New Taiwan Cinema in the 80s
page 2

from Jump Cut, no. 42, December 1998, pp. 101-115
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1998, 2006

Hou's best known film is his internationally acclaimed historical drama, CITY OF SADNESS (1989). Focusing on the destinies of a Taiwanese family from 1945 to 1949, CITY probes the forbidden history of Chinese Nationalist brutality against the Taiwanese in the years following their "liberation" from Japan. Whereas the drama of TIME was internal with disease and death coming from within the family, in CITY tragedy comes from outside, from the fateful historical and political events which victimize families and citizens. The film uses as a backdrop the Nationalist government's (KMT) slaughter of native Taiwanese in February 1947. Not only was this topic previously taboo, the film specifically deals with the origins of the KMT's oppression of the people of Taiwan, showing Chinese Nationalist officials and various Chinese groups after World War Two replacing the Japanese as the dominant economic and political forces.

The background to the action occurs after the departure of the Japanese in 1945, where the film shows the beginning of Chinese Nationalist attempts to take control of the economy and society and how these process affected different people. The film depicts many Taiwanese attempting to profit from the drastic political changes, either by allying themselves with the Chinese Nationalists and their cronies or by engaging in crime or black market businesses. In the infamous February 28, 1947, incident government agents attempted to arrest an old woman selling black market cigarettes in order to enforce a government monopoly. A crowd of people rushed to her defense; the agents shot into the crowd, killing at least one bystander. The next morning, an angry crowd demonstrated in front of Taipei's government building, and troops fired on the crowd, killing many and setting off an island-wide revolt that lasted for months, leading to further repression.[13][open notes in new window]

CITY OF SADNESS opens in 1945 at the time of Japan's defeat and Taiwan's reunification with China. The family patriarch, old Lin, has four sons, whose sufferings will constitute the drama. The eldest, Wen-heung, is a businessman-gangster who runs a local nightclub and a shipping company. The second son, drafted by the Japanese, is missing in action in the Philippines. Although the family considers him dead, his wife continues to run his clinic and believes he will come back. The third son, Wen-Leung, sent by the Japanese to serve as an interpreter in Shanghai, is branded a collaborator after the war, tortured, and driven insane. In early scenes he is shown being strapped down in the hospital and in later scenes appears as a voiceless figure of suffering. The youngest son, Wen-ching, rendered deaf as a result of a childhood accident, communicates through means of a notepad. A photographer, he eventually renounces this occupation when overpowered with suffering.

The early scenes show the Japanese leaving the island and portray them as individuals, some decent and sympathetic. As Chinese mainland businessmen arrive to exploit new markets and economic possibilities, Hou realistically depicts the corruption that has permeated Taiwan's economic life to the present. In one striking scene, shot in a long take with Hou's trademark static camera, a group of businessmen from different parts of China converse in three different languages with two interpreters. The eldest son, Wen-heung, does not speak Mandarin; the Chinese do not speak the local Taiwanese dialect. Thus the groups' differences remain encoded in linguistic oppositions, which persist and which subvert Nationalist ideology that Taiwan is naturally part of China.

Mandarin becomes Taiwan's official language, imposed by the nationalist KMT government. Throughout the film, Mandarin radio newscasts or voices of Mandarin-speaking Chinese soldiers threatening or arresting the native Taiwanese portend tragedy for the islanders. In particular, news of the February 28, 1947, incident comes to the family through the radio with the KMT Chinese nationalist dictator, General Chen Yi's first announcing that a few conspirators and communists began a riot and were suppressed. This scene is framed in long shot, devoid of characters, with an empty window looking out on a dark night, where sinister clouds and lightning foretell a coming storm. Obviously Hou employs symbol and allegory here to portray the coming tragedy of the Taiwanese people, but he does so from the perspective of radio's serving as the voice of doom. The radio brings the disturbing political news into quiet, small towns, creating cities of sadness throughout the island.

Hou has been criticized for not depicting in a fuller and more gripping fashion the events of the February 28 incident, but he does present many pieces of the historical situation which the viewer must assemble.[14] Indeed, the discussion concerning the film and what was previously known by many as "unofficial knowledge" of the events provided something of a history lesson for the Taiwanese people, albeit one that they must fabricate for themselves, using the film to promote better public historical understanding. Thus, like the avant-garde works of Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, Hou's history lessons require an active audience, able to put together the pieces of the narrative into an account of historical events and to construct their own interpretations of the era.

