cinema in Taiwan

cinema in Taiwan
As Taiwan was occupied by Japan from 1895 to 1945, its national cinema only started after the liberation of the island. First, it was used as a propaganda tool by the ruling party, the Kuomintang, who gradually eradicated the production of Taiwanese-language films. In the 1970s, the industry, producing mostly ‘escapist’ films, was in crisis. The ‘New Taiwan Cinema’ (Taiwan xindianying) revitalized it in the early 1980s, and directors such as Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang won fame in international film festivals. However, the small size of the local market, increased competition from Hong Kong and Hollywood, and the Asian economic crisis have created difficult conditions for Taiwanese filmmakers. While the most famous survive, some have gone into exile or stopped production. Nonetheless, a younger generation is emerging, exploring new media and new formats.
When the Japanese withdrew in 1945, they left Taiwan in a profound political, social and cultural crisis. Kuomintang supporters were arriving en masse; the tension between ‘Mainlanders’ and ‘Native Taiwanese’ climaxed in the 28 February 1947 incident, and a Martial Law was enacted. In 1949, the Kuomintang arrived with a million and a half refugees, declared Taipei to be the ‘provisional capital’ of China, and imposed the use of Mandarin.
The Taipei Cinemathèque (founded in 1976) estimates that between the late 1940s and the early 1970s, about 1,000–1,500 Taiwanese-language films were produced. Representing less than one-fifth of the national production, these films nevertheless dominated the market between 1955 and 1958. Directors like Ho Gi Ming and the Japanese-educated Lin Pao Chiao, or the independent Big Mountain Studio (Husang) played an important role, but this grass-root industry, being denied government subsidies, was long considered artistically ‘inferior’ and is barely mentioned in official histories. By the late 1970s it had yielded to Mandarin-speaking cinema.
The government set production structures, such as the Kuomintang-owned CMPC (Central Motion Picture Company/Zhongyang Dianying Qiye Gufen Youxian Gongsi), the country’s biggest studio. The first films thus produced were propaganda pieces. In 1955, substantial tax advantages and subsidies were granted to Hong Kong filmmakers who directed a Cantonese and a Mandarin version of their films—thus intertwining the two national cinemas. In 1962, the Golden Horse Award was instituted on an annual basis for the best Hong Kong and Taiwan movies. Films from the PRC remained banned until the mid 1990s.
In the early 1960s, two major Hong Kong filmmakers (both born in pre-1949 China), Li Han Hsiang (Li Hanxiang) and King Hu (Hu Jinquan), settled in Taiwan. Li opened his own studio, the Grand Motion Picture Company (Guolian), where he directed the costly two-part historical epic, The Beauty of Beauties (Xi Shi, 1965), and the more intimate The Winter (Dong Nuan, 1967), now considered a forerunner of the ‘New Cinema’. Hired by the Union Film Company (Lianbang), King Hu (with his martial arts director, Han Yingyie) trained young actors, including Hsu Feng, the future star of some of his films and the future producer of Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (Bawang bieji, 1993). He directed two martial arts masterpieces, Dragon Inn (Longmen kezhan, 1967) and A Touch of Zen (Xianü, 1970). In 1970, Lee and Hu returned to Hong Kong. Back in Taiwan in 1979, Hu made The Juvenizer (Zhongshen Dashi, 1981), his only comedy, produced by Sylvia Chang, and All the King’s Men (Tianxia Diyi, 1982), before leaving for the USA.
His Taiwanese-born colleague, Lee Hsing (Li Xing), first directed Taiwanese-language films in the 1950s, before switching to Mandarin with Life in a Small Alley (Jietou xiangwei, 1963). Then, embracing the KMT’s slogan of ‘healthy realism’ (jiankang xieshi zhuyi), he made optimistic movies narrating the daily life struggles of plain people striving for happiness, such as Beautiful Ducklings (Yangya renjia, 1964). He also directed adaptations of romances by the popular female novelist Chiung Yao, like The Silent Wife (Yaqi, 1965). His career continued till the mid 1990s and includes forty-nine feature films, including Execution in Autumn (Qiujue, 1972) and Good Morning, Taipei (Zao’an Taibei, 1979), scripted by Hou Hsiao-hsien and shot by Chen Kun-hou. Among Lee’s contemporaries, Pai Ching-jui (one of the first Taiwanese directors to have studied abroad) directed adaptations of Qiong Yao’s novels, such as Lonely Seventeen (Jimo de shiqi sui, 1967), while Sung Tsun-shou (Song Cunshou) was dealing with controversial psychological subjects, including a teacher—student love affair in Outside the Window (Chuanwai, 1973, starring Brigitte Lin).
