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Taiwan Stories: The New Cinema of the 1980s

In the early 1980s, youthful, modernist, and engaged new films by Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and others re-invented Taiwanese cinema.
Sean Gilman
MUBI's series Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and New Taiwanese Cinema is showing September - December, 2020 in the United States.
Above: The Terrorizers
Since the end of World War II there have been a great many new waves in world cinema, times when a structural breakdown of a nation’s film industry creates an opening for a new generation of filmmakers to break through to artistic, if not necessarily commercial, success. Beginning with Italy right after the war and running through England, France, India, Japan, Germany, Brazil, Iran, the United States and more from the 1950s through the 1970s, these waves, in many ways dissimilar and unique, shared a conscious opposition to then-dominant filmmaking styles and production approaches, countering a perceived glossy and superficial popular cinema with what they and the critics who championed them argued was a grittier, more real approach to filmmaking.
Of the three Chinese-language new waves that came to prominence in the 1980s, only the New Taiwan Cinema really fits this mold. The Hong Kong New Wave from the beginning embraced the artificiality of the colony’s robust genre system, and within a few short years became indistinguishable from its popular cinema (though its “Second Wave” did maintain a more consciously arty approach). On the Mainland, the Fifth Generation directors quickly moved from documentary-style explorations of the Chinese countryside (Yellow Earth, The Horse Thief) into ornate, internationally-appealing melodramas about the nation’s pre-Revolutionary past. But while some Taiwanese directors also moved into more populist styles, its leading figures (Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien) continued to refine their new approach to realism, a style consisting of elliptical narratives told with long takes of figures seen in long shots. Variously known, more or less inaccurately, as “Asian Minimalism” or more generally as “Slow Cinema,” the New Cinema style was itself inspired by European modernists like Michelangelo Antonioni, Chantal Akerman, and Wim Wenders, but Hou and Yang mastered the style in a way few ever have, using it to tell two different but interrelated stories about Taiwan’s past and its present. But Hou and Yang aren’t all that encompasses the Taiwan New Cinema, and they aren’t even where it starts.
Above: In Our Time.
Like most new waves, the New Cinema started with an industrial collapse. Taiwanese popular cinema, struggling for years to compete with imports from Hong Kong and Hollywood, saw its last big genre cycle, a series of melodramas starring the “Two Lins and Two Chins” run out of steam in the late 70s and its most popular actress, Brigitte Lin, defect to Hong Kong. The Central Motion Picture Company, initially a vehicle for the ruling Kuomintang party and still a resolutely conservative studio, attempted to revitalize the industry by launching a program to find and support (usually through co-production deals with independent or foreign producers) cheap projects by young filmmakers. Two young production assistants and writers, Hsiao Yeh and Wu Nien-jen, were put in charge of the program, which they brazenly used not to make the commercially-appealing projects the studio longed for, but rather to funnel funds to their friends in Taiwan’s burgeoning cinephile scene. In Our Time was the first fruit of the program, an omnibus film written and directed by four new directors: Tao Te-chen, Edward Yang, Ko I-chen, and Chang Yi. Taken together, the film is a chronicle of a generational coming of age: Tao’s segment (“Little Dragon Head”) is about a young boy in the 1950s; Yang’s (“Expectations”) is about an adolescent girl in the 60s; Ko’s is about a college student in the 1970s (“Leapfrog”); while Chang’s is about a young married couple in the present (“Say Your Name”). This structure helps the film hang together remarkably well for a portmanteau project, and it works perfectly as a defining opening statement by a new generation of filmmakers. Yang is the most successful of the directors, so his short will draw the most attention, and deservedly so. His patience with the narrative and attention to the smallest details of setting and performance stand out from the other, more conventional films. But Chang Yi’s is notable as well for the presence of Sylvia Chang as its lead actress. 
