Monday, July 7, 2008

Taiwanese New Wave Film Festival

For their Taiwanese New Wave Film Festival (which is still going on), the Cinématheque Busan was extremely liberal about what qualifies as a Taiwanese New Wave film. In addition to six films by Hou Hsiao-hsien and three by Edward Yang, they're also screening the first three features by Ang Lee, two recent works by Tsai Ming-liang and three documentaries made in the past few years. What made the line-up esspecially exciting for me is that, of the six films being shown with English subtitles, five have never been distributed in North America.

Hou's A Summer at Grandpa's (1984) has a two-part structure that recalls some of Yasujiro Ozu's films in the way it alternates comedy and drama. The first half is delightful. While their mother recovers from an illness in a Taipei hospital, a boy and his younger sister spend the summer at their grandfather's house in the country. The boy quickly befriends a group of local boys when he trades a toy car to one in exchange for a turtle. Soon after, the boys turn up at the grandfather's house, each one holding a turtle to barter with. However, unlike say Floating Weeds (1959), the film has a loose, episodic narrative, so the second half doesn't feel like a progression of the first but merely an accumulation of bummers: the mother's condition steadily worsens, the kids' uncle is disowned by the grandfather when he gets a woman pregnant, the sister looks to a retarded woman in the village as a surrogate mother. The Sunday afternoon screening Heather and I attended was full of little kids, which would be unthinkable in North America, where subtitled films--even ones as accessible as Indigènes (2005), Offside (2006) and Persepolis (2007)--are automatically distributed as art films regardless of their content.

Yang's Taipei Story (1985) begins and ends with the heroine, Ah-chin, in an empty white room representing the promise of a fresh start. In the opening scene, she's apartment hunting with her boyfriend, Lung, after getting a promotion. When the company she works for gets bought up by a conglomerate and her boss, Mrs. Mei, leaves to work elsewhere, Ah-chin is told by her new employer that, "Your job doesn't exist under our system." The film's final scene shows her in an office Mrs. Mei plans to use in starting up a new company, but by then it's become apparent (I think even to Ah-chin) that there's no escape. She moves in with Lung to get away from her father only to find that Lung is becoming more and more like him. The couple talks of moving to Los Angeles, but the film makes it clear that it would be the same for them there (for one thing, it's full of Taiwanese). I'd love to see it again since I suspect it would benefit from a second viewing, but the chances of that happening any time soon are fairly slim.

Yang's third feature, The Terrorizers (1986), is more playful. It has one of those plots where the characters initially have no connection to one another, but step by step are drawn closer together. The virtuoso opening sequence, which establishes all the major characters, may be the most audacious stretch of film that Yang ever directed. From the first establishing shot of a police car speeding through a Taipei neighborhood just after sunrise, Yang cuts to a couple in bed. The man, a photographer, awakes to find that his girlfriend's been up all night reading, then steps out on to the balcony where he hears police sirens. After a second shot of the police car, Yang cuts to a second couple. This time the woman is an author who's been up all night struggling with revisions of her latest novel. Finally the police car arrives at a gambling den where the photographer snaps a picture of a woman fleeing the scene with a broken leg. As this description perhaps hints, the connections Yang draws between his characters aren't exclusively literal, but also thematic (the two women who stayed up all night) and purely formal, creating rhymes through repeated actions, lines of dialogue and compositions. There's a lot more to say about the film, but I don't want to spoil any thing for those who haven't seen it.

Although Heather and I both had trouble following the plot of Hou's City of Sadness (1989), it's worth noting that the screening we attended drew a larger crowd than any of the Hollywood films in the Cinèmatheque's recent Fritz Lang retrospective, and it was one of Hou's biggest hits in Taiwan. In part that's because he's found a subject that resonates with a wide audience: the years between 1945, when Taiwan was returned to China after a half century of Japanese colonial rule, and 1949, when the Nationalist government retreated to Taipei following the revolution on the mainland. It focusses mainly on two brothers living in different towns--one a loud and burly man (Kao Jai) who's on familiar terms with the local gangsters; the other a timid deaf mute (Tony Leung) who hangs out with intellectuals--and the actors playing them (as well as Li Tien-lu as their crotchety father) give the most vivid and memorable performances I've seen in any of Hou's films. It's also a good deal funnier than anything he's made since. In one important scene, Leung does an exaggerated double take to show surprise. Filmed mainly in long and medium shot with a rich ambient soundtrack, it's more about atmosphere than plot, and although it runs for over two and a half hours, I wasn't bored for a moment.

This weekend we plan to see Tsai's Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) and Kuo Chen-ti and Chen Wu-ssu's Viva Tonal: The Dance Age (2004). I saw Tsai's film a few years ago on DVD but, more than most filmmakers, his work needs to be seen on a large screen. I know practically nothing about the latter except that it's a documentary about Taiwanese dance culture in the 1930s. It sounds like a fascinating subject, but whether it yields a fascinating documentary is another matter altogether. I thought about waiting until I'd seen them before posting this, but since neither is technically a Taiwanese New Wave film, I'd rather write about them seperately.

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