Since the Nationalists have not released crucial documents concerning the event, complete evidence has never been available. Hou's indirect narration stays faithful to the actual situation since it is still not clear what happened in the 1947 slaughter of the Taiwanese by the Chinese Nationalist government of Chen Yi (Chiang Kai-shek was still in China battling Mao-Tse Tung and the communists at the time). Hou does have a character early in the film express dismay that the Nationalists chose a "bandit" like Chen Yi to govern. Another character expresses the native Taiwanese sentiment that the island long suffered from successive Japanese and Chinese occupations, both of which the Taiwanese have experienced as imperialist invasions. Another character notes that Taiwan is becoming a company and not a government, alluding to the KMT and their cronies' increased control of the economy. In fact, CITY presents several discussions among characters about the Chinese Nationalists' monopoly of sugar, tea, and cigarettes. They say that sugar and tea were scarcer than under the Japanese, thus signaling the cause of the February 28 events, which erupted when Chinese Nationalist authorities arrested a woman selling black market cigarettes.

A later radio broadcast alludes to the subsequent events: Chen Yi promises leniency to those who would surrender and announces a curfew for the whole of Taiwan. The scene, once again, comes from an empty house with a window looking out to the dark night; this time there are more clouds and lightening, and distant thunder signals the political storm unfolding. Subsequent scenes show the KMT troops breaking into houses and arresting citizens, searching for and arresting guerrilla fighters in the mountains, and executing young Taiwanese incarcerated in prisons. The official number killed in the episodes is set between 18,000-28,000 dead, though the figures could run much higher. Many more were imprisoned for long sentences.[15] Also, as Hou's film dramatically indicates, after the episode the people suffered prolonged state terrorism with the troops' arresting and executing dissidents.

Hou is thus the first to deal with a previously forbidden topic in Taiwanese history, involving mass slaughter of the people by the Chinese Nationalist government. His strategy is to focus on the fate of one family, multiplying their sufferings as an allegory for the Taiwan in the early days of Nationalist rule. In addition, in the images and scenes described above, the deaf son, Wen-Ching, conveys his observations of the slaughter in Taipei, which he sees in a visit to the city. He describes his experiences in prison through notes, which are written and shown on the screen in large calligraphic characters set against a dark background, interrupting the drama with messages about fate or history, almost in the mode of silent-film intertitles. The youth's deafness symbolizes the difficulty of describing such painful experiences. And his anguish symbolizes that of the Taiwanese people when forbidden to communicate their sufferings, feelings, and lived experiences of oppression.

By the film's end, the eldest son has been subjected to endless suffering and is finally killed fighting with a collaborator. The deaf son is arrested, after marrying and having a child. The film ends with the old patriarch Lin, his now silent and mad son, and the female members of the family preparing a dinner. The scene, shot in usual static long shot, reveals the family's devastation, endless suffering, yet resilience. They carry on their everyday life despite the tragedies.

CITY OF SADNESS presents an intricate view of family and society that attempts to convey the historical situation's full complexity. While the film dramatically presents the sufferings inflicted by the mainland Nationalist Chinese on the Taiwanese, the film also shows Taiwanese mobs' hunting and heating mainland Chinese. In one scene, a prolonged deep-focus shot depicts several people beating and kicking a man. One of them yells, "So you think you Chinese have come to Taiwan to become emperors!" In another scene, while entering a train the deaf son, Wen-ching, is accosted by a group of Taiwanese thugs who question him about his identity. When he cannot answer because he is deaf, the group assumes he is mainland Chinese and would have beaten him except that a friend of his shows up and explains that he is deaf and doesn't understand them — and that he is Taiwanese.

Such scenes show the Chinese as victims of Taiwanese hatred and violence, depicting the dual victimization of the historical situation. Because Hou developed these kinds of complexities, some writers criticized him for justifying the immense Nationalist repression. They said the film reduced unequal levels of violence and oppression to the same level of critique. In fact, Hou also expresses a subtle critique of the Taiwanese resistance. In an important early scene, he depicts in detail a haiku written by a young Japanese girl who commits suicide because she believes that life should stop at its highest point, as when a cherry blossom drops to the ground after maturity. Taiwanese youth seem impressed by the haiku, suggesting, in retrospect, that the youth who join the resistance are seduced by Japanese death fetishism.

