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Editor Brian Hu explores the significance of mainstream Taiwanese documentary today on the occasion of the UCLA East Asian Library's screenings of The Rhythm in Wulu Village and Taipei's Bohemians.
[On Sept. 15, 2007, the Richard C. Rudolph East Asian Library at UCLA presented screenings of the Taiwanese documentaries The Rhythm in Wulu Village (Wang Chung-shung, 2003) and Taipei's Bohemians (Hung Hung, 2004) as part of the library's exhibition "A Century of East Asian Films." The following talk was given after the screenings.]
A rather amazing thing occurred in 2004. The Taiwanese film industry was coming off another terrible year in terms of box office. In 2003, only 16 Taiwanese films were released in theaters, and not a single one of them ranked in the top 100 highest grossing films shown in Taiwan that year. In 2004, 23 local films were released in theaters -- an increase of almost 50%. But that's not the amazing event I'm referring to. What shocked many in the industry was that the highest grossing Taiwanese film that year ranked #51 among all films shown in Taiwan, just under Kill Bill 2 and just over Cellular and Catwoman. That film was Gift of Life, and it was a documentary.
I'm sure that at the time, the unprecedented box-office success of Gift of Life was interpreted as an anomaly. After all, the documentary was about the aftermath of a major earthquake that rocked central Taiwan in 1999, so the sentimental theme resonated with locals, many of whom were still feeling the financial effects of the earthquake five years later.
But 2004 was no anomaly. In fact, it marks a major turning point in Taiwanese commercial cinema, for Gift of Life was not the only documentary that did well in the box office that year. The fifth highest grossing Taiwanese film that year was Burning Dreams, a black and white documentary about a charismatic dance instructor. The next year, the same thing occurred again: the documentaries Let it Be and Jump! Boys placed fourth and fifth on the list of highest grossing Taiwanese films. 2006 was no different; once again, two of the top five Taiwanese films that year were documentaries. None of these subsequent documentaries rivaled the success of Gift of Life, but they sent a stirring message to Taiwanese distributors, financiers, and audiences: that there is more to Taiwanese cinema than cheesy teen romances and obscure art-house films by Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang.
In this talk, I hope to shed some light on this recent trend in popular documentary in Taiwan. First, however, I need to say up front that, while I am doing research on Taiwanese cinema, I am no expert on Taiwanese documentary. In fact, much of what follows is based on the published research of Robert Chi, a professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures here at UCLA. However, Taiwanese documentary is a topic that's been impossible for me not to think about as a fan and scholar of Taiwanese cinema, and as a film critic for the online magazine Asia Pacific Arts. It seems that every time I travel to Taipei to study, visit family, or do research, if I check the movie listings in a newspaper: below the Hollywood blockbusters, Thai horror films, and Japanese animation, there is sure to be a Taiwanese documentary. There are several possible reasons for this, which I hope to share with you today.
But first, it would be helpful to give a brief history of documentary in Taiwan. According to Chi, there are three important antecedents to contemporary documentary in Taiwan. First, there are the official productions of the Kuomintang government in the decades following 1945. These include documentaries, newsreels, and educational films, and are frequently about the military, patriotism, Taiwan's natural beauty, and other local color. Second, during the martial law period, there were the independent film and documentaries that experimented with cinematic techniques to explore local issues and politics. Finally, there is the so-called "little media" (xiao zhong mei ti) of the late 1980s. The practitioners of the "little media" used cheap VHS equipment to record the activities of local political movements sprouting toward the end of martial law. Unlike the independent film and documentaries of previous decades, this movement did not care so much for aesthetics: they considered themselves activists, not artists. (1)
Something new occurred in the 1990s which Chi calls "New Taiwanese Documentary." These film- and video-makers combined aspects of independent cinema and of the "little media" to embody a new documentary movement that experimented with aesthetics, that aimed to train filmmakers through workshops, that interacted with the filmmakers of the acclaimed New Taiwanese Cinema movement, and that aligned themselves with specific political and social movements occurring in the 1990s.
