Shallow focus

Taiwan’s recent cinema, which is obsessed with the dreaded rom-com genre, mimics the blandest offerings Hollywood has to offer, where the true aim is not to create a unique artistic vision or announce a new cinematic voice, but generate market success

By James T. Hong  /  Contributing reporter

Thu, Mar 07, 2013 - Page 12

There are thousands of film festivals around the world, but only a few at most are worthy of a film professional’s attention. Film festivals have a hierarchy, usually not strict or written in stone, which is known to all film professionals and many aspiring filmmakers. This hierarchy, this ordering, determines how a particular film festival appears to the filmmaker, and how a filmmaker will relate to that film festival. More importantly, a film festival’s rank or prestige determines how foreign governments interact with that festival, if they do at all.

The Berlin International Film Festival, otherwise known as the Berlinale, is one of three best-known film festivals in the world. The festival in Cannes is more famous, and the Venice International Film Festival is older. Together with the Oscars, these four events occupy the top tier of international film events according to Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture. Taiwanese filmmakers who are invited to these top tier festivals will be given priority for travel funding and lavished with promotional opportunities.

Certain countries, notably the US, do not have such an official ranking of film festivals. Other governments are perhaps too poor to provide travel grants to filmmakers. But since Hollywood, the most powerful filmmaking entity in the world, is located in the US, that country’s government need not promote its local film industry. It is already the de facto international standard in mainstream cinematic entertainment.

Cinema is a powerful weapon of soft power — the intangible international influence of a nation’s culture, values and ideologies. The now-historical Taiwanese New Wave Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝賢), Edward Yang (楊德昌), and Tsai Ming-liang (蔡明亮) were and still remain effective elements in Taiwan’s soft power arsenal. Despite working in Hollywood, Ang Lee (李安) is still considered a native son of Taiwan, and he has made conscious efforts to shoot some of his films here, including the recently released Life of Pi

ROM-COM ROMP

The three Taiwanese features invited to the 63rd Berlinale represent a new strain of Taiwan cinema. This is a cinema born in Taiwan’s relative decline (at least compared to the other “Asian Tiger” economies and the rise of China) and amidst the ubiquity of video production.

Previous Taiwanese entries to the Berlinale signaled the process of change. The 2012 Berlinale featured four Taiwanese features of which two were romantic comedies — Love (愛) by Doze Niu (鈕承澤) and Joyful Reunion (飲食男女 — 好遠又好近) by Tsao Jui-yuan (曹瑞原) — and two focused on Taiwanese cuisine (The Raw and the Cooked by the German filmmaker Monika Treut and again Joyful Reunion).

Also selected for the 2012 Berlinale was the 2011 omnibus film 10+10, commissioned by the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival, which features 20 five-minute shorts from 10 established Taiwanese directors and 10 newcomers. 10+10 is both burdened and freed by its anthology form, as films of this type are bound to be mixed — some bad, some forgettable and hopefully some of quality. Since 10+10 was designed to celebrate The Golden Horse Film Festival and the Republic of China’s 100th anniversary, the film ably reflects the changes in Taiwanese cinema preoccupations. Some of the shorts focus on specific episodes of Taiwan’s history, others take nostalgic turns, while the worst feature typical situational comedy and again romantic comedy mannerisms.

The most promoted Taiwanese feature of this year’s Berlinale was undoubtedly Arvin Chen’s (陳駿霖) Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? (明天記得愛上我) which had its world premiere in Berlin. Chen is a veteran of the Berlinale, as his previous feature, Au Revoir Taipei (一頁台北), screened in 2010 at the festival, and his 2006 University of Southern California thesis film, Mei (美), won the Silver Bear for Best Short Film. He also directed a short in 10+10.

Featuring some of the actors from his previous narrative feature, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? also incorporates two Taiwanese rock/pop stars, Mavis Fan (范曉萱) and Mayday’s Stone (石錦航). Despite taking roles that play against type, their rock star status is not lost on their fans or the film’s backers. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? is essentially a hollow commercial enterprise. When the prolific producer/actress Lieh Lee (李烈) was asked by a Taiwanese reporter at the sparsely-attended Berlin press conference who the audience was, she responded that the film was designed for women around 30 years old.

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? asks the titular question by focusing on two couples. Weichong (Richie Jen 任賢齊) is a closeted homosexual married to Feng (Mavis Fan) who wants another child. Meanwhile Weichong’s sister, Mandy (夏于喬), fears an eternity of boredom with her nerd fiance, San-san, played by Stone, who comes off as mentally handicapped, rather than as a semiconductor specialist. Chen’s direction is light, at times superficially lyrical, and characters occasionally float in the air. With the exception of the title track, as sung by Fan in a drunken karaoke sequence, the music feels lifted from a Carrefour supermarket, which is itself the subject of a joke within the movie.

It is unclear if Chen intended two foreigner roles as simple jokes or metaphors of Taiwan’s cultural position in Asia. Weichong’s love interest is a hunky airline steward from Hong Kong, and Mandy retreats into the world of a South Korean soap opera, where she befriends the male star who appears on her couch as an imaginary advisor. Since South Korea is now trouncing Taiwan in all spheres of cultural influence, this Korean-speaking character is just another reminder of Taiwan’s weakening soft power in Asia.

SOMETHING FOR THE KIDS

Presented in the Generation program for children and youth, Touch of the Light (逆光飛翔), produced by Wong Kar-wai (王家衛), who is this year’s Berlinale jury head, and directed by Chang Rong-ji (張榮吉), serves as a suitably inspirational tale based on the real life story of blind pianist Huang Yu-hsiang (黃裕翔), who plays himself in the film. Here he befriends a beautiful wannabe ballerina (Sandrine Pinna, 張榕容) and together they inspire each other to pursue their crafts. It is difficult to dislike such a sickly-sweet confection, and the Berlin audience of younger teens lapped it up at the screening I attended. However, it is also difficult to respect it as a work of art. Did Yu-siang really meet and inspire a ballerina? Does this matter?

Taiwan apparently submitted Touch of the Light to the Oscars, but it wasn’t nominated. Like Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, the film feels too calculated in its commercial manipulation. The relentless handheld camera, mostly emotive close-ups, and exactly placed musical interludes serve more to alienate than inspire the serious viewer. Perhaps this is why the movie was presented to those with immature critical faculties.

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.

Are these new Taiwanese rom-coms created as “calling card” films, for international commercial appeal, or do they actually reflect the sensibilities of the filmmakers? Do these young directors daydream about the vagaries of love? Who doesn’t? It is logically possible that the auteurist vision be one of generic universality. Unfortunately, it’s simply not very interesting.

Taiwan is not presented as something unique, and the new Taiwanese cinema merely echoes the everyday desires and emotions that anybody in the world would have. These new films are missing any special flavor, and they become Diet Coke/decaf versions of Hollywood movies, set in the exotic locale of Taiwan. They become examples of the banality of Taiwan.