Other scenes depict Wen-ching and his intellectual friends who join the Taiwanese resistance movement as naive idealists, living in a world of illusion. One young man reads Marx while others champion grandiose ideals of Taiwanese independence or integration with "greater China." Such visions that can be read as depicting the youthful resistors' living in a world of fantasy and ideology, blind to the structures and forces of power. In these and other ways, Hou thus presents a rather negative image of Taiwanese resistance to Nationalist oppression.

Yet in his defense, one could argue that Hou on the whole distances himself from partisan positions around the passionately debated and contested Taiwanese history depicted in CITY. His camera seems simply to explore the era's events from a detached point of view. Obviously, in the late 1980s Hou could go only so far in criticizing the Nationalist KMT regime when the government still controlled and censored film production and distribution. Moreover, Hou's complex cinema precludes a one-sided propaganda effort that solely presents one point of view or interpretation. His characters and the events depicted represent different perspectives; the characters express differing opinions. Hou thus offers what might be described as a multi-perspectivist cinema, showing the events of February 1947 and their aftermath from a variety of perspectives, so that the spectator can grasp the complexity of the events and how the events affected different individuals and groups. Of course, one can still argue that Hou's choice of images in telling the story discloses a certain partisanship and authorial point of view.

On the whole, Hou's static camera, long shots and deep focus shots, often held for an entire scene, patiently explore the environment and politically charged events without commentary. In one striking scene, he depicts young Taiwanese partisans taken from a prison cell to be shot; the camera stays with the deaf son, Wen-ching, in his prison cell. As the spectators hear the shots, Wen-ching cannot. The guards then come and take Wen-ching away. An extreme long-shot with static camera and deep-focus follows Wen-ching slowly walking down the corridor, perhaps to his execution. Such a scene has an excruciating effect since we fear the worse. The memory of that tension remains even as the narrative eventually reveals that the elder brother has obtained freedom for Wen-ching, and the long trek down the corridor leads to his release.

Hou's static camera and long shots might be contrasted to the Japanese director Ozu's camera style. While their camera work has some formal similarities, their use of the fixed camera has different aesthetics and effects. Both have a camera work free of optical effects, and both use a static camera, long takes, and few pans, fades, or dissolves. Ozu, however, evokes a still, quiet dignity as he consecrates everyday life, lovingly lingering on tradition's details and rituals and deeply personalizing his characters. Ozu's long takes evoke stability, harmony, and a veneration for family. Ozu often shoots traditional Japanese family scenes with the camera at the seated family's eye-level. This visual tactic elevates family members, often sitting on floormats, to almost epic grandeur and dignity.

The stillness of Ozu's scenes betray a predilection for the personal, for detail, and for a balanced, secure, traditional life. He measures personal family life against impersonal urban life, the private sphere against the public sphere, tradition's stable rituals against modernity's dynamism, always to the benefit of the former term as a value. For Ozu, family life, tradition, and personal relations take on concrete shape while urban modernity remains abstract, portrayed in his films by distanced images of smokestacks, factories, railroads, cities, and masses in motion.

Ozu's still camera and long takes with horizontally oriented framing stand in contrast to Hou's more dramatic, more critical eye in using a set camera and long takes. Hou's frames contain more dramatic action than Ozu's, including violence. The camera eye creates highly dynamic situations which explore the familial or the personal sphere's exploding into violence, or the camera shows destructive external forces intruding into the private sphere. Hou depicts tradition and personal life as furiously invaded by external social forces, with everyday life a site of disorder and contestation. Often action spills out of the frame. Characters suddenly leave the spectator's vision and shortly reappear, sometimes bloodied or hurt. Other times events and people suddenly break into the frame with the static camera capturing the moment's shifts and mutations. Eschewing Ozu's stillness and harmony, Hou shows a radically disharmonious environment. His cinema thus provides critical visions of Taiwanese life and society that provoke discussion of its history, transformations, and current problems, thus helping produce a national cinema and a democratic public sphere in which cinema serves as a vehicle of cultural and political debate.


A distinctively national cinema requires artists to develop a specific national style and subject matter with its own problematics, themes, and effects. Style plays as important role as subject matter in this project, and different types of films point to different forms of society and ideology. As has been frequently noted, the close ups and shot-reverse shots of the classic Hollywood cinema articulate the ideology of individualism central to capitalism and the U.S. ideology, while images of the masses, dynamic montage editing, and stories focused on social transformation in the early Soviet cinema articulate communist ideology and a vision of a young and dynamic Soviet society's undergoing progressive change. As we have seen, the New Taiwan Cinema reveals a society in turmoil, undergoing dramatic transitions and threatened by internal and external forces.

