Thu, May 16, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Movie review: Searching for the 1920s

Three years in the making, Khan Lee’s latest production about Taiwan’s history is a detailed and thoughtful documentary on the country’s first pilot, Hsieh Wen-ta, who went from model colonial subject to self-exiled troublemaker

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Taiwan’s first pilot Hsieh Wen-ta poses with his plane in the 1920s.

Photo courtesy of Image and Imagine Foundation for Culture and Arts

For historical documentaries with little existing footage, Searching for the 1920s (尋找1920) is probably as exciting as it’s going to get. It’s not that the history is boring — protagonist Hsieh Wen-ta (謝文達), Taiwan’s first pilot, lived a fascinating life that could very much warrant a action-drama feature film. But when presented in documentary form, it becomes a niche production that will delight history buffs but doesn’t exactly fit the bill as mass entertainment.

Unlike the stage play A Suitcase of Memories (時光手箱), producer Khan Lee’s (李崗) previous project, Searching for the 1920s is educational, which is understandably why it won’t be hitting the theaters. Instead, the film — along with a second documentary featuring Korea’s first pilot An Chang-nam, who trained with Hsieh — will be shown at special screenings with accompanying talks in Taipei over the next few weeks. Lee’s Image and Imagination Foundation for Culture and Arts is also raising funds to show the film at schools throughout Taiwan.

It’s disappointing that there are no English subtitles, however, since any promotion of Taiwan’s history to foreigners is a good thing for the country.

Also rooted in Taiwanese history, featuring the Yen family of Keelung (基隆顏家), A Suitcase of Memories, which drew rave reviews when it was performed to a sold-old show at Metropolitan Hall in March, not only drew from Yen family descendant Tae Hitoto’s deeply personal books about her parents’ turbulent marriage, but was also fortunate enough to have Hitoto playing herself on stage. That story had the ingredients to draw a general crowd, focusing more on family and identity, emotions and personal memories rather than historical accuracies. And it made much of the audience cry.

Film notes

Searching for the 1920s(尋找1920)

Directed by: Hsu Ming-chun (許明淳)

Running time: 120 minutes (two parts)

Language: Mandarin, Taiwanese and Japanese with Chinese subtitles

Taiwan release: Screenings and talk at Syntrend Creative Park’s Clapper Theater, 5F, 2, Civic Blvd Sec 3, Taipei City (台北市市民大道三段2號5樓), with further screenings in other cities in late June and July. This weekend’s shows are full, remaining screenings are May 24 at 7:30pm and June 15 at 2:30pm.

On the Net: www.zeczec.com/projects/roaring1920


There are some parallels in the two productions, most notably the characters’ struggle with identity under Japanese rule. Born in 1901, Hsieh became the first Taiwanese pilot, a model colonial subject with a bright future. But he soon became involved with Chiang Wei-shui’s (蔣渭水) passive resistance movement, leading to a daring exploit that saw Hsieh fly his plane directly to the colonial empire’s heart of Tokyo and drop about 20,000 leaflets with messages such as “Taiwanese have long been suffering under tyrannical rule,” and “The totalitarianism of the colonial government is a disgrace to the constitutional country of Japan!” He then fled to China rather than face the consequences.

However, the rest of Hsieh’s story remained relatively unknown until 2016 when his son Hsieh Tung-han (謝東漢),who is featured quite a bit in the documentary, published a two-part biography on his father, Wandering Between Two Motherlands (徘徊於兩個祖國之間).

The younger Hsieh was present at the documentary’s premiere earlier this month, presenting to Lee a framed replica of his father’s calligraphy, reading feixing (飛行, flight).

The film took three years to make, and the attention to detail is evident. Instead of just old photographs, newspapers and talking heads, many of Hsieh’s action sequences are presented in animation form, in a semi-realistic, down-to-earth manner that makes use of graphic elements for a strong visual experience. Since a big portion of the information is found in old newspapers and letters, the pieces of paper are shown on screen while a red line highlights the portion that’s being narrated. The Chinese-language articles could have just been read in Mandarin without anyone complaining, but instead they were read in Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese) to reflect historical accuracy because few people in Taiwan at the time spoke Mandarin. It’s interesting to hear since long passages of written Hoklo isn’t read aloud often.

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