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Taiwan Cinema: International Reception and Social Change

Wafa Ghermani

Edited by Kuei-fen Chiu, Ming-Yeh T. Rawnsley and Gary D. Rawnsley, this book focuses on contemporary Taiwan cinema, its recent changes in international reception and the locally successful but internationally quite obscure filmmaker Wei Te-sheng. Both Ming-Yeh and Gary Rawnsley have already made a considerable contribution to the literature in the English language on Taiwan’s cinema and media. Their collaboration with Kuei-fen Chiu, a specialist in Taiwan documentary films and aboriginal literature, is highly fruitful.

In their introduction, the editors point to the paradox of Taiwan’s situation. On the one hand, Taiwan New Cinema attracted much international praise in the 1980s and the 1990s while the domestic box-office for local films dwindled. In contrast, Wei Te-sheng, the focus of this volume, experienced unexpected success with his debut feature film, Cape No.7 (2008), and therefore reignited new passion in local cinema but was largely ignored by international festivals. As the essays in this anthology demonstrate, Wei’s films are concerned not only with commercial popularity, but also challenge the onscreen representation of nation, history, and Taiwan’s aboriginal communities. This collection explains the shift of interest that occurred, suggesting that commercial movies deserve the attention of researchers even as they are neglected by arthouse critics.

Taiwan Cinema

Valentina Vitali’s chapter, “Variable of Transnational Authorship, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Wei Te-sheng”, is an important reminder of critical discourse on the development of authorship. As she argued, in the 1990s and 2000s Taiwanese films screened at festivals were mainly arthouse movies and were embraced by European commentators (for example, the films by Hou Hsiao- hsien). But the same group of cultural gatekeepers remain in a complete ignorance of Wei Te-sheng who does not fit the authorship’s framework established by western critics since the 1950s.

Despite this rejection, other chapters in the first part of the volume give an overview of the different strategies adopted by the Taiwanese government to promote contemporary cinema. Being more mainstream, these films cannot reach the most important festivals as documented in Elena Pollachi’s account of the presence of Taiwan cinema at the Venice film festival. Nevertheless, numerous programmes and collaborations (in particular with universities) have enabled the expansion of Taiwan cinema abroad. Contributors address a variety of experiences and cases in Brazil (Cecila Mello), Japan (Ran Ma), the US (Brian Hu), and the UK (Felicia Chan and Andy Willis). These cases convey first the loss of interest in Taiwanese cinema after 2000, but also the dynamics of new local films and the efforts in Taiwan to regenerate contemporary production.

The second part of the book is dedicated to Wei Te-sheng’s works. As a French researcher it is quite striking to see the discrepancy between Anglo-Saxon and French research. As Valentina Vitali points out the auteur approach in France discards the directors and filmographies that do not fit into the critical model. As a consequence, the current research on Taiwan cinema in France remains limited in terms of publishing, even if many young researchers are proposing new and original topics in their Master or PhD theses. The seven chapters included in the second part of the volume are proof that a “commercial” director’s works can be more complex than they look. Indeed, the “nation”, a central idea in Taiwanese film analysis (even in the French approach) is challenged by Wei’s films (see, for example, the chapters by Chialan Sharon Wang and Chris Berry respectively). Wei disrupts the old China-Taiwan link that was the classical approach to assert instead the Japan- Taiwan connection.

As most chapters of the second part show, Wei’s films have to be analysed beyond the pure aesthetic perspective: sociology (Ping-hui Liao), history (Kuei-Fen Chiu), politics (Chialan Sharon Wang), semiotics (Darryl Sterk) are all summoned to shed light on some problematic aspects (the alteration of historical facts, for example) but also on the richness of the movies. Moreover, the appendix offers an extensive interview with Wei Te-sheng that allows for a better understanding of his creative process and his approach to films and their production.

To conclude, this volume unites researchers from different fields (media, film, history, aboriginal studies, etc.) and therefore offers from multiple dimensions a concrete study on the production and international reception of Taiwan cinema. It also provides a significant discussion of Wei Te-sheng and his impact on Taiwan cinema and its representation of the history and life of the island. The book should be read by anyone seeking new perspectives on the continuous evolution of Taiwan’s film industry and the strategies employed to generate international awareness for movies made in and about Taiwan.

Dr Wafa Ghermani holds a PhD from the Université Paris 3 – La Sorbonne Nouvelle in film studies. Her thesis focused on Taiwan cinema and National Identity from the Japanese colonial period to nowadays. She currently works at the Cinémathèque française and is a curator for many festivals and Taiwan film related events.