Written by Chun-yi Kuo.
From a personal point of view, this essay attempts to shed light on the opening sequence of Huang Ya-Li’s film Le Moulin (2015) by explaining the metaphor of the sequence and the film. I will clarify the history of Taiwan’s cinematographic work, along with that of surrealist poets, and their connection to Taiwan’s national history.
While watching the film, I notice five successive shots in the opening sequence. In the first, I can see a hand throwing the dices. In the second, five men are speaking Japanese to each other. In the third, there is a black and white image that looks like a painting. I’m behind these men in the fourth, and I see a camera about to take a photo. Finally, in the fifth, there is a photo showing the faces of these men. In short, I only saw a hand in the first shot. However, I cannot see the faces of these actors in the second shot nor the fourth. What I observed in the sequence is always human body part. It was challenging to grasp the meaning of the painting and to recognise these men in the photo. As material proof – which could be interpreted as a semblance of their existence – the photo appears on the screen. However, I did not know the “what” and the “who” belonging to this image. I also did not know if the invisibility in these images was just an obstacle evoking the passage of time and its rediscovery.
Moreover, these obscure points could result from the film wearing out. From a more pessimistic perspective, these traces could be an erasure exercised by those holding power. Maybe all these possibilities run concurrently.
From a phenomenological perspective, the staging (theatrical), the painting (pictorial), the camera shooting (photographic) and the sequence (cinematographic) frame my perspective. Thus, suddenly and subtly, I experience a perpetual quarrel of the representation of an irreversible past. Present since the Antiquity, it seems that Huang asks me a question analogous to the question asked by Socrates in Plato’s Theaetetus (1997, 166b):
do you believe that I represent to you in Le Moulin that the memory of what the witnesses and descendants of these poets have experienced are the same, for them who can no longer experience it, but they once experienced?
Indeed, I saw the trace of an irreversible past and its representations initially. Still, this was not as much as I would like because the director narrows the angle of view. In other words, there is always something that I cannot see outside of the frame or even something missing in the framing—an invisible point.
By combining viewing angles and the practice of reusing archival images at the beginning, these five shots imply that the “trope” of the sequence – as well as the film – is related to an absence. In my opinion, this absence is divided into three levels of loss. The first – biological – meaning that these poets have now passed on, concerning their “having been.” The second level – photographic – is expressed by the film’s montage. This is because the photo (and the other archival images in the film) is a temporal movement. Hence, it cannot be seen as an actual copy of the original negative. In other words, what I saw in the sequence is the filmic representation and not an existing copy.
The last is historiographical and is emphasised by other historical discourses. For example, it can be perceived in the history authorised in the educational program at school. This is because the government of KMT repressed the history of these surrealist poets represented in the documentary during the 228 massacres and White Terror. Furthermore, it was also marginalised (even forgotten) by the constitution of “Taiwanese” literature and the national history of Taiwan.
At this point, it would be helpful to point out that there is a strong connection between this sequence of Le Moulin and Tsai Ming-Liang’s short film titled化生 (2012). The latter also has five shots, the first four of this short film were performed by Lee Kang-Sheng (李康生) and Yang Kuei-Mei (楊貴媚). The last shot reuses the photo from the private document of painter Chen Cheng-Po (陳澄波). As a secret, this photo was hidden several times until the painter’s family revealed its existence at Chen Cheng-Po’s centenary celebration. In 2012, Tsai dedicated this film to the Museum of National Taipei University of Education exhibition.
Therefore, Le Moulin is not only an object for research; it is primarily a film made to be seen by as many spectators as possible. From this objective, if the reuse of the archival image initially and throughout the film could be considered a rhetorical process, the questions of the historiography and the “collective” oblivion in our national history would be fundamental. Even if we consider the studio produced scenes as “fiction,” an imagination, or a metaphorisation, the images’ heterogeneity in the sequence (and in the whole film) would reveal the complex Taiwanese history and the artistic effort to prevent the oblivion of both our individual and collective memory.
The practice of reusing archival images in cinematographic art aims to reveal what we did not see or see badly before, question the representation of the past experimentally, and create new meaning by rebuilding memories. As a Taiwanese spectator, if I received a “figurative” meaning, even a sensitive experience comparable to a physical experience, through the beginning of Le Moulin, it would be in this sense: I will never be able to see the face of the actors. I can only perceive the representation of the archival image, which gives access to the visage of these poets. Consequently, I can only glimpse a part of the actors’ body. Through the glimpse, a restored history and its remanence in cinematographic narrative reveals itself. By subscribing to this sensitive experience the poets’ history that the director would perhaps like to introduce to the public, I would subsequently be linked to an “imaginary” community—to a “possible” or “collective” community in the future, which shares the same memory of an experience.
To conclude, by an artistic involvement which puts in relation the archival images, the causal explanation in his book (Le Moulin: Society and Time of the Poetry Group, 2016) on his documentary, as well as the realisation of Le Moulin, Huang Ya-Li makes us recognise a sensible experience to rediscover the forgotten life of these poets in the cinematographic language. By assembling various archival images and scenes performed by the actors in the film, the director rewrites their history and brings the spectator into a unique perspective to rethink their poetry, history and Taiwanese national history allegorically in the contemporary political context of the world.
Chun-Yi Kuo is currently a PhD candidate in film studies at Université de Montréal in Quebec, Canada. His research is interested in how to re-construct a collective identity in the metaphoric expression of new generation filmmakers, in particular by using the archival images, and attempts to compare the works of Taiwanese filmmakers with those made by filmmakers in Quebec.
This article was published as part of a Special Issue EATS 2021: Narrating Taiwan