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Taiwanese Cinema and the Anxiety of Global (In)Visibility

I was honoured and delighted to be invited to give a keynote at the 2015 EATS conference in Krakow this year. But, at first, I was a bit challenged by the theme of ‘(In)Visible Taiwan’. I work in Film Studies. Silent cinema is possible, but invisible cinema – not really.

However, anxiety about Taiwan’s global visibility or lack of it is certainly prevalent. When I was preparing my keynote I went to a symposium linked to an exhibition of Taiwanese contemporary art in London. The first speaker showed a map with arrows pointing to the island, and big crosses through Thailand, just in case we did not know where he was talking about. And, in mid-June 2015 at the 2nd World Congress of Taiwan Studies at SOAS, Professor Chiu Kuei-fen gave an excellent overview of activist documentary in Taiwan, in which she—understandably—complained how little attention the very accomplished documentarians of Taiwan get in comparison with their mainland Chinese counterparts.

In the case of cinema, three surprising points became clear to me as I thought through my topic. First, we can understand the whole history of Taiwan cinema through this issue of visibility and invisibility. Second, sometimes Taiwanese filmmakers are the ones making Taiwan invisible. And, third, sometimes it is not Taiwan that is invisible.

Frankly, it came as a surprise to me to discover that I could think the history of Taiwan cinema through visibility/invisibility. In the early years of cinema, Taiwan was a Japanese colony with no cinema industry of its own. Its cinematic visibility was not only limited but also largely the result of Japanese documentary and newsreel producers’ work. They emphasised both the island’s exotic and ‘primitive’ state, symbolised by aboriginal Taiwanese, and Japan’s role in the modernisation of the island.

One of the most notorious examples from this period is サヨンの鐘(Sayon no kane, or Sayon’s Bell, 清水宏 [Hiroshi Shimizu], 1943), which starred the supposedly ethnically Chinese star Li Xianglan from Manchuria. She was in fact ethnically Japanese, and named Yamaguchi Yoshiko, but that’s another story. Sayon’s Bell is also complicated game of ethnic cross-dressing, with Li playing an aboriginal Taiwanese who sacrifices her life helping Taiwanese aboriginal men find their way down the mountains to join the imperial Japanese army.

Once the KMT took over, their aim was to make Taiwan visible as a Chinese province, and they encouraged the disappearance of Taiwanese language from films set in Taiwan as well as the production of many films set in China. In the 1980s, Taiwan New Cinema changed all that, with its strong local focus and insistence on realism, which included spoken languages other than Mandarin.

Throughout this history, different filmmakers have made Taiwan visible in different ways and for different reasons. But now, perhaps for the first time, Taiwan filmmakers are sometimes participating in making the island invisible. Take, for example, 痞子英雄首部曲:全面開戰 (Black and White: Dawn of Assault, 蔡岳勳 [Tsai Yueh-hsun], 2013). This comedy-action film is shot in Kaohsiung. But, in the film, it is ‘Harbor City’, a sort of generic Chinese city. Why? This phenomenon results from the transformation of the Chinese-language film industry.

Despite the government stand-off between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China on political recognition issues ever since the UN seat went to Beijing in 1971, trade between the two territories has been rapidly increasing. This is part of a process that also involves Hong Kong. The result has been a transformation of Chinese-language film production. Until this century, Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China operated as three different production industries. Now, they are very much enmeshed, creating what I would call one ‘transborder assemblage’. Therefore, access to and success in the mainland is far more important to most Taiwan and Hong Kong film producers. The disappearing act with Black and White is one example of just how far people will go in their efforts to access the mainland market and try to be competitive in it.

The third and perhaps most surprising instance of invisibility concerns Taiwan’s most successful recent filmmaker, Wei Te-Sheng, director of Cape No. 7 (海角七號, 2008) and Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (賽德克•巴萊, 2011) and co-writer and producer of Kano (2014). All over the world, at the same time as globalisation has led to transborder filmmaking like Black and White, it has also encouraged very local filmmaking. Why? Because combining commercialism with local interest is one way of competing with big budget and generic global films. The result are very popular local films that have very limited export potential.

What sort of very local Taiwan does Wei Te-Sheng make visible to Taiwan audiences? Mostly, it is also a grassroots Taiwan rooted in the aboriginal and benshengren local community that was there before the KMT came from the mainland in the 1940s. But what interests me even more is what Wei’s films make invisible – mainland China, whether KMT-dominated pre-1949 China, or the People’s Republic.

Of course there is something outrageous and audacious about daring to imagine a world without China. The ability to pull this off and sustain this imagination may be part of the appeal of Wei’s films. But some of the implications of this are sobering. Why? Does the success of Wei’s films indicate that many Taiwanese today are only able to imagine Taiwan if they can also make China invisible? And given the difficulty of sustaining that invisibility outside the cinematic realm of Wei’s feature films, what does that say about Taiwan’s difficulties in making itself visible to its own citizens today?

Chris Berry is Professor of Film Studies, King’s College London.