In the 1970s, Taiwanese film production (including subsidized Hong Kong films) reached 300 movies a year—the third place after Japan and India—but 42 per cent were mediocre kung fu films. It was a period of social and political crisis. The ‘Taiwan economic miracle’ had caused a major rural exodus, industrial pollution, pockets of poverty and delinquency. In 1971, Taiwan was expelled from the United Nations. In 1975 Chiang Kai-shek died. In 1979, the USA severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan, triggering a long period of diplomatic isolation (until the 1996 first democratic elections and the threat of Chinese missiles over the Taiwan straits).
In the early 1980s, a literary movement, Nativist Literature (Xiangtu wenxue), was striving to depict Taiwanese reality as distinct from the history of the mainland; returning to local dialects (Hakka, Minnanhua) and using colourful profanities and slang, it sought to depict the plight of ‘little people’ victimized, displaced or reduced to petty crimes by industrialization. Meanwhile, as cinema was disconnected from Taiwanese reality and losing audiences, the CMPC sought to revitalize the industry and hired two young writers influenced by the Xiangtu Wenxue, Wu Nien-jen (see Wu Nien-chen) and Hsiao Yeh (Xiao Ye). In 1982, they produced In Our Times (Guangyin de gushi), a film in four episodes, one directed by Edward Yang and another by Chang Yi. Wu and Hsiao’s next project, Sandwich-Man (Ezri de da wan’ou, 1983) is considered the birth of the New Taiwan Cinema; its three episodes are adapted from stories by the most famous Xiangtu wenxue writers, Huang Chunming; its three directors are Hou Hsiaohsien, Wan Jen and Tseng Chuang-hsiang (Zeng Zhuangxiang). Still in 1983, the CMPC produced Chen Kun-hou’s Growing Up (Xiao Bi de gushi), written by Hou Hsiao-hsien and the young female novelist Chu Tien-wen, as well as Edward Yang’s first feature, That Day on the Beach (Haitan de yi tian), starring Sylvia Chang and written by Wu Nien-jen, that explores the contradictions of Taiwanese modernity—also a theme of Yang’s next films, Taipei Story (Qingmei zhuma, 1985, starring Hou Hsiao-hsien) and The Terrorizer (Kongbu fenzi, 1986). Meanwhile, Hou started a long-lasting screenwriting collaboration with Wu Nien-jen and Chu Tien-wen to delve into Taiwan’s recent popular memories, with The Boys from Fengkuei (Fenggui lai de ren, 1983), A Summer at Grandpa’s (Dongdong de jiaqi, 1984), A Time to Live, a Time to Die (Tongnian wangshi, 1985) and Dust in the Wind (Lianlian fengchen, 1987).
The ‘New Cinema’ continued throughout the 1980s, with a series of modern melodramas that explored the female condition, the plight of delinquent youths or the changing status of the Taiwanese family: Wan Jen’s Ah Fei (Youma caizi, 1984, written by Hou Hsiao-hsien), Super Citizen (Chaoji shimin, 1985) and The Farewell Coast (Xibie de hai an, 1987); Chang Yi’s Jade Love (Yuqing sao, 1984), KueiMei, a Woman (Wo zheyang guole yisheng, 1985) and This Love of Mine (Wo de ai, 1988); Chen Kun-hou’s The Matrimony (Jiehun, 1985) and Osmanthus Alley (Cuihua xiang, 1987, written by Wu Nien-jen); or Tseng Chuang-hsiang’s The Woman of Wrath (Sha fu, 1984)—also written by Wu Nien-jen, who authored a great number of screenplays at the time, including Li You-ning’s Lao Mo’s Second Spring (Lao Mo de di erge chuntian, 1984), about the marriage of a displaced war veteran to a young aboriginal woman.
By the end of the decade, the honeymoon between the CMPC and the New Cinema was over, and alternative solutions had to be found, from local independent companies to foreign financing. In 1987, the forty-year-old Martial Law was lifted, allowing filmmakers to delve into some taboo aspects of Taiwanese history—the Japanese occupation, the taking over by the Kuomintang, the ‘White Terror’ of the early 1950s, or the difficult modernization of the country in the 1960s. In this vein, Hou Hsiao-hsien directed his Taiwan Trilogy: A City of Sadness (Beiqing chengshi, 1989), Puppetmaster (Ximeng Chensheng, 1993) and Good Men, Good Women (Haonan, haonü, 1995). Edward Yang made a similarly ambitious work, A Brighter Summer Day (Giuling jie shaonian sha ren shijian, 1991); and Wan Jen directed Super Citizen Ko (Chaoji da guomin, 1995).
