The Mystery of Taiwan CinemaAbout Us

Cecilla Mello - The Mystery of Taiwan Cinema

I have always wondered what it is about Taiwan, this half-industrial, half-tropical paradise island country, that made it home to some of the world’s most gifted film directors in the history of cinema. Three names suffice to give us the dimension of this mystery: Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang. And that’s not to mention Ang Lee! My own love affair with Taiwanese cinema began when I saw Vive L’Amour by Tsai Ming-liang (Aiqing Wansui, 1994) in a cinema in São Paulo, Brazil, and a few years later A One and a Two by Edward Yang (Yiyi, 2000), after which I decided to start learning Mandarin and to include at least some Taiwanese cinema on my next research project, which would follow my PhD in Film Studies at the University of London (dedicated to English cinema and realism).

And so I did after returning to Brasil from England to start a post-doctoral research at the University of São Paulo, fully funded by the ‘São Paulo Research Foundation’ (FAPESP). My project was broadly concerned with the relationship between cinema and the city and issues of realism, space and memory in contemporary world cinema. The films of Malay-Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang were central to my investigation for their privileged engagement of space and architecture, and for their indissociable rapport with the urban space. This urban space is mostly the city of Taipei, and it is no surprise that the faithful spectator of this singular body of work, built from a web of related themes, characters and spaces, begins in no time to feel intimate to this on-screen world. My own experience with director Tsai’s cinema confirmed this theory, for I felt like I had been to Taipei repeated times, before ever having been there physically. I knew the roads, the night markets, the streets filled with mopeds, the film theatre, the skywalk, the apartment, and so many of the cities’ public toilets! Cinema, it has been argued, is a travelling medium, and my journey to Taipei began with it.

During the second year of my post-doc it became clear that I should go to Taipei for a period of research, and the School of Film and New Media at Taipei National University of the Arts turned out to be the ideal institute to host me as Visiting Fellow. When I first arrived in Taipei in 2010, the streets, the viaducts, the trains, everything reminded me of my beloved films by Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang. Coming out of an MRT station in the city centre for the first time I had to literally stop and catch my breath. Those sights/sites existed beyond the cinema, they were real, and there was I, inhabiting the streets that already existed in my memory, only a virtual memory fabricated through screens.

At TNUA I was received by Prof. Daw-Ming Lee and by Prof. Peggy Chiao, who were extremely helpful during my stay in Taiwan. I was lodged at the University’s beautiful campus in Guandu, in a special accommodation for visiting researchers and lecturers, with full access to services such as the comprehensive and well-equipped Library, an office space with computer, the School’s DVD collection, restaurants and sports facilities. During this period I was invited to give two talks, the first on Brazilian cinema and the second on British cinema, open to students and staff of the School, as well as to students from other schools.

Cinema in Taiwan

Perhaps the highlight of my two-month research period in Taipei was being able to interview director Tsai Ming-liang in his charming Coffee Shop ‘Tsai Lee Lu’. This was thanks to the contact provided, through Prof. Daw-Ming Lee, by the student Lim Jun Xian, who later became a good friend. I was also helped by members of staff from the School, Jin Ting and Yao Wen, who came to my rescue as translators for the interview, and who also became excellent friends. The interview lasted for two hours and covered many aspects of the director’s work relevant to my research on contemporary world cinema and urban spaces. It was later transcribed in Mandarin and translated into Portuguese for publication in Brasil (http://www.socine.org.br/rebeca/pdf/e13.pdf).

I would also like to mention the contact established through Prof. Daw-Ming Lee with Jane Yu, who at the time was director of the Taipei International Film Festival. Since the Festival was preparing a retrospective on Brazilian Cinema for their 2010 edition, I was able to collaborate with them by writing one essay, entitled ‘Journeying through Brazilian Cinema’, published in the 12th Taipei International Film Festival Catalogue, as well as small features on the five Cinema Novo films screened. It was an honour to give a small contribution to their great effort in bringing Brazilian cinema to Taiwanese screens during the month of June 2010.

Another highlight of my time as Visiting Fellow in Taipei was being able to visit different museums, with a special emphasis on the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, where I was able to see Tsai Ming-liang’s It’s a Dream, a video installation comprising of the screening of his eponymous short film in a room with old cinema chairs transported to Taiwan from Malaysia. This was part of the collection ‘Memory of a Journey’, alongside works by artists Chiou Jyian-ren, Huang Ming-chang and Wang Ya-Hui. Other museums and temples which I had the opportunity to visit in Taipei, as well as different locations throughout the city, gave me an invaluable insight into Taiwanese culture, as well as another perspective on the films I had been researching.

These two months in Taipei went by very quickly and left me with a great desire to return to Taiwan time and again. I am currently finishing a monograph on contemporary world cinema and urban spaces, which should be coming out in Brasil in 2015, and which contains a great deal of the research conducted at TNUA. And before I can travel half the world to visit Taiwan again, my new research project on the cinema of Chinese director Jia Zhangke frequently takes me back, in all its myriad cinephilic connections, to Taiwanese cinema and the streets of Taipei.

Cecília Mello is Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of São Paulo, Brasil, and FAPESP Senior Research Fellow at the Federal University of São Paulo, conducting research on the cinema of Jia Zhangke (2012-15).