Johnny Neihu's News Watch: Can Taiwan create a Dark Knight?

By Johnny Neihu 強尼內湖  / 

Sat, Nov 29, 2008 - Page 8

Hah, forget dodgy prosecutors, trial by talkshow, judicial skulduggery, lawyer-client non-confidentiality and everything else besetting my beloved country and its populace of pathos. It’s time for a breath of fresh air. Something different to cleanse the palate, clear the sinuses, dewax the ears and free the mind of tedious burdens. Dear reader, let’s go to the movies.

Befitting this season of festivals and awards for film excellence, I’ve got a question to test your movie knowledge. Which token Taiwanese was nominated for Best Leading Actor at the Golden Horses this year? (The answer is at the end of the column; bear with me, and don’t peek.)

For those of you out of the film loop, the Golden Horse awards are an anachronistic Nationalist Chinese love-in for films from the Chinese-speaking world. In the old days Taiwan was one of the world’s most prolific movie factories, and the awards allowed the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to act not only as arbiters for the best that the most modern form of Chinese culture had to offer, but also to claim stewardship over the rest of the diaspora.

The name “Golden Horse” also served a political purpose: It’s derived from the first characters of Kinmen and Matsu, two Fujian island groups that the Communists didn’t want all that much after the Americans bailed out the marooned KMT in the 1950s.

Sadly, time has not wearied these propagandists. Every year a few superstars from Hong Kong are invited over to show off their Mandarin and allow Big China people to pretend that we’re all one big happy family. The net effect is a whole bunch of awards being presented to Hongkies and Chinese and a whole slew of Taiwanese artists and movies being completely ignored — largely on the Taiwanese taxpayer’s coin, by the way, courtesy of the Government Information Office (GIO).

The awards themselves are impeccably organized. I think it’s a credit to GIO know-how and professional rigor that two Taiwanese films got nominated for Best Feature Film (Cape No. 7 and Orzboyz) this year, but only one of them got a nomination for Outstanding Taiwanese Film of the Year (Cape No. 7). Outstanding work, gentlemen. Two thumbs up your fundament from Johnny.

You know how it is at the real Oscars? Every few years some actor or filmmaker with a conscience and/or a bandwagon uses a live audience of hundreds of millions of people to push this or that cause: Marlon Brando and native Americans, Richard Gere and China/Tibet, Vanessa Redgrave and Palestine, Michael Moore and everything — just to name a few. Many more might do so if they thought they wouldn’t alienate their fans.

Back in Taiwan, you know it’s Golden Horses time for the opposite reason: There isn’t even the risk of some gallant fool standing up and deriding Greater China bullshit.

Not only is there a paucity of political content in the awards ceremony (and what exists is strictly Sinofellatio), most of these celebrities — especially the young, stupid ones — haven’t got the gumption or social awareness to even attempt to make a statement. Even if they did, their minders in the recording industry would threaten them with mafia-style retaliation for placing their Chinese tour and recording contracts in jeopardy.

Anyway, the night isn’t about exploiting a TV audience to further a risky political agenda. No, it’s about showing off before a crowd of comatose VIPs and tone-deaf, developmentally disabled tweenies in their late 20s in the back rows. And don’t forget the crackling stage direction, where minutes go by as presenters try to decipher what they’re supposed to be doing. Best of all, the red carpet entrance, where we admire the nominees’ and presenters’ spangly, glittery, baubly, sequined, godawful “clothes” that do for Greater China fashion what the Great Wall did for labor relations.

The question that intrigues me is what the GIO will do when Beijing finally liberalizes its film market and inaugurates a half-credible Chinese-language awards structure.

Not very much, one suspects. Specifically, the Golden Horse management should get used to being pissed on from a great height as Big China movie moguls turn their attention to the motherland. Which is why I suggest the Horses ditch their Civil War-era appellation and retool themselves as the Golden Showers (“A Night of Golden Statuettes ... Showered On Celebrities Who Can’t Get a China Visa!”).