Another filmmaker to benefit from the lifting of the Martial Law was Wang Tun, who had started to make movies in 1981; in 1983, he adapted a Huang Chun-ming story, Flower in the Rainy Night (Kanhai de rizi, 1983). His first explorations of Taiwanese history, Strawman (Daocao ren, 1987) and Banana Paradise (Xiangjiao tiantang, 1989), were written by Wang Shaudi (Wang Xiaodi), a director herself. The third part of Wang Tung’s trilogy, Hill of No Return (Wuyan de shanqiu, 1992), was the last screenplay written by Wu Nien-jen before he turned to directing, inspired by his own past—A Borrowed Life (Duo-Sang, 1993)—or by recent history—Buddha Bless America (Tai Ping, Tian Guo, 1996). Wang Tung kept following his historical inspiration with Red Persimmon (Hong Shih Zi, 1996).
Not always successful at the box-office, the New Cinema had nevertheless profoundly renewed the industry, put Taiwan on the international cultural map, fostered formal experiments (such as the use of long takes, real locations, available lighting and non-professional actors) and opened the path to a plurality of cinematic voices. The former critic Chen Kuo-fu made his first feature, Junior High School Girl, in 1988. Ed Yang’s collaborator/ producer Yu Weiyen directed Gang of Three Forever (Tongdang wansui, 1989) and Moonlight Boy (Yueguang shaonian, 1993), while Hsu Hsiao-ming (Xu Xiaoming), a former assistant of Hou Hsiao-hsien, became a director with Dust of Angels (Shaonian ye, an la!, 1992) and Heartbreak Island (Qunian dongtian, 1995). The theatre and television director Stan Lai (Lai Shengchuan) made Peach Blossom Land (An lian taohuayuan, 1992) and Red Lotus Society (Fei Xia A-Da, 1994). The baker-turned-comic-actor Lin Cheng-sheng turned to filmmaking with a series of ground-breaking films such as A Drifting Life (Chuen hua mon lu, 1995) or Betelnut Beauty (Ai Ni Ai Wo, 2001). Wang Shau-di opened a television production studio where she trained a bevy of young filmmakers, including Tsai Ming-liang and Chen Yu-Hsun (Chen Yuxun). Then she turned to directing features with Accidental Legend (Fei Tian, 1996), Yours and Mine (Wo de Shenjinbing, 1997) and the animated film Grandma and Her Ghosts (Mo-Fo A-Ma, 1998).
As Taiwanese society evolved, filmmakers started to deal more with the ever-changing modernized urban space. Edward Yang directed two urban comedies, A Confucian Confusion (Duli Shidai, 1994), Mahjong (Maijiang, 1996) and the splendid A One and a Two (Yi Yi, 2000, staring Wu Nien-jen), which explores the existential and emotional unease of the modern Taiwanese man. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s gangster anti-heroes still roam the countryside in Goodbye, South, Goodbye (Zaijian, nanguo, zaijian, 1996), and the claustrophobic abstract Flowers of Shanghai (Hai shang hua, 1998) is a kammerspiel in costume—but with Millennium Mambo (Qianxi Manbo, 2001), Hou signed his first great contemporary urban drama, embracing the point of view of female subjectivity, as in his earlier Daughter of the Nile (Niluohe nüer, 1987), or the modern-time sequences of Good Men, Good Women.
Paradoxically, the most inspired descriptions of contemporary Taipei come from Malaysian-born Ts’ai Ming-liang. In Rebels of the Neon God (Qing shaonian nezha, 1992) and Vive l’Amour (Alqin wansui, 1994) he acutely depicts the (often sexual) confusion of lost young marginalized urbanites. The River (He liu, 1996) locates the origin of the malaise in the nuclear urban family. Both The Hole (Dong, 1998) and What Time Is It Here? (Ni Neibian Jidian, 2001) open new vistas—one by combining science fiction and musical, the other by taking the wanderings of one of the protagonists to France, as well as beyond death itself.
