Many of Reverse Shot's staff writers and contributors come from and reside in locations all over the U.S. and beyond. Escape from New York is a new column devoted to reminding us Manhattan-and-Brooklyn-centric moviegoers that we are not the world when it comes to cinephila. In the following weeks and months, look for dispatches by a handful of our best writers from such far-flung locations as Taipei, Tel Aviv, London, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and more.
Looking for a Taiwanese Cinema, or Hou Goes There
by Andrew Chan
It’s been said before, but cinema can do strange things to one’s sense of place in the world. If you are inclined to see movies as a form of travel, you might become obsessed with the films of a particular country or region, and then start to feel, however unconsciously, that you have some kind of purchase on what life is like there. When I decided to leave New York for a year of Chinese-language study in Taipei, I realized I had a prematurely emotional connection to Taiwan before setting foot in it and that my impressions had been built entirely on the handful of films that have been available to me as an American viewer. I was also nervous about the backseat cinephilia might take in my life, but aware that just a little bit of detective work might teach me more about a national cinema I’ve been curious about ever since I was introduced to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films ten years ago.
As someone who grew up with an awareness of being at the margins of a larger diaspora, I found the concept of an all-embracing Chinese-language (huayu) cinema that could reflect the complexity and variety of life in overseas communities (and also challenge ideas about a monolithic Chinese experience) to be a major discovery. But now that the Taiwanese film industry has shrunk due to the dominance of Hollywood films (in the worst of conditions Taiwan was releasing only ten of its own titles a year) and is inexorably being subsumed into the Chinese market under new legislation promoting cross-strait production and distribution, it has become all the more uncertain the extent to which the Taiwanese film world should accept the assimilating influence of this huayu classification. In the West, the excitement over Taiwanese cinema was never able to reach beyond the Hou Hsiao-hsien/Edward Yang/Tsai Ming-liang triumvirate. Independent filmmaking on the mainland has since eclipsed Taiwan and Hong Kong, drawing unprecedented attention partly for the sheer courage often required of its young directors and for its relevance to the narrative of an economically powerful, politically volatile PRC.
Much of the perception of Taiwanese cinema’s artistic credibility here seems to revolve not only around a handful of Western-critic-approved native auteurs, but also around the idea of each of them contributing to a larger pan-Chinese film heritage. One can perhaps trace the origins of this bifurcated perspective to the concept of Taiwan as a repository for authentic Chinese identity (Taipei’s magnificent National Palace Museum being the foremost example of the cultural treasures that post-1949 immigrants salvaged from the mainland), as well as to the notion of Taiwan as a uniquely cosmopolitan branch of Chinese society. Located in a 1920s building that was once the U.S. Consulate and later became the residence of five U.S. ambassadors, Spot Taipei Film House embodies the contradictions at play in Taiwanese cinephilia. Read all of Andrew Chan's essay on his experiences with cinephilia in Taipei.