From the Beginning to the New Cinema
※ Cinema arrived on the island of Taiwan in 1901. For the first 20 years, only the Japanese made documentaries and feature films. However, the industry was interrupted in 1937 by the Sino-Japanese War, and virtually nothing was produced until after the Nationalist government took over in 1945. With the end of the civil war in 1949, Shanghai filmmakers sympathetic to the Nationalists accompanied Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan, and after the economy stabilized, these exiled filmmakers formed the heart of a new film community in the 1950s.
※ By the 1960s, modernization rapidly expanded in the island. In 1963, the government introduced “health realism” melodrama. This genre featured positive attitudes towards traditional moral values. This did not last, as in the 1970s, it was replaced mainly by romantic melodrama, often based on female author Qiong Yao’s novels.
※ In the late 1970s, a subgenre called “social realism” emerged, featuring sex, violence, and gang subculture. The display and representation of explicit violence, mystified masculinity and misogynous depiction of female sexuality appeared to respond to the long history of the government’s repression of sexuality in cinema through censorship. However this soon saw a decline after repetitions of similar narrative structures.
The Emergence of the New Cinema
※ Beginning in the late 1970s, the local film industry was confronted with a set of challenges. Though Taiwanese society had been through tremendous changes in the previous decade, the veteran directors continued to make escapist films. A related challenge to the film industry came from the popularity of home videos, and the last came from the well-publicized films from Hong Kong. Due to these pressures, a portmanteau film called In Our Time was produced in 1982. It represented the first deviation from old, escapist filmmaking. Unlike standard Taiwanese fare, this film cast non-professional actors and did not follow a traditional narrative structure or fit into any generic category. Due to these innovations, In Our Time is generally accepted as the starting point of the New Cinema movement.
※ New Cinema directors, all of whom grew up in the post-WWII era during Taiwan’s socioeconomic restructuring from an agricultural to an industrialized and capitalist society, examine the various problems that Taiwanese people have to cope with in an increasingly modernized society. In order to create a cinema with a realistic relationship with history and memory, most films are shot on location, and non-professional actors are often used. Influenced by Italian neorealism, these directors are committed to a quasi-documentary style in their filmmaking. They draw deeply on their life experiences to construct their narratives, and an unprecedented concern with the daily lives of local people is shown, particularly with respect to native cultures and languages. In addition to Mandarin, other dialects are heard, such as Taiwanese Amoy and Hakka.
※ Another thematic re-orientation is the direct reference to political and social taboos. Behind this phenomenon is the lifting of martial law in 1987 and the political, social, and diplomatic reform policies that followed. Influenced by the Western modernist movement, the narrative structure in these films is more fragmented than linear, the editing is more obtrusive than continuous, and sentimental expression has been suspended to detract from emotional identification. Off-screen sound is used frequently to convey a sense of alienation; the frequent use of close-ups is replaced by long takes and long shots that make for a more distanced perspective.
(Excerpt from Taiwanese Cinema, Abe Mark Nornes and Yeh Yueh-yu)
The Second Wave
※ The 1990s saw the emergence of a second wave in Taiwan. Fluid identities and urban sensibilities typically characterize these directors more than their predecessors from Taiwan New Cinema. Cosmopolitan in their outlook, they perceive new Taiwanese identities as conditioned less by an idealized projective of Taiwan native soil than by the incessant flow of capital, commodity, desire and traffic. No longer obsessed with retrieving memory and reconstructing history, they choose to confront existential crises and private emotions of ordinary urbanites caught in a disintegrating post-modern world.
(Excerpt from Chinese National Cinema, Yingjin Zhang)
A Timeline of Notable Films from Taiwan Through the Years
A work in progress. I think my love for Hou, Tsai and Yang shows when it comes to this list… Suggestions welcome!