return to the spirit of early Hou, though not so much to explore the country’s past as to investigste the varieties of contemporary living; and not through long takes either, but through faster, more fluid films that attract younger audiences of the MTV generation. The new audiences consist not only of students but, more optimistically, Cineplex-goers who give themselves over week after week in Taipei to the seductions of Hollywood and ignore what comes out of their own country.

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 114.

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