Culture

Genre, Industry, and Politics of Taiwanese Language Cinema

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Written by Hongwei Bao.

On 21 October, I had the pleasure of watching the film Brother Wang and Liu Tour Taiwan (王哥柳哥遊台灣dir. Li Xing, Fang Zheng, Tian Feng, 1959) at the Broadway Cinema, Nottingham. The event was organised by the Taiwan Studies Programme, the University of Nottingham and was part of the ‘Taiwan’s Lost Commercial Cinema: Recovered and Restored’ Screening Tour.

Made in 1959, the film was an immediate hit at the time and its commercial success led to several sequels. It was one of the earliest and most popular taiyupian (Taiwanese language cinema) that has survived to date. The film focuses on the round-the-island tour of two comic characters, a fat guy (Brother Wang) and a thin guy (Brother Liu). In a style that closely resembles the Laurel and Hardy-style comedy, the 155-minute film, divided into two parts, comes as a pleasant surprise to the contemporary audience.

A contemporary viewer of the film would probably find the representation of women, indigenous people and sexual minorities in the film unacceptable. The exoticisation and sexualisation of aboriginal women in the first part of the film seems extremely appalling.

In his contribution to the Taiwan Insight, Chris Berry notes the cosmopolitan nature of the taiyupian: ‘This complex combination of local settings and language with hybrid borrowings and settings makes Taiwanese-language cinema full of unexpected surprises.’ For Berry, this type of cosmopolitanism is, in this case, associated with ‘cinema of poverty’ and the lives of the ordinary people and therefore debunks the myth of cosmopolitanism as intrinsically urban, middle class and elitist. In this blog article, I will list some other features specific to the film. My purpose here is not to construct a single and coherent argument about the film, but to raise some questions which I consider important for our understanding of taiyupian in particular and Asian film industry in general. I do not have immediate answers to many of these questions, but I hope that they can trigger some academic discussions and lead to further research.

Film Genre

From the perspective of film genre, this film indexes an indigenous genre: huandaopian, or ‘round-the-island’ genre. The commentary on the project website identifies huandaopian as ‘a new distinctively Taiwanese sub-genre of the road movie’. Apart from Brother Wang and Liu discovery of themselves (as they gradually figure out what they want, but this does not necessitate a deeper psychological understanding of the self), the film also constructs a Taiwanese self by presenting snapshots of people and places in different parts of Taiwan: ‘the journey simultaneously traces the effective border of Taiwan itself, inscribing the discovered self as a Taiwanese self’. Seen in this light, the relationship between the subgenre of huandaopian and the Taiwanese national identity is worthy of further exploration.

Remediation of Traditional Literary of Art Forms  

The film remediates traditional literary and art forms. A good example is the end of the first part of the film when the two characters start to speak directly to the audience. This effectively functions as a ‘cliff-hanger’, a technique common to classical zhanghuiti (chapter-style) novels and the stage performance of shuoshu (storytelling). This film is not obsessed with realism: the technique of ‘addressing the audience directly’ breaks the ‘invisible wall’ between the screen and the audience and, in this way, reminds the audience of the fictional nature of the narrative and the impossibility of a ‘big and happy reunion’ (datuanyuan) ending in real life.

Funding Model

As a commercial film, it is not surprising that this film was commercially funded. However, what makes the film special is that the film appears to have been sponsored by tourist offices at different administrative levels to promote regional and local tourism, and by different hotels and restaurants to advertise themselves. The aboriginal dance sequence in the second half of the film was performed by an aboriginal tribe, with the tribe leader’s presence, in the Sun Moon lake region to promote aboriginal culture. This proved to be an effective funding model as well as a useful publicity model: the coverage of different locations ensured an audience as large as possible and thus contributed to the national commercial success of the film. The reproduction of the model in subsequent sequels proved the effectiveness of the model for low-budget commercial cinema at the time.

Screening Environment

We do not know much about the screening environment at the time. We can probably imagine a communal and even interactive screening environment in which the audience laughed and signed loudly while frequently talking to each other during the screening events in the 1960s Taiwan. But more historical research is needed to shed light on the audience’s viewing practices at the time and how the audience engagement might have impacted upon some strategic decisions made in the production of the film.

The ‘Little Characters’ Trope

The use of the ‘little characters’ (xiaorenwu) trope in the film deserves our attention. In the PRC left-wing literary and cinematic tradition, ordinary people, often with flawed personalities, often referred to as ‘little characters’, were usually treated as subjects of revolutionary reform and salvation. In this film, Brother Wang is a shoeshine man and Brother Liu is a rickshaw driver; both struggle to make a living and neither is perfect. There is no revolutionary consciousness in both characters and a revolution is unlikely to happen to change their lives. The film is therefore more about the mundane lives and fantastic dreams of the urban poor than about their revolutionary agency, which makes perfect sense in the context of commercial cinema and an anti-communist political context.

Religion

The film expresses an ambivalent attitude towards religion. Unlike the secular films promoted by the Kuomintang government, commercial films such as Brother Wang did not have to stick to the official anti-religion line. The film ends up with a contradictory and ambivalent portrayal of religion: on the one hand, the narrative is driven by a mysterious prophecy foretold by a street fortune-teller, and part of the prophecy seems to have been fulfilled with Brother Wang winning a lottery. On the other, the prophecy on Brother Liu’s death turns out to be a fake one made up by the profit-seeking fortune-teller.

The scary night at a ‘haunted house’ is in fact the result of a trick played by some naughty youngsters; both Brother Wang and Brother Liu end up entertaining themselves with the ‘ghost’ costumes. This is not a straightforward pro- or anti- religion attitude. It shows a more pragmatic, if not agnostic, attitude towards religion among ordinary folks at the time: despite knowing the possible artificialness of some religious practices, one should still be careful not to dismiss religion completely, for even if gods and ghosts may not exist, there is always the ‘way of heaven and human feeling’ (tianli renxing) which eventually rewards the good and punishes the evil (cheng’e yangshan). The film narrative thus shows a complex picture of religion and religiosity in everyday life and popular culture.

Identity Politics

A contemporary viewer of the film would probably find the representation of women, indigenous people and sexual minorities in the film unacceptable. The exoticisation and sexualisation of aboriginal women in the first part of the film seems extremely appalling. Where is the start and end of the ideological critique on gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and culture for a commercial film made in 1959? This is a question that film scholars have to face in dealing with film history, and in reading historical films. There is unfortunately no straightforward answer to this question.

In this blog I have raised more questions than I can answer. I hope that these questions, along with many other scholars’ research, will trigger more general interest in and scholarly enquiry into the once lost and now ‘rediscovered and restored’ archive of Taiwanese language films.

Acknowledgements:

This blog entry is inspired by the ‘Taiwan’s Lost Commercial Cinema: Recovered and Restored’ website, Professor Chris Berry’s opening talk and the audience Q&A at the Broadway Cinema Nottingham. I thank Professor Chris Berry, Professor Ming-Yeh Rawnsley, and all those who participated in the screening event for their very engaging discussions.

Hongwei Bao  is Assistant Professor in Media Studies at the University of Nottingham. He is Resident Senior fellow of the Taiwan Studies Programme and China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham. His research focuses on queer filmmaking, independent media production and queer activism in a transnational Chinese context. He is co-editor of Queer/Tongzhi China: New Perspectives on Research, Activism, and Media Cultures  (with Elisabeth Engebresten and William Schroeder. Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2015) and author of Queer Comrades: Gay Identity and Tongzhi Activism in Postsocialist China (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, forthcoming in 2018). Image credit: by Taiyupian.uk. 

 

 

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