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Taiwan’s Lost Commercial Cinema –Recovered and Restored

"Taiwan’s Lost Commercial Cinema – Recovered and Restored" is the title of a symposium and screening project around the UK and continental Europe that I organised together with Dr Ming-Yeh Rawnsley of SOAS in 2017. It was an unexpected highlight of the year for me. Not only have more people than I anticipated been interested in the old, black-and-white, low-budget, and Taiwanese-language taiyupian films that the title refers to. Also, attending repeated showings of the films has not been boring, as you might think, but has helped me to develop deeper affection for the films.

Taiyupian are the beginnings of Taiwanese feature filmmaking. During the Japanese colonial era (1895-1945), cinemagoing was popular, but there was no local production. When the KMT arrived, the Mandarin-speaking audience was too small to support a Mandarin- language cinema. Therefore, it was small private companies that launched filmmaking in Taiwan in the mid-1950s, and in Taiwanese. However, there was no archive then, and the companies were under-capitalized, coming and going quickly. After the taiyupian industry was eclipsed in the early 1970s by the rise of television and state-supported Mandarin-language cinema, everyone forgot about it and the films were lost.

I have been curious about taiyupian ever since I first came across them on a visit to Taipei about 20 years ago. They did not appear in the standard literature on Chinese-language cinema, and less than 200 survive out of the over 1,000 films made. I know of few other places where the beginnings of local cinema have been so neglected, and that intrigued me.

Back then, before the DVD or the download, you had to go to the Chinese Taipei Film Archive (now the Taiwan Film Institute [www.tfi.org.tw]) to see the films. I was working on the book, China on Screen, with Mary Farquhar at the time. Our first surprise was that, unlike every other Chinese film we had ever seen, the taiyupian available to us did not have even Chinese subtitles. Without assistance, we could not understand anything! It seems the producers really were hard up! Now I know that only if a taiyupian was a big enough box office success to suggest non-Taiwanese speaking audiences would want to see it was it translated, and then prints were dubbed.

More recently, with the growth of interest in local identity, culture, and history, the Taiwan Film Institute has been restoring film, subtitling them, and making them available on DVD. Ming-Yeh and I believed that their significance as film history and the rare opportunity for those interested in Taiwan to see popular culture from the martial law era made it important to showcase taiyupian. Therefore, with the help of a modest but essential grant from the Taiwan Ministry of Culture, we have been able to show them to audiences in the UK and continental Europe.

However, these low budget genre films are unknown and have no famous auteurs. We only expected a handful of people for an academic symposium on such a very specialized topic. Imagine our surprise when it was the first thing to book out, with all available seats reserved well before the event on 7 October 2017 at King’s College London. Professor Gene-fon Liao of National Taiwan University of Arts, who wrote one of the earliest books on taiyupian, introduced the history of the industry, and Teresa Huang of the Taiwan Film Institute introduced its role in recovering and restoring the films. Among a new generation of scholars, Evelyn Shih from University of California Berkeley analysed the 007-style female agents in 1960s taiyupian, and Professor Wang Chun-Chi from National Donghwa Univerity and Dr Jeremy Taylor from Nottingham looked at how taiyupian traveled in the region. Much encouraged by the strong interest in the seminar, we are now putting together a special issue of Journal of Chinese Cinemas on taiyupian.

The screening series followed on from the symposium in October and November. Academic partners in Manchester, Aberystwyth, Edinburgh, London, and Nottingham in the UK and Vienna, Lund, Ljubljana and Krakow on the Continent all selected from the 10 films available with specially written programme notes. Some screened on-campus, and at Jagiellonian University in Krakow and University of Vienna, they even organized classes around the screenings. Others such as the universities of Nottingham, Aberystwyth and Manchester, arranged their screenings in cooperation with local movie theatres. The numbers attending varied, but their level of interest was impressive.

Jagiellonian University

Another pleasant surprise was the “long tail” of the event, as other venues have got in touch to show the films. Tübingen in Germany held their screenings already in 2017, but coming up already in 2018 are Preston, Lyons, Helsinki, Vilnius, and Oxford, with additional screenings planned for Nottingham and London.

As Ming-Yeh and I traveled around introducing the films, I found people thought I would want to introduce the film and then step outside until the Q&A session at the end. But I always watch the film. First, I like to get a sense of how the audience is responding. But I have also found that every time I watch the taiyupian, I keep seeing new things and getting fonder of them.

For example, researching the season, I had already understood that the diverse and large taiyupian universe was produced by a relatively small number of filmmakers, because I kept seeing the same names coming up in the credits as editor, director, cinematographer and so on. However, it is by only watching the films repeatedly that I have noticed the same character actors popping up. The woman who plays Foxy in Fantasy of the Deer Warrior is the very un-PC oversexed indigenous woman in Brother Wang and Brother Liu Tour Taiwan, and even the oversexed innkeeper’s wife in Vengeance of the Phoenix Sisters. The man who plays the salacious nightclub owner in Early Train from Taipei is the equally salacious entrepreneur in Dangerous Youth. Not all these character actors are typecast, however. Only recently did I notice that the loyal nanny in Vengeance of the Phoenix Sisters is played by the same woman who plays the female lead’s slatternly mother in Dangerous Youth.

The versatility of a stable of reliable actors is one aspect of a larger pattern of resourcefulness that characterizes taiyupian. With limited means, a vast range of films in all the major genres was produced. Sometimes, the solutions are ingenious and sometimes they are clumsy. But the more I watch them, the more endearing I find their determination to overcome all obstacles and get the movies made.

(Film stills courtesy of Taiwan Film Institute)

Chris Berry is Professor of Film Studies at King’s College London. His academic research is grounded in work on Chinese cinema and other Chinese screen-based media, as well as neighboring countries.