Chang was already a major figure as an actress, both in Taiwan and in Hong Kong, where she had starred in Hong Kong New Wave director Ann Hui’s debut The Secret as well as the Cinema City studio’s blockbuster hit Aces Go Places. Chang was involved in TV production in Taiwan as well, working on a series called Eleven Women for which she scouted for new directors. One of the ones she hired was Edward Yang, giving him his first directorial work. Unlike many of the other New Cinema directors, Yang had only recently decided on film as a career, inspired to quit his job at a Seattle research firm after seeing Aguirre, the Wrath of God at a local repertory theatre. Yang’s first feature film, That Day, On the Beach, would also star Sylvia Chang, with cinematography by Christopher Doyle, whom Yang had met on his second Taiwanese TV gig. Yang’s home would serve as the unofficial headquarters of the New Cinema, with the young writers, directors, actors, critics and other film workers congregating to talk movies at all hours of the day and night.
Above: The Sandwich Man
In Our Time was a popular success, one of the few of the New Cinema, and it was followed the next year by another omnibus film, The Sandwich Man, based on three short stories by author Huang Chunming and adapted by Wu Nien-jen. The first segment marks the debut of Hou Hsiao-hsien as a New Cinema director. Hou had been working in film since the early 1970s, first as an assistant and writer and then working his way up to director with 1980’s Cute Girl, the first of a trio of well-made but ultimately frivolous romantic comedies starring Cantopop star Kenny Bee (Bee, like Sylvia Chang, also starred in an early Ann Hui film, her second feature, The Spooky Bunch). Falling happily into the New Cinema circle, Hou was influenced by writer Chu T’ien-wen to find a more personal approach to his filmmaking. Chu gave him the autobiography of the painter Shen Congwen, whom she thought had a similar sensibility to Hou. It worked, as Hou hit upon the idea that by pulling his camera further and further back from the action, he could create a broader kind of empathy in his audience. Rather than manipulating an emotional response through use of editing, performance, and close-ups, as in the classical style, Hou’s long shots would inspire the viewer to take in the whole of a character’s world, to attempt to see them and everything around them in the same way, with no judgement one way or another. This is the foundation of the New Cinema style, refined and adapted though it is by various directors. Edward Yang, for example, puts a much greater emphasis than Hou on the architecture surrounding his characters, implying a relationship between the design of our public and domestic spaces and the emotional crises we see (or don’t see) within them.
Hou’s short in The Sandwich Man is an early attempt at this approach. It follows a young man’s desperate attempts to make money, dressing as a clown and carrying a sandwich board around town as a walking advertisement for a local movie theatre. It looks backwards, toward the roots of the New Cinema in the Italian neo-realism of Bicycle Thieves, and ahead to Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs, in which Tsai’s similarly desperately poor father-hero Lee Kang-sheng also works as an advertisement. But as with In Our Time, while Hou’s short is the most famous part of The Sandwich Man, it is by no means the only one of interest. The second segment, Vicki’s Hat, directed by Zhuang Xiangzeng, is about a pair of pressure cooker salesmen in a remote town who befriend a young girl who always wears a hat, while the third, Wan Jen’s The Taste of Apples, is a satire about Taiwan’s dependence on American subsidies and military protection. The latter is more successful, and sparked a wide debate about censorship in Taiwan, which at that time was in the late stages of military dictatorship and martial law. Much of the comedy comes from the literal inability of the Taiwanese working people to understand the language of the Mandarin-speaking Taiwanese in power, represented, ironically, by a translator attached to help an American officer express his sorrow at having accidentally run over a poor Taiwanese father with his big shiny car (the use of Taiwanese Hokkien in addition to Mandarin is a common linguistic signifier in the New Cinema that those of us who don’t know either language will often miss). After an initial screening to the press, an anonymous letter was sent to the CMPC complaining about the short’s various offenses. This lead to the company taking a closer look at the film that Hsiao Yeh had pitched to them as “celebrating the humanist philosophy of (KMT) founding father Dr. Sun Yat-sen”⁠1 and censoring out several parts of the film. This in turn inspired a round of protest among a newer, younger group of critics, leading ultimately to the reinstatement of the full film, demonstrating both the generation rifts in the Taiwanese film culture of the time, as well as the general ambivalence of the company in charge of funding those films.
Above: Growing Up.
