Sunday, June 24, 2018

Love and Duty (Bu Wancang, 1931): Mini-Film Review

As cinema historians and I have described in detail elsewhere, Republic of China (Taiwan, R.O.C.) cinema traces it's pre-1945 heritage to the mainland Chinese film tradition. After all, when the Nationalists fled the mainland in 1949, their number included film directors and personnel who relocated to Taiwan. Director Bu Wancang's 卜萬蒼1931 Shanghai film, Love and Duty 戀愛與義務, produced by Lianhua Film Company, is part of this lineage.

Starring the brilliant Ruan Lingyu 阮玲玉 (on whom I've written an encyclopedia entry) and Jin Yan 金焰, the 153 minute silent film portrays a love affair, between a married woman and her childhood sweetheart, and the suffering this relationship ultimately causes.

The portrayal of emotion is over the top, each scene incredibly slow paced. The camera lingers on close-ups of each actor's face until all of the expressions that signify a particular emotion are exhausted, in keeping with late 1920s and early 1930s norms. What is fascinating to observe is the way that this particular style of acting and character portrayal came to be representative of film-making more generally across China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong--even today, when the camera stays focused on an individual a little longer than necessary to convey a particular idea, we find the archaeology of these depictions from this earlier time.

For my list of Taiwan Cinema Toolkit film reviews, click this link here.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

It Takes Two to Tango (Wan Jen, 2013): Mini-Film Review

Wan Jen's 2013 film It Takes Two to Tango 跨海跳探戈 uses humor to illustrate both cultural differences and similarities between mainland Chinese and Taiwanese as it tells the story of a young woman from Taiwan (王心如) who draws ire from her family upon getting engaged to her fiancé from China. One of the standout performances is by the protagonist's father, played by Bor Jeng Chen 陳博正, who had the starring role in Hou Hsaio-Hsien's vignette The Sandwich Man 兒子的大玩偶 in 1983.

It Takes Two to Tango attempts to be a fun movie and has a few gags, and it demonstrates the extent to which free speech is the norm in Taiwan as the film does not hesitate to touch a number of hot-button issues, but over all it is less successful in what it sets out to achieve than the similarly themed The Wonderful Wedding 大囍臨門 (Huang Chao-liang 黃朝亮, 2015), which I would recommend of the two.

For my list of Taiwan Cinema Toolkit film reviews, click this link here.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Connection by Fate (Wan Jen,1998): Mini-Film Review

Connection by Fate 超級公民 (Wan Jen 萬仁 , 1998), the third film in Taiwan director Wan Jen's “super citizen” trilogy, reminds me of French films of the 1990s in that it--as the director has also concurred--is not driven by a cause-and-effect plot, but rather emotion. In it, a taxi driver named A-te encounters, and discovers a way to assist, the spirit of an indigenous man trapped between the world of the living and the departed in late-1990s Taipei.

Wan Jen's films are somehow perfect despite their imperfections: asynchronous sound, low budget effects, and non-professional acting. In the 1960s and 1970s cinema of Taiwan, poor production values are comical. Here, it is impossible to be distracted because the screenplay is superb. Wan Jen is a transcendent director, a master of depicting memory and a master of seamlessly juxtaposing time periods and locations, most often via the use of a soundscape that is both beautiful and haunting.

Corollary notes: I also found fragments of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Café Lumière (produced five years later) in Wan Jen's film: shots on the MRT and a scene in a small train station built during the Japanese colonial era come to mind. Additionally, a few rural tracking shots from HHH's Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996) overlap with Wan Jen's depictions in Connection by Fate.

For my list of Taiwan Cinema Toolkit film reviews, click this link here.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Super Citizen Ko (Wan Jen,1995): Mini-Film Review

Super Citizen Ko 超級大國民 (Wan Jen 萬仁 , 1995), which won multiple Golden Horse awards in 1995, is must-see for anyone interested in depictions of political oppression generally, and Taiwan history in the late 20th century specifically. Presented in a series of flashbacks linked by a simple yet moving melancholic score, the film uncovers the life of an aging man who lost nearly everything during Taiwan's White Terror.

Wan Jen's film follows an elderly protagonist named Ko as he recollects being imprisoned for participating in a left-wing reading group during Chiang Kai-Shek's leadership, while in the present it captures Taiwan's mid-1990s, and at times rocky, transformation into a truly democratic state. Along the way the camera does not waiver from depicting Taiwan's most precarious situations both historically and concurrently. It is as sophisticated and complex as any film ever made.

I always wonder, when considering Taiwan's films, the extent to which global audiences might appreciate them because political oppression is experienced and understood universally, while at the same time, Taiwan's situation is singular, considering it's colonial past, the repression of the KMT/GMD/Nationalist government post-1949, and the pluralistic society in Taiwan which has emerged post-1987. Regardless, my hope is that Taiwan films such as this one will enjoy continuous, widespread acclaim.

For my list of Taiwan Cinema Toolkit film reviews, click this link here.