New Taiwan Cinema of the 80s thus has a genesis and a trajectory that provide a glimpse into the development of a national cinema. Here the films have as their subject matter specific Taiwanese problems about the transition from tradition to modernity with its attendant conflicts, and they take up these themes in an aesthetically engaging and innovative fashion. Many directors in Taiwan contribute to this project. While Hou Hsiao-Hsien presents epics of everyday Taiwanese life, often focusing on the private sphere in a distinctly rural milieu, Wan Jen is especially adept in exploring urban tensions and the conflicts confronted by those who migrate from rural to urban life. The startling contrast between old and new Taiwan is the subject of Wan Jen's 1983 epic AH FEI, or RAPE SEED. Wan Jen's film depicts traditional identities coming into conflict with an urban life, emphasizing the situation of women.

Taiwan's economic boom's downside is portrayed in Wan Jen's films SUPER CITIZEN (1986) and FAREWELL COAST (1987). In the former, a young man from the country comes to Taipei to search for his sister from whom he has heard nothing during the past year. Beginning in a tenement slum, the young man travels through the city's lowlife, where street hustlers sell fake Rolex watches and other contraband, gangs fight each other, and the ubiquitous sex businesses ply their trade. The young man befriends a rich teenage girl and a young prostitute as he and a hustler who knew his sister search for her through a trail of clues leading to restaurants, dance joints, and brothels. Told that the city has over 2,000 sex establishments, the young man abandons his pursuit and decides to leave the city. However, the final scene shows him getting off of the train at the last minute to pursue the joys of city life.

Wan Jen uses modernist techniques to capture Taipei's vitality and neon glitter through quick cuts, a fluid camera, and visual explorations of previously unseen elements of life in the capital, thus exposing its underside to critical scrutiny. His next film FAREWELL COAST (1987) presents an even more pessimistically critical look at Taipei's underworld. A young man is pulled into crime and then murder. He falls in love with a beautiful young prostitute who sells herself to a brothel to pay off his debts. When the young man tries to buy her contract from the brothel owner, he kills one of the bosses' thugs in a fight. A crime syndicate that the young man willingly affiliated himself with failed. Now on the run from both criminal assassins and the police, the star-crossed lovers flee through Taiwan. The girl begins to suffer from cervical cancer, caused by multiple sex partners, and dies on the beach. A powerful morality tale, the film exposes the dangers of the underworld economy, and the ubiquity of crime and violence on the island.

These films of Wan Jen arc reminiscent of Oshima's films, which explored the dramas of youth in urban and underclass environments. FAREWELL COAST also recalls Godard's star-crossed lovers in some of his early French new wave films, although Wan Jen's romanticism and melodrama are far more extreme, almost to parody. Interestingly, Wan Jen uses the conventions of French new wave romanticism to explore aspects of the contemporary Taiwan urban experience that had been hitherto neglected.

Other new Taiwanese cinema directors also explore the particular problems of the present moment. The films of Lu Kang-Ping, like those of Wan Jen, take the standpoint of outsiders, those who do not share in the Taiwanese affluence and economic boom but who live in the city as marginal characters. These are people who usually suffer their small indignities and deprivations silently, fatalistically accepting their lot.

In MYTH OF A CITY (1985), Lu Kang-Ping presents a group of kindergarten workers caught up in an adventure which reveals the poverty of their usual lives and which presents the director an opportunity to take some sly digs at contemporary Taiwanese society. It is a school bus driver's last day at work. On a whim, he drives off to the seashore with the school's cook, a young teacher, and a busload of children. Facing an unhappy retirement, he seeks one great moment of happiness, which he finds on the road with the children. They encounter an aboriginal family, who invite them in for a feast, and then some young motorcycle riders, with whom they camp by the sea. It is as if only outsiders can sustain humanity in an urban industrial society. The film's moments with these marginal communities offer utopian images of communal happiness in a harshly competitive, individualistic, and asocial milieu.

Lu Kang-Ping's TWO ARTISTS (1990) focuses on two sign-painters ordered to cover over the giant, bare breasts of a woman they'd painted on a billboard. In black-and-white flashbacks, one painter reflects on his youth and failure to make it as a serious artist. The younger signboard painter reflects on his aboriginal heritage; in hallucinatory color images he relives his childhood past and people's myths. Documentary-like footage of aboriginal rights rallies at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Plaza highlights the issue of aboriginal people's treatment and rights, since aboriginals are often neglected in Taiwanese culture and are an oppressed minority, like indigenous peoples in the Americas and elsewhere.