Later in 1983, the first features of the New Cinema were released: Hou’s The Boys from Fengkuei in November and then Chen Kun-hou’s Growing Up in December. Both films were written by Hou and Chu T’ien-wen (she has written or co-written all of Hou’s subsequent features), with Chen serving as cinematographer. Chen, like Hou, had worked his way up through the mainstream Taiwanese film industry throughout the 1970s. Hou’s mentor during those years was Chen’s uncle, Lai Chengying, a director who specialized in romantic melodramas. When Hou and Chen each got their chance to direct, the two would collaborate on each other’s films: Hou writing Chen’s scripts, with Chen serving as Hou’s DP. Chen shot all of Hou’s first several films, from Cute Girl until The Time to Live and the Time to Die, when Hou began his collaboration with Mark Lee Ping-bin, who has since shot all but two other Hou features. Chen was the cinematographer to whom Hou famously directed “pull back, pull back” during the making of Boys, his first rigorous use of the long shot-long take style. 
The Boys from Fengkuei and Growing Up also share a star in Doze Niu, who went on to a long career as a producer and director in Taiwan.⁠2 Much like In Our Time, it’s a coming of age story spanning a decade or so in the life of its main character, the son of a young woman who marries a much older man not out of love but rather because he promises to provide for the boy. Despite everyone’s best efforts, the boy turns into a delinquent, getting himself kicked out of school, with tragic consequences for his family. The film is narrated by a girl who grew up next door to the boy, a writerly device that surely is a mark of Chu’s influence, while the period-specific details of his petty crimes and relationships with other boys seems to come out of Hou’s own lived experience, both of which the team will refine to perfection in The Time to Live and the Time to Die. Chen’s compositions in Growing Up don’t have the formal rigidity of Hou’s work in this period, melding more organically with the narrative in a more flowing, classical style, making for a very good, if conventional, coming of age film. It went on to win the Golden Horse Award for Best Picture, the first major award for a New Cinema film. 
Above: The Time to Live and the Time to Die.
The Boys from Fengkuei then picked up the first international prize for a New Cinema movie, at the 1984 Nantes Three Continents Film Festival, where Hou won again the next year with A Summer at Grandpa’s. But The Time to Live and the Time to Die was the first New Cinema film to really grab the attention of Western critics after it won the FIPRESCI Price at the Berlin Film Festival in 1986. With Boys and Summer, Hou and Chu had been developing a new approach to autobiographical cinema. Boys is based on elements of Hou’s own first experiences moving to the city from the countryside, while Summer is based on Chu’s own childhood. Time to Live is explicitly autobiographical, with Hou’s own narration introducing the film and specifically the house in which it is to take place, the house Hou grew up in and the story of his family and, ultimately, the deaths of the people who raised him. The first half of the film follows Hou, known by his nickname “A-Ha,” as a young boy, getting into trouble and adventures with his elderly grandmother and not really understanding the stories his mother tells to his older siblings or his father, a sickly, distant figure played by Tien Feng, one of the great character actors of Hong Kong cinema perhaps known best for his work in King Hu’s films (he played Lee Khan in The Fate of Lee Khan, for example) or maybe as Leslie Cheung and Ti Lung’s father in John Woo’s seminal A Better Tomorrow, released one year after he played Hou’s father.
The second half of the film sees A-Ha as an adolescent, slowly drifting away from his home into a life of teenage hoodlumism, getting into fights with rival gangs, getting beat up in a pool hall for not respecting the deceased Vice President enough, tentatively flirting with a neighbor girl. Throughout Hou maintains his steady long shot-long take pace, slowly soaking in the textures of A-Ha’s world: the big tree in the neighborhood’s central square, the shifting rectangular forms of the Hou family’s Japanese-style house (a superficial reading of which led early Hou champions to see the influence of Yasujiro Ozu in his work, though at this point Hou had yet to see any of his films). Hou constantly changes the setups with which we view the home and its occupants: we see things differently over time, just as A-Ha (and the audience) come to understand the family differently as time passes. In their later historical epics A City of Sadness and A Brighter Summer Day, Hou and Yang, respectively, will adopt the opposite approach: they’ll show the same places in the same set-ups at different points of the film, and we’ll experience them differently given the changing context of the narrative progression.