In the meantime, the GIO promotes movies that it likes.

It came as no surprise that the GIO should jump rather indelicately at the opportunity of promoting 1895, a potboiler featuring Hakka (a solid KMT voter base) and token Aboriginal (a solid token KMT voter base) characters doing battle with those pesky Japanese (by the way — spoiler alert — the Japs conquer Taiwan in the end, so it must be a tragedy).

But given that this is a Taiwanese production, I was surprised to find that the heroes were not a collective of chronically depressed lesbians who, when not resisting the Japanese menace, struggle to overcome existential angst by having sex, loathing it, then doing nothing other than staring glumly at expanses of water, pouting and occasionally shrieking at the sky.

Then there’s Cape No. 7, which has been a monster hit, and almost all through word of mouth. In this movie, a Japanese woman is a sympathetic character who represents something more humane in Japan’s dealings in Taiwan all those decades ago.

Those of you mischievous types wondering if there’s a subtext to all this blossoming romance between Japanese and Taiwanese will be delighted to hear there’s a new movie on the way that takes it one step further. It’s called Sumimasen, Love and opens in Taiwan on Jan. 9. Bound to outrage Beijing-leaning Children of the Dragon all over again, this movie stars the scrumptious Chie Tanaka from Cape No. 7. Yep, she’s back and falling in love with yet another mournful young Taiwanese fella, which should bring hot-blooded young men to the multiplexes — preferably without their girlfriends. You can hear the GIO gritting its teeth.

Is there something in Taiwan’s colonial history that’s reaching into the future and wanting to be touched? Or do you reckon it’s all the Japanese porn?

Anyway, I notice that they’re not making mass market films about the road to romance for hopelessly single, aging Taiwanese men searching the backblocks of Hunan and Hebei for an exportable, fertile female who won’t nag them too much in front of the parents. Not much box office there … I can’t imagine why.

I like a movie that sets things on fire, takes risks and makes people see life anew. Something like the Borat movie, which brought out the worst in production crew and onscreen victims.

Or something transgressive like Pink Flamingos: dung devouring, forcible artifical insemination, erotica with chickens, singing sphincters and the best documented egg fetish in the history of cinema. This is what life is about!

Or just the amazing, sick sight of Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight lurching out of an evacuated hospital in a nurse’s uniform as the place he wired with explosives collapses behind him.

Where are such moments in Taiwanese cinema?

Filmmakers in the US who create this stuff end up being the doyens of the most powerful popular culture in the world.

What do we make, and where do our best filmmakers end up? Unless you’re Ang Lee (李安) — who may as well be American, professionally speaking — the best you can hope for is a cultural job with the government if the party in power likes you, or running the Spot repertory cinema if you’re Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝賢).

The good news is that people from this part of the world are gradually entering the bigger picture. I say that the Hong Kong sequence in The Dark Knight was more than sufficient for the film to qualify for the Showers. As a result, Edison Chen (陳冠希) — whose IHD (Insufficiently High Definition) auditions of wannabe superstarlets remain hot Internet items — should have been nominated for a Shower for Best Supporting Actor in an Extremely Brief and Non-Descript Role.

I want things to go further. Batman is a bona fide role model for a society filled with graft and controlled by fools and thieves. But to be Batman, you have to be prepared to get dirty when the filthy are in power — to move into the blurry zone between freedom fighter and vigilante, between patriot and terrorist, to see justice done. It requires a profound personal evaluation of what is right, what is wrong and what behavior can never be justified in the name of justice.

Somewhere out there in my beloved country I have no doubt such people exist. But I would bet you NT$3,600 in movie vouchers that not one of these people is in the film industry.

Oh, and the answer to the quiz: It was a trick question. No Taiwanese was nominated.

Got something to tell Johnny? Go on, get it off your chest. Write to dearjohnny@taipeitimes.com, but be sure to put “Dear Johnny” in the subject line or he’ll mark your bouquets and brickbats as spam.