Chang Yi's 1984 film JADE LOVE and his 1985 KUEIMEI, A WOMAN explore women's situation in Taiwan, using melodrama to depict personal relations. Generally, Taiwanese films that focus on women's changing situation do not explicitly express a feminist ideology, but they critically explore women's lives in traditional Chinese and contemporary Taiwanese environments. The films show modernity as improving women's position slightly, but they also demonstrate how traditional constraints on women's freedom and independence persist, often taking on new forms. Changing gender roles in contemporary urban life is the focus of a major filmmaker, Edward Yang, who has produced the most telling investigations of the triumph of urbanization in Taiwan.

Whereas the films of Hou Hsiao-Hsein, Wan Jen, Lu Kang-Ping, and other directors of the new Taiwan cinema depict conflicts between traditional and modern, rural and urban culture, Edward Yang presents the hegemony of urban modernity and the new forms of identity and culture now dominant in Taiwanese society. While Hou's films are primarily rural in focus, with Yang we witness the dominance of city life, with tradition and rural life left only as cultural signs within modern commodity culture. The national allegory about modernization which I have traced across this body of films reaches its culmination in Edward Yang's work, which uses rigorously modernist aesthetic techniques and an highly unique style, look, and feel to present a vision of contemporary Taiwan.

Yang's film THAT DAY ON THE BEACH has a highly enigmatic and complex narrative about the suicide or disappearance of a woman's husband "that day on the beach." Two women meet in a modern city restaurant and reminisce. The one woman tells of her tragic marriage and the loss of her husband. The film jumps back and forth between past and present, exploring social relations in the context of Taiwan's transition into a modern, globally oriented society. Yang's narrative structure is highly experimental. His juxtapositions between past and present indicate the current situation's discontinuities and novelties, just as his modernist style points to a new kind of cinema and cultural text in Taiwan.

His succeeding TAIPEI STORY (1985) depicts Taipei's undergoing rapid urbanization, and the film traces the effect of that. As Yang put it:

"My purpose is very straightforward-using film to make a portrait of Taipei. I am going to explore the changes occurring in Taipei in recent years, and how those changes affect every citizen of Taipei."[16]

The script develops a relationship between Lon, played by Hou Hsiao-Hsein, a cloth merchant who lives in Taipei's old-town, and Chin, a career woman who works in a new-town corporation and moves into a modern apartment. In the opening scene, as Chin is moving into her apartment, she asks Lon's opinion about how to arrange furniture and so on. But Lon remains lost in his private fantasies, replaying the Little League baseball game in which he played when his team won the world championship.

TAIPEI STORY traces out the difficulties which Lon and Chin and their families and friends have to deal with. In particular, it shows Lon's inability to come to terms with the new Taipei. Using Antonionesque tracking long shots of the urban environment, Yang presents images of a city where buildings and objects take over and dwarf human life, which seems drained of its significance. He frequently uses internal framing to surround his characters with window bars, blinds, or architectural structures, presenting images of individuals trapped in a constructed, artificial environment.

THE TERRORIZER (1986) is perhaps Yang's most highly developed and acclaimed depiction of urban modernity. The film was awarded a prize at the Locarno Film Festival in 1986, was pronounced the "most original film of the year" at the London Film Festival in 1987, while receiving Taiwan's Golden Horse award as best picture the same year. The film is probably the most original and relentlessly modernist of all of the films I have reviewed. It is surely the most akin to the European art film, which obviously influenced its complex aesthetic. Antonioni, for instance, is an obvious and admitted influence.

The highly ambiguous narrative is convoluted with several overlapping storylines. To the question "Who is the terrorizer'?" of the film's (English) title, the answer is that the terrorizer could refer to any number of the film's characters or the city itself. Throughout the film, Yang inserts images of a giant, egg-shaped, gas tank, as if the city could explode at any minute. The ending remains open-ended and gives rise to a number of interpretations.[17] Fredric Jameson, for example, argues that the ending's indeterminacy establishes the narrative's postmodern rejection of interpretive "depth" and indicates that the film could be read as a pure play of signs without any meaning or depth.

