By Stephen Palmer
Last year fellow League member Caz (@SheSpoiledIt) and I got to look at some films that were being shown as part of the inaugural Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh, a wonderful event that shone the light on some real unseen gems of 20th and 21st Century Taiwanese film. Because of the human malware situation, it was operated online, and gave the pair of us access to all kinds of treats. Now, full disclosure, I am an Asian cinema nut, and Taiwanese cinema is one of my great loves, but one thing I loved about it was that it gave the possibility to look at Taiwanese cinema outside of the classic era of “New Taiwanese Cinema“, giving us a look at films that are not by Hou Hsiao-hsien or Edward Yang or Tsai Ming-liang nor Ang Lee . Do not get me wrong, I adore these filmmakers – but I was delighted to see a much wider focus put on display.
This year the Festival is back mixing it up with physical screenings and online access, and I thought rather than give our readers a handful of disparate reviews, I would try and give you a little tasting menu that would inspire you all to go explore a little. For the League’s audience, there a little extra interest as there is a strand on female filmmakers. Please go try some of the classics like Edward Yang’s “Taipei Story” (1985) and Hou Hsiao-Hsien “Dust in the Wind” (1987), but then stay a while longer and have a look at some of the other treats on display.
So let us start with Huang Yu-shan’s “Peony Birds 牡丹鳥” (1991), a female-led drama by a female director. It tells the story in two time frames about a mother and a daughter, and their difficult relationship. We open (and occasionally return to) a small coastal village in the 1970s, with a young family on the edge of collapse. Young mother of two Chan-chuan is the village beauty who has never really gotten past her teenage crush on a local doctor, and whose husband is clearly feeling emasculated by not only this, but the way his family-derived wealth is being taken away by the current political regime. He sadly expresses this by drinking and carousing with the local ladies, with his adoring daughter, Shu-chin. Sadly, this results in the husband accidentally dying in an alcohol fuelled accident.
We jump forward two decades and see that Chan-chuan has moved to Taipei with her children and has became a businesswoman, owning her own textiles business, although competition from Mainland China and export tarrifs to the West mean that things are becoming tough. Shu-chin still lives with her mother and brother, and works in the local pop music industry. Even twenty years later, it is clear that her fathers’ death has left a huge psychological scar on Shu-chin, informing a terrible choice of partners (along with sexual frigidity), and a very fractious relationship with her mother. It’s your standard 1990’s asian melodrama in many ways, including music ranging from mando-pop to proto-emo rock, where the protagonists find it hard to express their real feelings, and utterly unable to see thoroughly decent people around them who want to help. What makes it really interesting is that both our protagonists are female, and both thoroughly modern women at that. It feels a little more commercially driven than similar Taiwanese films of the time, with the socio-political commentary of the New Taiwanese Cinema movement pushed into the background. It’s utterly charming and well-acted, but you will feel terribly frustrated by Shu-chin’s behaviour, with her arc crashing into crisis point very late into the film, making it feel rushed, although it has a generous 107 minute running time.
Next up is Chang Ying’s “The Best Secret Agent 天字第一號” (1964), a fun little spy thriller I have actually seen before, thanks to its fairly recent restoration. It’s actually in Taiwanese rather than the more Asian-market friendly Mandarin, and was a hugely popular film in it’s day. It is set during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, after the Sino-Japanese War that just predates World War II. We are introduced to Tsui-ying, a young woman who is forced from her home because of the war, and loses her father on their trek from the country to the city. She falls in love with the handsome Ling-yun, but ends up marrying his uncle, Chao-chun, who is a collaborator with the occupying Japanese forces. Ling-yun, heartbroken, goes off to the UK, but eventually returns to stay with his uncle and his ex-lover/step-aunt. Chao-chun is keen to see his nephew paired off with his daughter (yeah, I know…), but highest on his priorities is finding out just who is the leader of the local resistance, known as Heaven’s Agent No. 1, who seems to be arranging a host of terrorist/revolutionary acts against the Japanese regime. Tsui-ying initially seems to be an emotionally cold, albeit amazingly dressed socialite, but we soon see she’s quite the manipulator and still in love with Ling-yun. What we end up with is a really fun little melodrama mixed up with the mystery of “Who is Heaven’s Agent No. 1”? Of course when I say mystery, that’s stretching it a bit, as it appears pretty much everyone at Chao-chun’s mansion is a Resistance Agent, and if you can’t guess the identity of who is really pulling all the strings, you really are not paying attention. It all wraps up rather nicely, even if it borrows more than a little from “Casablanca” (1942).
I will advise you to look past the rather blurry opening few minutes, this film has been recovered after some painstaking restoration, and after a few minutes the visuals and sound are pretty good.
Along with some great Fiction Features, the Festival also has some great Documentary and Archive pieces. My absolute favourite is Pai Jing-jui’s utterly mesmerising short “A Morning in Taipei 臺北之晨” (1964). It does exactly what it says on the tin, documenting the early morning routine of those who live in the city. We see Chinese Pagodas rub up alongside modern concrete municipal buildings, whilst elderly people perform Tai Chi outside. We see actors prepare for an Opera performance, whilst Buddhists, Muslims and Catholics perform their morning worship. We see hordes of young female factory workers, all dressed identically, clock in for another shift, whilst young children leave the bosom of their families to attend school. We see people on their bicycles (oh, so many bicycles) go off to work, whilst Postal Workers deliver the mail on their mopeds.
All this is put against a fantastic modern score by Lim Giong, which combines classical Chinese musical instruments with dreamy electronica, perfectly striking the balance between the old and the new that 1964 Taipei possesses. It’s an utter treat that should delight lovers of film, historians and sociologists alike.
Hopefully, I have piqued your interest. If you are local to Edinburgh, there are a number of screenings, including some to go along with the COP26 Conference that is being hosted in Glasgow. If not, go check out the website https://taiwanfilmfestival.org.uk/ and explore the really fascinating films on offer.