Documenting Taiwanese Modernism: Le Moulin’s Untimely Historical Project

Written by Tim Shao-Hung Teng

Image credit: Jean Cocteau smoking by Will /Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

In 2015 Taiwanese filmmaker Huang Ya-li (黃亞歷) released his documentary Le Moulin (Riyaori shi sanbuzhe/ 日曜式散步者) to critical acclaim. The film recounts the major life events of four core members of Taiwan’s prewar surrealist poetry society, Le Moulin (fengche shishe/風車詩社). Known for its experimental style that does away with interviews and voice-over narrations, the nearly-three-hour film cites, extracts, pastes, and freely associates materials such as literature, paintings, photography, sounds, film footage, diary entries, and newspaper clippings. These sources are not always readily recognisable and nor are they all directly related to the poets’ works. As part of my ongoing research on Taiwan’s role in advancing avant-garde arts in East Asia, this essay briefly discusses the film’s representational strategy. I focus on three aspects of the film: its reflection on the making of history, its blurring of the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, and its unique staging of a political intervention.

The Untimely Trick

Sitting at the center of Le Moulin is a famous scene from Jean Cocteau’s Le Testament d’Orphée (Testament of Orpheus, 1960). In this scene, we see the poet character, played by Cocteau himself, tears a hibiscus flower into pieces. The next minute, however, he miraculously reassembles the broken petals so that the hibiscus assumes its original form without a trace of ruination (figure 1). This cited scene, iconic as it is, comprises a double anachronism. On the one hand, it boldly contradicts the linear progression of time, reversing the irreversible by means of the cinematic trick, i.e. reverse motion. On the other, while the scene comes from Cocteau’s final work, released in 1960, Huang’s documentary features the surrealist poetry society Le Moulin that was only briefly active in the 1930s. Granted that members of the society made direct references to Cocteau and his work, they certainly would not have seen the 1960 film. Why, then, is the scene included as a centrepiece? How is its double trick of temporal displacement to be understood?

Figure 1_Tim
Figure 1. Screengrab from Le Moulin

A key factor to consider here is cinema’s power to forge a new sense of time, its magical command to invoke and preserve bygone memory pieces. Cocteau’s flamboyant ruse – a playful demonstration of the film medium’s capacity to play back, to revisit, and to upset the status quo – translates well into Le Moulin’s more serious task of excavating the forgotten voices left out by mainstream history. The literary history of Taiwan’s Japanese colonial period is long governed by the accounts of realist novels. Such accounts rightly highlight major writers such as Loa Ho (賴和) and Yang Kui (楊逵), who took pains to record the natives’ downtrodden yet resilient lives under the exploitative rule of the colonial regime. Besides enjoying scholarly attention, Loa’s and Yang’s works are also introduced in high-school textbooks.

The poets associated with Le Moulin, however, worked in direct opposition to the realist doctrine. In using the highly distilled and abstract language of poetry, they resisted a seamless alignment with social reality, insisting instead upon an aesthetic distance that calls for technical contrivances contingent upon the poets’ intellect and visions. Their work, often replete with opaque symbols, counterintuitive notions, and nonsensical wording and grammar, went largely unnoticed due to historiographic and pedagogical emphasis on the realist school and its timely reflection of social inequalities. By documenting the surrealist poets’ activities on the margins, Le Moulin thus summons back the untimely ghosts repressed by the orthodox literary history.

This ghostly presence, however, cannot but remain ephemeral and elusive. Given the scant attention to and insufficient preservation of historical records, the Moulin poets’ literary careers simply cannot be fully accounted for. Facing this deficiency, the film broadens its viewfinder and assembles global modernist works contemporaneous to Le Moulin – a gesture not unlike Cocteau’s manual work of piecing hibiscus fragments together to create a semblance of completion. With Cocteau’s magical sleight of hand at center, the film at once aligns itself with cinema’s prowess in delivering an illusion of authenticity and acknowledges the fabricated nature of any claims to historical truth. The poets’ now long gone experiential traces, the film seems to suggest, can only be approached by way of fragmentation, collage, and distortion – that is, by way of modernist aesthetics itself.

Fabricating Documentary Truth

Among the prizes Le Moulin garnered is the Best Screenplay Award from 2016’s Taipei Film Festival. That a documentary should win an honour customarily reserved for fictional films warrants some discussion. The film, as mentioned, does not appeal to the “talking head” format and voice-over narrations. Its resistance to conventional biographical documentation is perhaps most palpable in its reenactment segments. In these segments, director Huang casts actors to reenact scenes from the poets’ daily lives. Through these scenes we roughly follow the poets’ life events, ranging from the publication of the coterie magazine, sojourns in Japan, discussions of the society’s rivals, to marriage, sickness, political oppression, death, and survival.

While these events are largely biographical, many of them are also imagined to have taken place, with dialogues written by the director himself. This imaginative component, however, does not make the film a closer kin to fictional films. As if wanting to disavow possible connection with narrative films, Le Moulin presents each of the reenacted scenes in a bizarrely stylised fashion. Actors all appear without showing their heads – they are all framed below their necks, seemingly decapitated. Furthermore, these “headless” characters are shot from a tilted angle, which yields a distorted effect, and saturated in a bluish hue (figure 2).

Figure 2_Tim
Figure 2. Screengrab from Le Moulin

Although coming off as heavy-handed, the reenacted scenes in fact mark the site where the documentary remains most reflexive of the issue of historical representation, understood less as a question of accuracy or intelligibility than as something more oblique and opaque. The decision to crop the heads and the faces, the parts of the body that most explicitly inscribe one’s individual identity, reportedly made it difficult for audiences to identify the four main poets. In response to this complaint, director Huang explains, “The concept of biographical film has been completely ruled out. It is even possible that audiences don’t know who Yang Chih-Chang (楊熾昌) or Li Chang-Rui are after watching the film…I hope they recognise that this is a bunch of young people, a group of nobodies probably no one will ever know; they were once this poetry society.”

To Huang, the film’s anti-biographical stance endows the poets with a hazy state of anonymity. Yet rather than crossing out once again their marginal existence, the film chooses to represent the stakes of putting its subjects into a framework defined solely by visibility, individual identity, and the cult of personality, which is the same frame that once excluded the poets from historical legibility. To be framed by a biased system of knowledge, then, means there always will be something that defies, escapes, and remains unknown. The question of framing, or that of epistemology, then echoes once more the film’s resistance to any easy alignment between visibility, biography, and documentary objectivity. Through the aesthetics of framing, forage, and fragmentation, Le Moulin thus stages a unique political intervention that befits the Moulin poets’ own apolitical radicalism.

Tim Shao-Hung Teng is a doctoral student of film and media studies in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilisations at Harvard University. His research focuses on the transnational vocation of modernist arts in early-twentieth-century East Asia. This paper is part of the North American Taiwan Studies Association (NATSA) 2019 conference special issue.

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