I would argue, however, that the two documentaries screened today, Taipei's Bohemians and The Rhythm in Wulu Village, do not neatly fit into what Chi calls the "New Taiwanese Documentary." For one, they are not explicitly political; in fact, many of these films insist on evading the political. Second, they are not truly independent, for they rely heavily on government funding. There are of course still political film- and video-makers in Taiwan making the "New Taiwanese Documentary," but those films tend to not make it into international film festivals and screening tours like today's, and thus do not get very much exposure. And let's just state the obvious: today's screening is graciously sponsored and provided by Taiwan's Government Information Office, which is not in the business of parading Taiwan's dirty laundry in events around the world.
I would instead call these two films "mainstream Taiwanese documentary." There are various genres within this recent trend in commercial filmmaking. One is documentaries about sports. Of the six financially successful documentaries that I mentioned earlier, two are about sports. One, Jump! Boys, is about a team of elementary school gymnasts. The other, My Football Summer, is about a Taiwanese soccer team. Another mainstream documentary genre is the humanist story of local people. This includes Gift of Life and Let it Be, the latter which follows the story of an old rice farmer who's fallen on hard times.
However, by far the most important mainstream documentary genre is the music/performance documentary. These include documentaries about contemporary popular music, such as Burning Dreams and the successful Ocean Fever, as well as documentaries about Taiwanese music history, as with the similarly successful Viva Tonal. Also included in this genre are documentaries about aboriginal music, such as My Home, My Song, which played at the Newport Beach Film Festival in 2005. Both of the films we watched today, Taipei's Bohemians and The Rhythm in Wulu Village roughly fall in the music/performance genre.
Director Chien Wei-ssu visited UCLA when her documentary Viva Tonal played at the UCLA Film and TV Archive in 2005. I asked her why it was that these genre documentaries were able to get funding, and she put it bluntly: funders like these films because movies about music and dance are "safe" in that they don't dwell on politics. Indeed, neither do sports documentaries and, for the most part, neither do humanist documentaries as well. This is crucial because, unlike in the United States, where certain private investors are willing to fund socially-conscious documentaries such as Bowling for Columbine or Super Size Me, in Taiwan, private investors are hesitant to fund narrative films, let alone documentaries. Instead, filmmakers rely most heavily on two sources. One is the Government Information Office, which every year encourages local filmmakers to apply for grants. The second is Taiwan's Public Television Service, which frequently invests in documentaries that might show on public television or sell on DVD. I would guess that practically every mainstream documentary in Taiwan receives funding from at least one of these two sources. And since both have ties, either direct or indirect, to the national government, these "safe" genres prevail. There are also international investors, such as National Geographic, which recently produced a series of Taiwanese documentaries, but these opportunities are rare.
It's not surprising then that television has actually had the biggest influence on the style of the mainstream Taiwanese documentary. Whereas the New Taiwanese Documentary that Chi describes has ties to the underground, more aesthetically-adventurous narrative film industry, the mainstream Taiwanese documentary can be described as public TV-style, with many talking heads and sentimental music. As we see in Taipei's Bohemians and The Rhythm in Wulu Village, the camera tends to be respectful toward its subjects. Nobody gets attacked or prodded for answers. While the documentary's subjectivity may be foregrounded, as in The Rhythm in Wulu Village, it is rarely critical, either of itself or of its subjects. The ending of The Rhythm in Wulu Village, in which the documentarian and his crew talk about their experiences working on the film, does not really put their methods under the spotlight, but rather it has the enchanting effect of making aboriginal music and culture even more magical, more inspirational, and more unknowable. Taipei's Bohemians is also representative of a very old-fashioned non-fiction style. It has an introduction and conclusion, and in the middle are short conversations with the main subjects, one after each other in a very deliberate, traditional rhetorical structure.
