Thu, Sep 29, 2011 - Page 14 News List

Revisiting the 1990s through film

Veteran director Huang Ming-chuan captured a society in transition with his ‘myth trilogy,’ which has been reissued in a DVD box set, and though he continues to preserve moments in history with his nonfictional works, he is embarking on a new course

By Ho Yi  /  Staff Reporter

Huang Ming-chuan

Photo courtesy of Formosa Filmedia Co

Huang Ming-chuan (黃明川) is a man of many titles. He has been a painter and a photographer, but is best known as a filmmaker who Taiwanese media have described as a “lunatic.” The epithet was the result of his extreme method of filmmaking, which has drawn attention since he made his feature debut with The Man from Island West (西部來的人) in 1989. For the film, Huang scraped together a small budget from personal savings and loans from friends, assembled a tiny crew that was young and inexperienced but eager to work and learn, and ventured into the rugged mountain ranges and seaside cliffs of eastern Taiwan to tell the story of a member of the Atayal (泰雅) tribe returning to his village after years of living in Han-Chinese society.

The film’s atmospheric, poignant style caught the attention of the Golden Horse Awards (金馬獎) that year and generated heated discussion on Huang’s pioneering mode of filmmaking.

Within a decade, the director completed two more feature films that stand out for their ruminative themes and distinctive cinematic aesthetics, which were born out of his budgetary constraints. Bodo (寶島大夢, 1993) looks at the absurdity of Taiwan’s authoritarian past through the eyes of a low-ranking soldier, while the use of political and religious iconography in Taiwan is studied in Flat Tyre (破輪胎, 1998), in which two documentary filmmakers trek across the country to record public statues on film.

Clearly, Taiwanese history and culture have played essential parts in Huang’s works, even when the artist was living the American dream as a successful commercial photographer in New York City during the 1980s.

Born and raised in Chiayi City, Huang was determined to become a painter when he moved to New York after graduating from National Taiwan University’s (國立台灣大學) College of Law. But soon the aspiring young artist found himself more attracted to “pictures that move.” After learning from his friend Ang Lee (李安) just how expensive studying filmmaking at New York University was, however, Huang chose a cheaper option and entered the photography department at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Four semesters later, Huang was back in the Big Apple, quickly building up a career in commercial photography.

When the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government lifted martial law in 1987, Huang decided it was time to go back. Before he returned, the photographer wrote a book on the history of photography in Taiwan dating back to the Qing Dynasty and the Japanese colonial era.

“Around the time when Taiwan’s martial law was lifted, the country was driven by a strong desire to open up to the world and become a more just society,” the 56-year-old filmmaker said in an interview with the Taipei Times earlier this month. “To many, it was also a time to search for one’s roots.”

For the book, Huang spent more than three months flipping through archives at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and Harvard-Yenching Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“I’m always interested in Taiwan’s history before the island of Formosa became Sinified,” he said.

Huang stressed that The Man From Island West is not merely about Taiwan’s Aborigines and their cultural predicament, but is also related to all people who leave home to seek a better life and yet keep seeking the answers to questions like “Who am I?” and “Where do I come from?”

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