Presented in the Forum, which according to the Berlinale is their most daring section, the third Taiwanese feature is entitled Together (甜‧秘密). Directed by first-time feature director Hsu Chao-jen (許肇任), Together comes off as the most earnest Taiwanese offering at the Berlinale, despite being another shot at commercial success. The film is daring in the sense of not being a romantic comedy as such (though it has its laughable moments), but rather a romantic drama. Ostensibly focusing on the exploits of teenager Xiao Yang , Together explores the slow crumbling of older relationships and the forging of new ones. Motivations are understated, and the mood remains somber and ambivalent. The characters subsist within their familial fishbowls, and a floating fish balloon released into the Taipei sky represents a sort of freedom from relationships and cultural restraints. Hong Kong pop star/actor Kenny Bee (鍾鎮濤) capably and modestly fulfills his role, while also being given a chance to sing. There is a distancing between the viewer and the film, as we have little invested in any of the characters, including the apparent protagonist Xiao Yang. However, it is this distancing that makes Together a bit better and unlike its Taiwanese brethren at the Berlinale, for here we can breath until the somewhat baffling ending.
LOWERING THE BAR
Taiwanese cinema dynamo Lieh Lee has her hands in all three Taiwanese features. She produced Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, plays the blind pianist’s caring mother in Touch of the Light, and takes on the role of Kenny Bee’s estranged wife in Together. However, she isn’t the only connecting thread. We can distill the recent Taiwanese cinema into these aspects: dancing, comedy, singing, the Taipei MRT, scooters and lyrical music. This is the picture of Taiwan as promoted by its recent cinema to international audiences, and we can ask if it is accurate, fair and, most importantly, effective.
Where the Taiwanese masters of the past were socially critical, recent Taiwanese cinema defeats itself by aiming too low. The ambitions of the past have been replaced with longing looks, inconsequential music and sterilized romance. Taiwan cinema has been “normalized” in the worst sense. Depthlessness has become Taiwan’s primary cinematic export. It is a retrograde cinema that abandons any hope in the possibilities of the cinematic and political future and returns to the innocuous comedies produced under martial law.
With the exception of the flawed Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (賽德克) and perhaps the even more flawed Monga (艋舺), Taiwan is unable to produce action films or cinematic blockbusters, and instead the industry has shifted toward the dreaded rom-com to attract commercial appeal and lure market success. Hollywood’s domination of the market and action films mirrors the US government’s quashing of Taiwan nuclear weapons program. Just as Taiwan can develop the poor man’s atomic bomb — chemical and biological weapons — it has to make do with romantic comedy.
The universal Hollywood product, however, is both a hindrance and an opportunity. The lowbrow and the generic have been monopolized by Hollywood, so openings exist for filmmakers and national cinemas to define themselves as against the grain. Not accepting the standards set by Hollywood films, filmmakers can take risks, experiment and defy the status quo. At one time, Taiwanese cinema did this. The recent, depthless Taiwanese cinema does not. Instead, it mimics the blandest offerings Hollywood has to offer, like a parrot copying its master in the hopes of getting a cracker — in this case, a contract with a Hollywood studio or adequate ticket sales. And these are the true aims. The intention is not to create a unique artistic vision or announce a new cinematic voice, but rather to gain access into the storied realms of the Oscars, cater to the lowest common denominator and ultimately submit to the Hollywood machine.