Time to Live is the middle of what has been called Hou’s “Coming of Age Trilogy,” with Summer taking place in childhood, Time adolescence, and the third, Dust in the Wind, young adulthood. Like the previous two, Dust is autobiographical, based on the experiences of its writer, Wu Nien-jen (who collaborated with Chu on the script). A young couple from a remote mining village move to the big city rather than go to college. They work a variety of odd jobs and gradually drift apart. Again the emphasis is on textural details: the sound of the print shop where the boy works, the dilapidation of the movie theatre where he and his friends crash, with its perilously uneven floorboards, the almost wordless arguments the young couple have (he objects to her drinking with their male friends, she responds by taking her shirt off in front of one of them, though she does have another shirt on underneath). Moving back and forth between the city and the country village across any number of years (there are few really clear temporal markers, a year can pass in the space of a single cut, the change only revealed later in an off-hand bit of dialogue), Hou builds a world of contradictions for his characters to navigate: the city is more welcoming than it is in Boys from Fengkuei, with informal networks of friends and employers helping everyone to just barely eke by, but it lacks the lush greenery of the country, explored repeatedly in train-mounted traveling shots that recall the earliest days of motion pictures. It also lacks the mystery of the country, embodied by Dust’s greatest contribution to cinema, the first appearance in Hou’s work of Li Tien-lu. Li plays the main character’s grandfather, impossibly skinny and cantankerous, he’s hilarious and weird, offering wise and nonsensical explanations for events and experiences with equal conviction. Li would star in each of the next several of Hou’s films, playing the patriarch in Daughter of the Nile and A City of Sadness before telling his own autobiographical story in The Puppetmaster (telling it twice in fact: in direct interviews and in dramatizations, which differ in details because a genius storyteller like Li could never tell a story the same way twice).
Above: Dust in the Wind
The great achievement of Hou’s (and Chu’s and Wu’s) biographical films is in their more or less subtle linkage of personal history with the history of a place and of a people. In pulling back his camera from the actors, in playing scenes out at length, in omitting just enough detail that the audience is drawn into the narrative and forced to actively take part in figuring it out, Hou and his collaborators turn the story of specific individuals into synecdoches for their nation as a whole. Hou’s grandmother becomes all the post-Civil War exiles in Taiwan still believing they’ll one day storm back to power on the Mainland. Hou’s father, who bought bamboo furniture because he only intended to stay in Taiwan for a few years to make some quick cash before returning home, only to be cut off and set adrift by events beyond his control, is stuck in a foreign house with cheap furniture that nonetheless turns into a home. Wu and his girlfriend are trapped between the pre-modern mores of small town life and the ever-changing world of rapidly industrializing Taipei.
The latter is also the dynamic at the heart of Edward Yang’s first great film, Taipei Story, which Yang wrote with Hou and Chu and in which Hou stars opposite Tsai Chin, whom Yang subsequently married. Most of Hou’s best films are set in the past, often in rural environments, but all but one of Yang’s features are set in the present, in Taipei. Where Hou aims to explore personal history as it intersects with and reflects national history, Yang explores the effects of change on the people who live in the present moment, most often families who have trouble reconciling the received wisdom of the cultural inheritance with the capitalist imperatives of the advanced industrial economy that is modern Taipei. Taipei Story, along with his first feature, That Day, on the Beach, explore this dichotomy in more or less direct and dramatic terms. The Terrorizers adds an element of structural ingenuity to the conflict, building a network narrative into a horror movie around the idea that people interacting with other people in the modern city can lead to disaster in the most unpredictable ways.
The network of The Terrorizers is built around three primary figures: a half-Asian girl known as the White Chick who escapes from a police raid on her boyfriend’s gambling den, albeit with a badly sprained ankle; a photographer who lives near the gambling den and takes pictures of the girl as she escapes and becomes haunted by/in love with her image; a bourgeois married couple, the wife a novelist with writer’s block and the husband an official of some type at a hospital. The White Chick, locked in her house by her mother, makes prank phone calls at random, one of which is to the wife, which leads her to suspect her husband (who is in fact a scoundrel, though not an unfaithful one). This cures her writer’s block, but leads to the husband’s downfall. Meanwhile, the photographer, increasingly obsessed with the White Chick, finally meets her, only to be disappointed in the real thing. 