While I have some sympathy with this reading, I find Yang so strikingly modernist that I prefer the more modernist reading that the image is a polysemic signifier that functions as part of the director's complex view of urban modernity. In fact, I have found few signs of postmodern aesthetic strategies in any of the Taiwanese films or directors of the new Taiwan cinema of the 1980s. In my reading, THE TERRORIZER adopts a modernist style that requires an active reader to process the events and to produce their meaning. Yang's cinematic style itself is distanced, cold and detached. He analytically dissects the character's lives, interactions, and environment. Yang frequently mismatches images and sound, cutting from one character and scene to another without warning and seemingly without motivation. This device replicates the fragmentation of the character's own lives and the accidental connections between them that will only become more evident as the narrative progresses.

Properly speaking, I would argue, it is not until the 1990s with the films of Ang Lee and a wave of young Taiwanese directors that postmodernism enters the Taiwanese cinema. Ang Lee's 90s films, for instance, play with more hybridized and postmodernized identity, negotiating not only the complexities of Chinese/ Taiwanese identity but also the diasporic, global identity of Westernized Taiwanese, such as the Taiwan-American characters of Lee's PUSHING HANDS (1991) and A WEDDING BANQUET (1993), or the Westernized daughters in EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN (1995). These films posit conflicts between younger Westernized children and their traditional, patriarchal fathers. In his "Life with Father" trilogy, Lee clearly sides with the fathers so that the trilogy arguably reconstructs the patriarchal order, with younger men and women coming to accept and revere the old patriarchs. Lee renegotiates the tensions between tradition and (post)modernity in such a way to valorize the father. Each of the three films indicates that the old, traditional ways and patriarchal order have become obsolete, now superseded and rejected by the younger representatives of the new, (post)modern generation, who seem to accept Western contemporary values, roles, and institutions. In each case, the old father seems irrelevant to this order and, especially in the first two films, obsolete and slightly comic. In each film, however, the patriarch redeems himself, becomes sympathetic and human, and eventually re-establishes the patriarchal order.

The Lee dramas thus renegotiate the tensions between tradition and modernity to the benefit of tradition, or at least preserving patriarchal authority. Thus Lee's films create, if one wishes, a postmodernity that combines premodern, traditional and patriarchal codes with contemporary, global, cultural forms. The "Life with Father" films thus enact the Father's Triumph; they redeem the old patriarchy in the face of gay and women's liberation, modern commercial values, and a hybridized and global, postmodern, economy and culture.

Yang's THE TERRORIZER, by contrast, depicts a life where atoms of urban alienation are accidentally thrown together and in which various permutations and combinations of the interacting atoms may produce destruction and violence. He figures an urbanscape without community, without tradition, without vitality, and without hope of individual or social transcendence. Such depictions can be read to represent a Taiwan frozen in the grips of urban modernity, or more broadly to represent urban modernity itself. Yang presents a much more highly critical vision of contemporary Taiwanese society than does Ang Lee; thus Yang's work more aptly highlights the critical and politically radical project of the new Taiwan cinema.


Critics generally agree that the new Taiwan cinema reached its end by the 1990s. Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Wan Jen, Zeng Shuan-xiang, and other directors had investigated Taiwanese history and probe their own lives and experiences for insight into the larger parameters of the Taiwan experience as a whole. The 80s directors had explored the tensions between tradition and modernity, the urban and the rural, and the specific conflicts in contemporary Taiwanese life. Especially urban problems are thoroughly depicted in the films of Edward Yang, Wan Jen, Lu Kang-Ping, and others. Yet Taiwanese audiences have not fully embraced the new cinema. Audiences continue to turn largely to genre film escapism which Hollywood, Hong Kong, and its own film industry are happy to produce and distribute. Ang Lee's films remain highly popular, attracting much larger audiences than Hou's and Yang's films. Younger viewers are eager to see their own youth cultures and identity politics portrayed rather than view biographical explorations of Taiwan experience. In fact, young viewers seem to he not especially interested in the erosion of tradition or past history.

Nonetheless, the new Taiwan cinema has become an international success with its directors' winning many prestigious international awards, and especially Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang's becoming internationally famous. A government wishing to promote Taiwanese culture and profit from exports has remained willing to help finance products by the directors of the new Taiwan cinema. There was a lull in government support for the 80s directors, since in the early 90s it was supporting new directors and cultural voices, some of whom have achieved international success. But as the 1990s has progressed, the major directors are again able to find financing, too.

