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Staff writer Brian Hu checks in from Taipei periodically to regale us with his crackpot musings, re-musings and once-in-awhile revelations as a cineaste.
Daze of Heaven and the Taipei International Film Festival
During the first ten days of the Taipei International Film Festival, I caught 11 features and 25 shorts, and I’m hardly done, with four more days ahead to satisfy a fix of my drug of choice. My relentless immersion into this sea of films, compounded by jet lag, long commutes, half-day classes, and ungodly humidity, has left me dizzy in a state of blissful fatigue. Writing about the festival just hours after catching my final screening of the day, I’m in a cineaste’s daze, hypnotized by the frenzy of films, filmmakers, and avid filmgoers. Thus, I’m going to need a few more weeks to distill all the films I’ve seen and find the words to describe them. Instead, I’m dedicating this first entry of my Taipei diaries to some reflections on being a global film flaneur.
Film festivals with the word “international” in their title, at their best, scour the globe for films that won’t be commercially released, providing film fans an opportunity to see what distribution keeps them from viewing. Seen in another light, these festivals make us cultural tourists, taking us on a safari of the cinematic exotic, with all the dangerous connotations such words evoke. The world is paraded before our eyes and we can point and smile with the delight that we have the power to see. Thus for the upper-middle class, artsy, elite American festivalgoer, such prestigious international events are panopticons that serve a voyeuristic impulse. We can watch the world safely at home, under our terms, without being in the presence of the actual people the films depict, because we have the economic, political, and cultural power to summon their shadows upon our screens.
My festival experiences have been limited to the Telluride Film Festival, those in the San Francisco Bay Area, and those in Los Angeles and its surrounding counties. Telluride perhaps sums up the logic of the international festival most perfectly: holed up cozily in a lofty Rocky Mountain ski resort town, the last thing the festival feels is foreign. The San Francisco International Film Festival is the most complete international festival I’ve ever experienced, at least in terms of representing more obscure international film communities. Long a champion of Asian cinema, the festival also boasts a roster thick of films from Latin America and Africa. The various L.A. festivals, as APA has reported on previous occasions, can’t seem to escape the clutches of Hollywood and the American “independent,” and thus its “international” label borders on duplicitous.
What I’ve grown to realize is that every city defines “international” in its own way, with each city negotiating global culture, global genres, international auteurs, and the exotic in wildly differing ways. For example, the AFI Festival in Los Angeles defines international film much like American distributors and the Academy do; in other words, an international film is the work of a distinguished art-commercial filmmaker like Pedro Almodóvar or Zhang Yimou. The San Francisco International Film Festival reflects the city’s cosmopolitanism, as well as its viewers’ culture of cinephilia which stems from a tradition of Pauline Kael, Truffaut, Godard, Mizoguchi, Ray, and the like. It is also a crowd looking to their local festival for the films discussed in Sight and Sound, Cahiers du Cinema, and Film Comment, and which debuted at festivals like Cannes and Venice.
In this way, the Taipei International Film Festival was like another world to me. Hell, it was a different world, and in fact, it even defined the whole concept of the world differently than the festivals I’d previously experienced. The most paradoxical characteristic of the festival is the remarkable dearth of Asian films. This could in part be because the Taipei festival is the more serious cousin to Taiwan’s glitzier, more celebrity-friendly Golden Horse Film Festival. But I’m interpreting this relative lack of films from Japan (four films), China (two), South Korea (two), Hong Kong (one), India (none), or the entire southeast Asian region (two) as due to the fact that Taiwan, seeped in Asian popular culture, doesn’t read films from these neighboring countries as exotic, whereas festivals in the West consider Asian cinema the “next big thing” and thus invite Asian films of all sorts, from the art films of Jia Zhang-ke to the commercially successful Infernal Affairs series.
Hollywood, which has spiritually and economically monopolized the Taiwanese mainstream market, clearly is not represented, given this conception of the “international.” In fact, the only American films are those by Asian Americans (such as Quentin Lee’s Ethan Mao), as well as a pair of independent features. Interestingly, the Asian American films are blanketed under a category called “Global Chinese,” which includes such films as the new Clara Law, a Hong Kong filmmaker based in Australia whose films about migration have made her a star in the international film scene. I didn’t catch Ethan Mao, but I’d imagine my experience would have been similar to my experience watching Law’s engaging documentary Letters to Ali, which critiques Australia’s treatment of Afghan refugees, but also foregrounds Law’s own status as an overseas Chinese. How strange it was for me, an Asian American, to watch diasporic films in my “motherland,” sitting next to peering eyes which already filter the American-Born-Chinese in its own prefigured ways. Somehow I felt the victim of the panoptic gaze: surrounding me were Taiwanese watching characters like me onscreen, and I had no power to gaze back. Further, they didn’t know I was in the audience; the viewing space is assumed to be foreigner-free, or in other words, a space privileging a comfortable gazing position. Perhaps this is how an Asian -- or African, South American, Australian -- feels when they watch a film from their own country playing at the San Francisco International festival.
