Transition and Transformation: The Naming Dilemma in Today’s Taiwan Cinema

Written by Yiling Pan.

Image credit: 20171107駁二in89-5 by Sunline Liu /Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

What is the Taiwanese identity in today’s Taiwan Cinema? In 2008, Taiwan’s Cinema began to get back on its feet after an extended lull, with several new directors successively releasing critically acclaimed first works, such as Chung Mong-hong’s Parking, Tom Lin Shu-yu’s Winds of September and Gilles Yang’s Orz Boyz!. However, it took Wei Te-sheng’s debut, Cape No. 7, to become a box-office hit and arouse widespread interest in Taiwanese film. Taiwanese scholars have followed these developments from the beginning and held an international seminar entitled “The 2008 Post-New Cinema Phenomenon in Taiwan” on the subject in 2009. Afterwards, in 2010, the Film Appreciation Academic Journal No. 142 also published four seminar papers in an issue entitled “After Taiwanese New Cinema” to discuss the domestic film revival of 2008. “Taiwan Post-New Cinema” continues to be a subject of discussion today. In 2020, the Centre of Taiwan Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London) held an international conference entitled “Taiwan Post-New Wave Cinema.” Thus, there appears to be an academic consensus that Taiwanese Cinema has adopted a new narration style. It has created a new aesthetic in presentation in the last decade or so, quite distinct from the Taiwanese New Cinema of yesteryear, and it is called “Taiwan Post-New Cinema”(後新電影). Indeed, the change in Taiwan Cinema is seen especially clearly after 2008. Compared with the well-known Taiwanese New Wave of the 1980s, best represented by art-house directors like Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang, this new film movement has worked within the conventions of genre and has often focused on themes of local Taiwanese culture and grassroots life. The distinctiveness of “Post-New Cinema” can be analysed from both commercial and aesthetic points of view.

From a commercial point of view, firstly, in terms of box office growth, one or two Taiwanese productions have managed an average to take about NT$100 million in gross revenue every year since 2008. This growth in potential earnings has also led to an increase in overall film production. Secondly, production budgets have grown. Having witnessed the enormous success of Cape No. 7, Taiwanese film producers have sought to invest in and explore different modes of film production, such as blockbusters and international co-productions. With greater diversity in production, several titles have also done well overseas, as in the case of You Are the Apple of My Eye (2011), More than Blue (2018). The last important commercial aspect of “Post-New Cinema” is its distribution strategy. In the past, films would enter international film festivals, and any awards won would be used in promotion campaigns. Today, distributors have various ways of attracting audiences. Among them, social media and sneak previews, which allow them to pursue greater returns.

From an aesthetic point of view, it can be noted that there has been a shift from art films to genre films and to films that display a more diverse image of Taiwan than was the case previously. This shift has three principal components, the first being local films. Since 2002, the Taiwanese government has promoted a cultural policy that emphasises grassroots life and local folk culture. The second component is Pan-Asian Films, which typically depict Taiwan’s links with other Asian countries, particularly Japan. The final component is LGBT Films. From about the year 2000, an increasing number of Taiwanese films have explored LGBT issues, accompanying and testifying an increasingly emancipatory social atmosphere. Thus, “Taiwan Post-New Cinema” has successfully demarcated itself from the Taiwanese New Cinema by two primary characteristics: its penchant for commercial genre film and its exploration of local identity. Furthermore, “Taiwan Post-New Cinema” has cast off the historical burden of the Taiwanese New Cinema period, associated with heavy going art films. It has struck out on a very different path.

Although recent Taiwanese films have created a unique identity that is different from that of the past, it is still doubtful whether the name “Taiwan Post-New Cinema” can define Taiwanese films after 2008. This is because it neither intends to “innovate” the paradigm and the framework established by the “New Cinema,” nor does it completely “inherit” the legacy left by it. Therefore, these uncertain interpretations motivate us to review this naming convention’s legitimacy and sort out Taiwan Cinema’s context and trend since 2008.

Before discussing Post-Taiwanese Cinema’s naming conventions, it behoves us to investigate what Taiwanese New Cinema really was. During the 1970s and 1980s, Taiwan experienced a great deal of change. This included rapid industrialisation, urbanisation and – critically – the emergence of native consciousness. These changes also influenced Taiwanese filmmaking. A group of young filmmakers were liberated from the tired old “formula films” of before. They were able instead to produce films on low-budgets, with non-professional casts, to faithfully present the real society of the time and even boldly criticise the government.

Furthermore, they issued a proclamation (台灣電影宣言) declaring their dedication to a new, artistically progressive cinema in 1987. Although this cinema movement only went on five years (1982-1987), it is undoubtedly the most crucial event in Taiwan Cinema’s history. Taiwanese New Cinema redefined and enhanced Taiwanese Cinema’s value and especially developed Taiwan’s national cinema. Nevertheless, it is undeniable on the other hand that New Cinema brought about a dark period for the commercial industry for nearly two decades. This is the reason why, after the release of Cape No. 7, many critics finally saw the dawn of a long-awaited recovery and excitedly announced the arrival of the “Taiwan Post-New Cinema” era. 

Nevertheless, such naming is problematic because the essence of the two is different—New Cinema being auteur cinema, and so-called Post-New Cinema being commercial in nature. The “newness” of New Cinema implies an innovative and experimental orientation that seeks to break with the commercial film industry. However, Post-New Cinema intends to return to the commercial film industry. Apart from this, there were already similar terms such as out/after the New Cinema (Mi-zhou edited) or the New New Wave of Taiwan Cinema 90’s (Peggy Chiao) to refer to the 1990s Taiwanese films. On the other hand, the tricky part is that although the new generation directors seem to abandon the auteur paradigm, they created their own style of film, thus sweeping away the shadow of the past box-office failures and appearing to signal a changing of the guard. However, New Cinema’s spirit is still haunting these new popular films, whether in story themes, the investigation of identity, or aesthetic expression and audio-visual staging. Indeed, these new directors were also trained by New Cinema. Hence, the advent of a new generation does not just mean a rupture with the past. To be sure, there would be “irregular overlaps” inevitably between the past and the present.

All these references show that if we still use the term “post” to refer to Taiwanese film today, there may be ambiguity about given chronology and semantics. Moreover, more importantly, it will undermine the significant changes such as the terms of the film industry, local culture and identity after 2008 for Taiwanese Cinema. So, such a chronological naming does not help us to clarify the present. Since 2008, Taiwan society has experienced many significant moments and various impacts, such as the Sunflower student movement, the renewal of political parties, the rise of social media, and more intensive globalisation. These changes influence the development of Taiwanese film continually. Suppose we imagine Taiwanese Cinema to have moved on to the next phase. In that case, it is time to investigate whether Taiwanese Cinema’s development over the past years has been sufficient to announce the opening of a new chapter of history and examine the “irregular overlaps” between historical transitions. Looking back is a necessary process to examine the present and look forward to the future.

Yiling Pan is a PhD student in the Institut for Transtextual and Transcultural Studies of Jean Moulin University Lyon III. This piece is part of her doctoral thesis project “Post-Taiwanese Cinema”.

This article was published as part of a Special Issue EATS 2021: Narrating Taiwan

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