LOS ANGELES — For well over a century, the island nation of Taiwan has experienced enough political tumult that its history would be befitting of a Tolstoy novel. Since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, Mainland China has long regarded the island as a rogue or breakaway province, leaving its status as a sovereign state in a sort of political and existential purgatory for decades. The Taiwanese people and culture only began to truly grapple with this uneasy history and identity during the 1980s, after the death of military dictator Chiang Kai-shek in 1975 and the island’s subsequent democratization and rapid economic ascent. Martial law wasn’t officially lifted until 1987.
Since then, Taiwan has seen itself become one of the most vibrant and progressive democracies in the region — in 2019, it became the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. The buildup to this moment is seen alongside a growing independence movement aiming to officially sever the island from its nominal ties to the mainland, as well as a concurrent growth in the concept of a “Taiwanese” identity separate from that of the mainland. Paul Malcolm of the UCLA Film & Television Archive and Brian Hu, an assistant professor at San Diego State University, used all of this as a backdrop to curate the films in this year’s Taiwan Biennial Film Festival.
Now home to the world’s largest box office, China has seen its money and cultural standards leave their mark on film production. The country’s notorious censor board is known to unexpectedly pull domestic films from release and serve as a de facto blacklist on filmmakers, and their power even extends to imported releases. (Famously, Disney’s Christopher Robin was denied a release in China, allegedly due to depictions mocking President Xi Jinping as Winnie the Pooh.) Not bound to the strictures of a local state censor board and with few productions actually making it into the mainland, Taiwanese filmmakers find themselves with more freedom of expression. One of the films in the Taiwanese Biennial that directly confronts this divide is Yue Fu’s 2018 documentary Our Youth in Taiwan. This boots-on-the-ground look at the Sunflower Movement, where students occupied the main legislative body of Taiwan to protest the growing influence of Beijing, follows two activists from opposite sides of the strait.
However, this sense of freedom does come at a cost. “There’s a sense of political danger,” said Hu. “If a filmmaker were to make a film that [in some way] distinguishes between Taiwan and China, you automatically lose a potential market.” Most filmmakers instead find other ways to traffic in distinctly Taiwanese sensibilities. “In talking about Taiwan-ness, they find other ways to do so, like talking about LGBTQ issues, which in some ways are uniquely Taiwan,” Hu continued.
While none of the films in this year’s Taiwan Biennial are specifically LGBTQ narratives (though Three Makes a Whole is by veteran director Zero Chou, who openly identifies as lesbian), Hu highlights the program’s opening film Heavy Craving. A crowd-pleaser by writer–director Hsieh Pei-ju, the romantic comedy belies its light humor and sunlit cinematography by touching on darker themes such as body image issues and eating disorders. One of the main characters in the film is a young boy who prefers to wear feminine clothing, and the film unsurprisingly ends on an uplifting note of self-acceptance.
While Hu and Malcolm strove to include as many young and fresh perspectives in this year’s biennial, it would be impossible to have a program of Taiwanese films without invoking its forebears. The so-called Taiwanese New Wave of the 1980s, with its figurehead auteurs Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang, used previously untold histories of life under authoritarian martial law to examine the contemporary movement. “Back in the ’80s and ’90s… these were histories that were repressed for so long,” said Hu. Decades later, though, the lens through which Taiwanese filmmakers look to the past has certainly changed. “Now I think it’s less about being able to tell repressed stories, but the joy of discovering these older stories.”
Missing Johnny, the feature debut of Huang Xi, is the film in the series that most obviously evokes the Taiwanese New Wave (Hou is an executive producer). Centered on the lives of three lonely individuals in the capital Taipei, the movie is a direct descendent of films like Hou’s The Boys of Fengkuei and Yang’s Taipei Story, which examined the alienation and ennui of individuals in the midst of Taiwan’s rapid economic growth in the 1980s. In Missing Johnny, the smallest of incidents (a broken-down car, a missing pet) set off a chain of events that weaves together the lives of these three young people who, despite living in an immensely dense city and in close proximity, had seen themselves adrift from society. “This is what happens when people are too close,” one of the protagonists ruefully states. “They forget how to love each other.”
In a world where Taiwan sees its own stature overshadowed by its adversary (or brethren, depending on how you see it) across the strait, the nation is still in the ongoing process of emerging from its traumatic history into its uncertain present. Films themselves may not necessarily provide the answers, but they are certainly a reflection of this interrogation of the past and present in the forging of an identity.
“There is a lot of looking towards Taiwan’s past,” said Hu. “The past matters to Taiwan, as it’s charting its potential future — its unknown future.”
The Taiwan Biennial Film Festival, presented by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and Taiwan Academy, continues at the Billy Wilder Theater (10899 Wilshire Blvd, Westwood, Los Angeles) through October 28.