The Farewell Coast (Wan Jen, 1987): Mini-Film Review

The Farewell Coast 惜別海岸 (Wan Jen 萬仁, 1987) portrays two young people, a waiter at a restaurant and a prostitute, caught between Taiwan's pre-1987 culture under martial law and the modern pluralistic democracy which is Taiwan today. The first act of the film could appear to be a melodramatic love story in the vein of KMT/GMD/Nationalist government-produced films of the 1960s and 70s, but by the second act Wan Jen's film spirals out of control, in the vein of Bonnie and Clyde, as the director explores ideas previous filmmakers in Taiwan could have only dreamed of representing. Along the way, its characters reflect on what it means to be Taiwanese with only the slightest of connections to the mainland.

For my list of Taiwan Cinema Toolkit film reviews, click this link here.

Film Reviews: Taiwan Cinema Toolkit 臺灣電影工具箱

Created by the Taiwan Ministry of Culture and selected by the Taiwan Film Institute, the Taiwan Cinema Toolkit 臺灣電影工具箱 is a collection of films available for non-profit public screenings. Each film offers a unique insight into Taiwan's rich cinema history.

Links to my reviews of films from two of these collections are below--I'll keep adding films to this page until all of the films are reviewed (at this point I'm just getting started!). -- jw

2016 Taiwan Cinema Toolkit  (32 films)
Showcase, 2016 (22 films)

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Boy (Waititi, 2010): A Film Interview with Alexandra Taylor

Below is an interview with Alexandra Taylor, a former student of mine who is currently studying Digital Media Content Creation at University of California, San Diego. She is a writer interested in stories that explore the human condition and inspire compassion.

JW: Is there a universal quality to this film--can film viewers say "how did director Waititi know that childhood is like this?"--or do we find a distinct, New Zealand coming-of-age experience represented here?

AT: Boy is a classic coming-of-age film told through a unique cultural lens. Waititi inspires the inner child within viewers by bringing to life the characters’ imaginations. Whether it is Boy pretending his father is Michael Jackson, Rocky expressing his anxiety through drawing or Boy’s friend Dallas painting himself to look like a "moldy Smurf," viewers can recall their own unbridled and unaffected imagination through these characters. At the same time, Waititi conveys issues like poverty and domestic violence present in many New Zealand homes--an issue which he has openly criticized in the past.

JW: Why is deception and impersonation at the core of this film? The father Alamein appears to be a big shot motorcycle gang leader, and the titular character consistently acts older and more experienced than he is.

AT: I’m fascinated by dysfunctional families and father-son relationships. Every parent-child relationship is a performance in which the parent pretends to be a hero and the child impersonates them. As we see in the film, the illusion eventually fades and reality takes over.

When Alamein reenters Boy’s life he must fill an immense void left by his absence, for which he’s emotionally unequipped. Alamein rejects adulthood, likely because he never had a father himself (his mother is barely present but there is no mention of a father) and thus he risks encouraging the same behavior in his impressionable son. When Boy realizes the truth about his father, he either must come to terms with his limitations or internalize his issues. Boy must learn that adulthood comes not from becoming a comic book hero but by accepting one’s self and developing the capacity to forgive others.

JW: My favorite scene is the dance number at the end, a combination of Michael Jackson and Maori Haka. What is the role of pop culture, and specifically Michael Jackson, in the film?

AT: Mine too! Pop culture permeates every aspect of the film, from Boy’s obsession with Michael Jackson to many of the characters’ names (Rocky, Dynasty, etc.). By weaving Michael Jackson with rural Maori life, Waititi immerses us in the cultural climate of New Zealand in the 80’s. Boy also sees Michael Jackson as a hero figure in the absence of his father and often merges the two in his mind.

JW: OK, I have to ask you about Boy's younger brother Rocky. Are Rocky's unique artistic talents (I love when he roller skates holding the sparkler when he confronts his father) the key to unlocking Boy's heart, allowing Boy to confront the world with eyes that see more clearly?

AT: The roller skating scene is one of the most compelling moments for me. For most of the story, Boy torments Rocky for his eccentricities and quiet disposition while he refuses to interact with their father. But unlike Boy, Rocky has a strong sense of self and doesn’t change himself for his father’s approval. There is a pivotal scene in which Alamein, in a drunken rage, puts their lives in danger. The two brothers react differently, and Rocky’s artistic temperament grants him a greater capacity for empathy. Their personalities complement each other and Rocky’s emotional strength keeps Boy afloat. By the way, do you think it’s a coincidence that Rocky’s name is the same as the famous fictional boxer? I don’t think so. But this Rocky is a lover, not a fighter. I love Waititi’s cheeky sense of humor.

JW: What is your favorite scene in the film? And how does the comedic tone of Boy inform your writing?

AT: Waititi’s comedic voice is iconic. One of my favorite scenes is the one in which Boy offers Alamein and his gang a cup of tea. Humor to me is in the little, almost imperceptible details of life. Waititi brands this humor as the “comedy of the mundane,” in which ordinary subjects become ridiculous. Waititi makes light of human frailty. In Boy, this allows Waititi to explore tragic themes like death, violence, alienation and rejection in a childlike way. Whether he’s writing an absurdist vampire mockumentary or a rom-com parody, Waititi’s comedic tension is a fresh departure from the sardonic humor of pop culture today.

It’s too difficult for me to be very serious without feeling affected and self-important. Good writing comes from the heart, and what comes from my heart is identifying humor in the face of darkness. It’s what brings us together. And it’s fun.

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