One of the most interesting directors of the 1990s is Chang Tso-chi (Zhang Zuoji), who turns his camera towards disenfranchised strata of the population—young delinquents, petty gangsters, hard-working yet impoverished families. His films—Ah Chung (Zhong Zai, 1996), Darkness and Light (Heian zhi guang, 1999) or The Best of Times (Meili Shiguang, 2002)—combine a warm, realistic approach with unexpected oneirism. Other directors worth mentioning are Ho Ping (18/Shibu, 1993; The Rule of the Game/Wa Dong Ren, 2002), Chen Yu-Hsun (Tropical Fish (Redai yu, 1995); Love Go-Go/Aiqing laile, 1998) and Chen Yiwen (Jam/Guojiang, 1998; The Cabbie/ Yun Zhuanshou de Lian, 2000).
Like Edward Yang, Wan Jen or Tseng Chuanghsiang, a number of people active in the film industry studied or lived in the USA. This is particularly true for women—such as the powerful critic Peggy Chiao; Wang Shau-di; the feminist director Huang Yu-chang (The Peony Birds/Mu dan niao, 1990); or the independent filmmaker Chen Jo-Fei. Another influential woman is the star Sylvia Chang, who, though living mostly in Hong Kong, has produced and directed a number of features in her native Taiwan. Two significant directors did not return home after studying in the USA. In 1991 Ang Lee struck an ongoing collaboration with New York independent producer James Schamus, and directed films in the USA and Europe, while making Eat Drink Man Woman (Yinshi nannü, 1994) in Taiwan and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo Hu Zang Long, 2000) in China. More hybrid and experimental, the multi-media artist Cheang Shu-lea has worked in the USA, Europe and Japan.
There is a lively queer scene in Taiwan, and the first gay Taiwanese movie was Yu Kanping’s The Outcasts (Niezi, 1986), an adaptation of Pai Hsien-Yung’s (Bai Xianyong) novel Crystal Boys. It is, however, telling that, with the exception of Lin Cheng-sheng’s Murmur of Youth (Meili za changge, 1997), most films involving gay/lesbian themes or issues are directed either by foreign-born filmmakers—Tsai Ming-liang’s Vive l’Amour and The River—or people who have spent time abroad: Huang Yu-chang’s Twin Bracelets (Shuangzhuo, 1990); Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet (Xiyan, 1992); Yin Chi’s Fleeing by Night (Ye ben, 2000—co-directed with former CMPC director Hsu Li-Kong); Yee Chih Yen (Yi Zhiyan)’s Blue Gate Crossing (Lanse damen., 2002); Sylvia Chang’s Tempting Heart (Xin Dong, 1999)—not to mention the sexually transgressive films and videos directed abroad by Cheang Shu-lea. The development of an independent scene also fostered the emergence of original gay work, such as Chen Jo-Fei’s Where Is My Love (Qiangpo puguang, 1995) and The Accidental Journey (Hai jiao tianya, 2000); or The Love of Three Oranges (Sanju zhilian, 1999) by the poet/screen-writer/stage director Hung Hung (Yan Hongya, a former collaborator of Edward Yang).
The first independent Taiwanese movie was Man from Island West (Xibu laide ren, 1990), followed by Bodo (Baodao dameng, 1993), in which the director, Huang Mingchuan (who had spent ten years in the US), coins an experimental language to express the Taiwanese imaginary. In 2000, a young woman, Singing Chen (Chen Xinyi) directed Bundled (Wo Jiao A-Ming-la), a non-conventional narrative about the plight of the homeless, and in 2001, Hsiao Ya-Chuan, a former Hou Hsiao-hsien assistant, gathered much attention for his daring, witty Mirror Image (Ming Dai Zhui Zhu).
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Taiwanese film industry is ailing. Major production companies such as the CMPC or ERA International (which had produced A City of Sadness and Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern/Da hongdenglong gaogao gua, 1991) have reconverted to television. Even the most famous directors find it difficult to raise money and become dependent on international financing and distribution. Yet the younger generations are organizing parallel circuits of exhibition/distribution, and find solutions for independent, low-budget, alternative financing.
See also: Wang Tong
Chen, R.-R.S. (1998). ‘Taiwan Cinema’. In Zhang Yingjin and Xiao Zhiwei (eds), Encyclopedia of Chinese Film. London: Routledge.
Chiao, P.-H.R (1987). Xin Taiwan dianying [New Taiwan Cinema]. Taipei: Shibao chuban gongsi.
Reynaud, B. (1999). Nouvelles Chines, nouveaux cinemas. Paris: Cahiers du cinema.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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