Naturally, Taiwanese films are a big part of the Taipei festival, and as an avid fan of Taiwanese cinema, these were the films I was most excited about catching. Not surprisingly, the local audience has a different idea of “Taiwanese film” than I, whose exposure to Taiwanese cinema is filtered through the distribution and film festival channels available to me in the states. Further, my enthusiasm for directors like international festival stars Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, and Edward Yang is no secret, yet this trio isn’t held in quite the same esteem among local audiences, many of them young filmmakers who rightly or wrongly blame the death of a local market for Taiwanese films on these directors’ fascination -- or is it obsession -- with non-narrative tendencies, long takes, non-professional actors, and long shots. The nominees for the Taipei Image Awards, mostly short films by student filmmakers, reflect this recent turn against the local art film pioneers. Films like Nice Dream and The Answer deal with serious topics like cancer in accessible and sentimental ways, while Fly Away, Marvelous!, and The Dumping River use humor. The same populist energy can be found in the animated shorts (A Fish with a Smile is based on a children’s story by popular artist Jimmy Lin; Footloose 366 uses bright, saturated colors and local accents to comically depict a bizarre utopia) and even the experimental films (Hearing Your Death tries hard to be ironic, while Server #15 successfully uses video game structure and iconography to depict human coldness in contemporary Taipei). The valuable documentary Taiwan Black Movies describes a long-neglected segment of Taiwanese film history, the series of sexploitation thrillers and female revenge films in the late '70s and early '80s, films which couldn’t be more different from the personal stories to emerge in the Taiwanese new wave soon after. Two of the three Taiwanese narrative features, Falling…in Love and Love’s Lone Flower, are genre films, the first a romance and the second a historical melodrama. The festival’s most exciting local discovery is Go out to Sea by Chou I-wen, which although adopting a non-narrative approach, is humorous, visually stunning, and irresistibly adorable in its treatment of a community of elderly fishermen.
The third narrative feature is the best film I saw in these eight days: Tsai Ming-liang’s newest work, The Wayward Cloud, whose shocking final moments have been ingrained in my memory since I saw the film, and I’ve been trying to come to terms with the image’s disturbing power and what it says about love, sex, and the dreams that bind them together. It’s Tsai’s most overtly and directly emotional film to date, and includes Tsai’s first happy romantic couple (at least for a few scenes), an unforgettable performance by Chen Shiang-chyi, and some of the best musical numbers -- in terms of emotional power, dance choreography, musical interpretation, artistic license, imaginative use of props, expressive use of sets -- that I have ever seen in my life, including one involving watermelon-colored umbrellas and another involving a statue of Chiang Kai-shek. As they have so diligently done to promote their past three collaborations, Tsai and actor Lee Kang-sheng came out to talk after the screening, on topics ranging from the film’s well-publicized reception, the status of cinema as an art form, and the process of making the island’s most controversial film since Hou’s A City of Sadness in 1989. What I witnessed was Taiwanese cinema’s much-needed public relations front -- and Tsai is the community’s most charismatic and convincing spokesperson. How does one sell film as art to a public which hates that Taiwanese cinema has become synonymous with art films? Local perception of Taiwanese cinema is at an all-time low, and the efforts of Tsai and the Taipei Film Festival is admirable, necessary, and hopefully effective. Tsai’s attempts don’t invalidate the attempts by the other filmmakers trying to propose a more populist alternative; rather they defend the creative impulse necessary to sustain either art or commercial cinema.
It’s perhaps not surprising then that Western art films need no such public relations. If we think about the international art film as tightly intertwined with local conceptions of the exotic, we could argue that “exotic” films are more readily accepted as “art,” whereas Taiwanese films considered “art” are interpreted by locals to be a betrayal of Taiwan to the west. That German director Hendrik Hölzemann’s stunning debut feature Off Beat could win the audience award from an audience made up mostly of college-aged locals is telling, especially given the way the film jumps around in time and occasionally floats into moments of poetic abstraction. The Q&A session with the director after the film elicited by far the most spirited conversation I observed throughout the entire festival. The winner of the first-ever New Talent competition was Harvest Time, a mind-blowing, impressionistic meditation on the history of Russia in the last 50 years, which despite only being 67 minutes, requires even more patience than the Tsai film. Granted, the competition judges include new-wave art-film luminaries like Jia Zhang-ke, Clara Law, and Fruit Chan, but it’s hard to ignore the local audience’s approval, as demonstrated through the thunderous applause given to director Marina Razbezhkina at the award ceremony.
Such tensions between us and them, familiar and exotic, east and west, commerce and art, demonstrate the negotiations of the “international.” The label “international film festival” by no means describes a set of homogenous global festivals parading the “world’s best” for cosmopolitan festival-goers in cities like London, Berlin, Toronto, Hong Kong, and San Francisco. Rather, it describes an outlook or interpretation of the international. It is about safely negotiating difference and making sense of the foreign. In Taipei, I was part of that foreign, so while the films were on the whole impressive, the ambiance perfect, and the mood of cinephilia inspiring, it was being shocked by how different the Taipei fest was from my expectations that gave me the strongest impressions. Film festivals let us be tourists without leaving home; only when we depart from our comfortable viewing positions can we understand how we see.
Date Posted: 7/7/2005