This idea, of obsession with the image of beauty only to be crushed when confronted with its reality, is one of the more striking elements of The Terrorizers, especially as it plays out in the film’s final act, in what might be a parody of Hong Kong style genre filmmaking. But it's an extremely dense and rich text, rife with several other potential avenues of inquiry and interest, which is a testament to Yang’s elliptical narrative (co-written with Hsiao Yeh). A favorite example of how Yang and Hsiao build unsuspected depth of story and theme out of superficially simple, easily understandable moments and images comes early in the film, with how we learn that the White Chick is, in fact part-white. The girl has been locked up in her mother’s house, and we watch the mother walk across a room in the dark and put on a record of the Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,”3⁠ light a cigarette, and listen to the music. She puts down her lighter, which we see has the emblem of the American cavalry on it. She walks to the girl’s room and caresses her face, and suddenly we can infer the whole backstory of the family: the young woman and the American soldier she danced and fell in love with, and the daughter he abandoned when he ran away, and her fear of her daughter similarly running away, without a single line of dialogue. The next cut is like a stab to the heart: with the Platters still rolling, we move to a photo of the White Chick, discovered by the photographer’s girlfriend who trashes his place and marches out. You can’t lock people down: whether in rooms or in images, it always ends in tragedy.
The filmmakers who drove the New Taiwan Cinema would continue to work throughout the next 30 years, but by the time of The Terrorizers, the movement was effectively over as a factor in Taiwanese film production. Despite the international acclaim and the championing of the New Cinema by local critics such as Peggy Chiao, the group only had a couple of commercial successes to its credit, In Our Time and A City of Sadness among them. Yang and Hou of course continued to build international reputations, while being denounced in the popular press at home for being obscurantist.⁠4 Chen Kunhou directed Osmanthus Alley, an early Simon Yam film, and My Mother’s Teahouse, starring Sylvia Chang and Tony Leung Ka-fai. Wu Nien-jen wrote several scripts for Hou Hsiao-hsien, along with Ann Hui’s excellent Song of the Exile, and directed a film about his father called A Borrowed Life that makes for an excellent double-bill with Dust in the Wind. Sylvia Chang, who was originally going to direct one of the In Our Time segments but decided that using her star power to give a lesser known figure a chance to direct instead would be better for the movement, made her first real film as a director in 1986, and went on to be one of the great figures of both Taiwanese and Hong Kong cinema, directing, writing, and acting across the Chinese-speaking world. Other In Our Time directors had some success: Cheng Yi won the Golden Horse Best Picture for Kuei-Mei, A Woman in 1985; Ko I-chen directed the experimental narrative Blue Moon in 1997, whose five reels can be watched in any random order, up to 120 possible sequences, all of which, supposedly, make sense. The Sandwich Man’s Wan Jen found success with his 1983 feature debut Ah fei, followed by Super Citizen, Farewell to the Channel, and Super Citizen Ko. In the early 90s, CMPC attempted to reboot their young filmmakers campaign, which led to early funding for Tsai Ming-liang and Ang Lee, but that attempt too quickly fizzled out. Today, Taiwanese cinema still struggles to define itself in relation to Hong Kong and Chinese Mainland film, in addition to imports from Hollywood and elsewhere. But international art cinema is still reckoning with the legacy of the now almost 40 year old New Taiwan Cinema.

1. Quoted in Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh and Darrell William Davis’s Taiwan Film Directors, the best resource I’ve yet found on the history and aesthetics of the New Cinema.
2. In 2019, Niu was indicted for sexual assault on a crew member on a film he was directing.
3. A song which will figure heavily 30 years later in Hou’s Three Times.
4. In a very good documentary about the New Cinema by Hsiao Chu-chien called Our Time, Our Story, Tsai Ming-liang comments on the complaint that Hou wasn’t being commercial enough by exclaiming, “Would you ask Van Gogh to just paint a normal sunflower?”

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Tao Te-chenEdward YangKo I-chenChang YiHou Hsiao-hsienZhuang XiangzengWan JenChen KunhouNow ShowingLong Reads
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