In other popular documentaries, we see the introduction of techniques from narrative filmmaking. However, these are not the experimental techniques of the Taiwan new wave or of independent cinema. Rather, they are the techniques of mainstream commercial cinema. For instance, in Jump! Boys, we see animated sequences in the style of children's cartoons. In Ocean Fever, we have a very clear three-act narrative structure. This isn't at all surprising given that many documentary filmmakers in Taiwan were originally trained in narrative film production or have aspirations to make narrative features in the future. For instance, the director of Jump! Boys used the financial success of that film as leverage to get investors interested in funding his narrative film, Exit No. 6. So, because the narrative film industry in Taiwan is lagging, aspiring filmmakers have opted to develop their skills in the mainstream documentary form, where funding is more readily available. As a result, the mainstream documentary in Taiwan has been reinvigorated with talent. As one critic writing about Jump! Boys has noted, the worst of times for the Taiwanese film industry can also be the best of times, because it has forced mainstream filmmakers to pursue and experiment with alternative forms and genres. (2)
But a perplexing question remains: given how Taiwanese audiences have seemingly abandoned the local film industry in recent years, why is it that a certain style of documentary has emerged as commercially viable? I asked this question of director Chien Wei-ssu when she visited LA, and she responded that it's because unlike the narrative cinema, recent documentaries appear more "Taiwanese." In his essay on Taiwanese documentary, Chi makes a similar observation when he notes that in contemporary Taiwan, fiction films and documentaries address different public spheres. On the one hand, narrative art cinema by Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang address an international audience (which may or may not include Taiwan), whereas documentaries deliberately address a local audience.
This can be seen in the way these films are geographically identified. Whereas Hou Hsiao-hsien films like A City of Sadness or Good Men, Good Women are immediately identified as "Taiwanese" films, a documentary like Gift of Life is identified as a "central" (zhong bu) film. Jump! Boys makes it clear that is a story about children in the city of Ilan fighting for the pride of their school in the national gymnastics competition. It's not surprising then that the two films screened today, Taipei's Bohemians and The Rhythm in Wulu Village include specific cities or villages in their titles. This emphasis on the local as opposed to the national makes the films feel like they're by and for locals, rather than for the gaze of the overseas viewer. If audiences always complain that Taiwanese narrative films are made solely for Western film festivals and critics, then mainstream documentaries become the remedy to those worries. Furthermore, the accessible public TV style of the documentaries also seem to stand in direct opposition to the art house style of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang who tend to use minimal dialogue and require maximal patience.
Finally, documentaries also probe into topics that symbolically stand for a more local Taiwanese identity. So we get stories about aboriginals, farmers, and local artists. Because documentaries aren't scripted, they have a better ear for the street; hence it's in documentaries and not narrative features that you hear more use of the Taiwanese, as opposed to the Mandarin, dialect.
The irony then is that it is Taiwanese mainstream documentary and not Taiwanese fiction filmmaking that has appealed to local mainstream audiences, because it has settled on a style influenced by local television as opposed to, say, European art cinema, Hollywood blockbusters, or Korean soap opera. This public TV style is immediately recognizable as "Taiwanese" to local audiences who grew up watching television. It seems that in recent years, local critics and narrative filmmakers have often demanded that the Taiwanese film industry needs to find its own identity in order to gain back the audience; well, it's the documentary that's managed to do it best. That doesn't mean that the mainstream Taiwanese documentary is more "authentic" or better representative of Taiwan, or that it has any actual political or social agency. In fact, that the documentaries are primarily funded through official channels makes that a difficult case to argue. But their success does point to the promise that local filmmakers can find an audience if they adapt their art to fit changing economic and cultural conditions in Taiwan. Some of these films, like Jump! Boys, utilize commercial genres and sources of funding to address pressing personal and social issues, and consequently are among the best films of any format to come out of Taiwan in recent years. Indeed, the worst of times are often the best of times; this might be one of the few things that Taiwanese audiences and Taiwanese filmmakers can all agree on.
(1) Robert Chi, "The New Taiwanese Documentary," Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 15.1 (Spring 2003), 146-196.
(2) Chen De-ling and Ai Er, "Facing the Market: An interview with the creators of Jump! Boys, Lin Yu-hsien and Chuang Jing-shen," 2006 Taiwan Cinema Yearbook (Taipei: Government Information Office, 2006), 42.
Date Posted: 9/21/2007