In retrospect, we should recognize the important contribution of the new Taiwan cinema in creating a world class cinema and in helping to create a Taiwanese public sphere where critical questions could he raised about Taiwanese society. Yet the new Taiwan cinema has political limitations. Because of continuing censorship and funding problems through the now "heroic" period of the 1980s, there were limits as to how far the filmmakers could go in criticizing the government, as Hou found out when his CITY OF SADNESS was subjected to government censorship, but then released only when it won international acclaim. In particular, no films have, to my knowledge, dealt with the complex and problematic relation between the United States and Taiwan, although many have depicted the impact of Americanization on the island.

Moreover, no major film of the new Taiwan cinema has dealt with the problems of the industrial working class, or conflicts between labor and capital, though certainly sharp criticisms appear in the films of Yang and others against the capitalist corporation, an icon of an alienating urban modernity in many 80s films. While some films deal with women's oppression, few women directors emerged in the 80s, and feminist and other alternative film cultures are only now emerging in the 90s. Moreover, as far as I know, Ang Lee's WEDDING BANQUET is the first film to deal with homosexuality. And the only film I discovered that deals with Taiwanese aboriginal people is Lu Kang-Ping's TWO ARTISTS (1990). Thus the new Taiwan cinema has omissions and silences, just like the earlier cinema. Nonetheless, the 1980s cinema has opened the way for critical explorations of marginalized groups and has established a politically and socially critical national Taiwanese cinema that continues to develop and evolve in response to the current challenges of Taiwan society and the global economic and political order.


[Editor's note: We wish to thank an excellent www site on CITY OF SILENCE for the stills used in this essay. The site is at UCBerkeley and is a model of what collaborative film scholarship on the Interet can be at its best.

There are many people that I wish to thank for help in the preparation of this article. First, to Kuan-Tsing Chen for inviting me to Taiwan in Summer 1994 for the Trajectories cultural studies conference and to Youn-Horng Chu for inviting me to Taiwan to lecture in 1995. I am especially indebted to Robert Chen; his dissertation, which I cite below and make use of throughout this study, was of crucial importance in helping me to contextualize and grasp the trajectory of Taiwanese film. I am also grateful to Maggie Chu, Helen Li, and Kang Chao, who accompanied me to various Taiwanese films and helped explain the complex uses of language and conflicting cultural traditions, as well as discussing many other details concerning the depiction of Taiwanese culture and society. For providing copies of films for me to study after leaving Taiwan, I am grateful to Robert Chen and to Gina Marchetti. Gina also made many helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper, which were extremely useful for the revision.

I. On the political economy of Asian film, see John Lent, editor, The Asian Film Industry (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990) and on the history of the Taiwanese film industry, see Ru-Shou Robert Chen, Dispersion, Ambivalence and Hybridity: A Cultural-Historical Investigation of Film Experience in Taiwan in the 1980s; Ph.D. dissertation, University of Southern California, 1993.

2. Fredric Jameson, The Geopolitical Aesthetic (Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press, 1992), p. 120.

3. See The Death of New Cinema (Taipei: Tang Shang Publishing Company, 1991) and Chen, op. cit.

4. Cited in Jameson, op. cit., pp. 119-120.

5. On postmodernism as a global cultural phenomenon, see Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991) and Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations (London and New York: Macmillan and Guilford Press, 1991); The Postmodern Turn (New York: Guilford Press, 1997) and The Postmodern Adventure (New York: Guilford Press, forthcoming).

6. In this section, 1 am drawing on Chen, op. cit.

7. The term "national allegory" has been introduced by Fredric Jameson in his article "Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism," Social Text 15 (Fall 1986), pp. 65-88; it is utilized in The Geopolitical Aesthetic, op. cit. The concept refers, as I am adopting it, to narratives that capture allegorically typical characters, situations, and events that present the life of a nation as a quest for national identity. National allegories chart the impact of modernity on tradition in developing countries and the production of new types of society where the traditional and the modern exist in conflictual and evolving configurations. I will make clear the relevance of the concept for reading Taiwanese film in the course of this study.

8. See Georg Lukács, Studies in European Realism (London: Merlin Press, 1972); Essays on Realism (Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press, 1980) and Realism in Our Time (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964). I will argue below, however, against Lukács' opposition between realism and modernism.

9. Chen, op. cit., p. 124.

10. The term was introduced in 1963 by the manager of the government-sponsored Central Motion Picture Company, Kung Hung, who promoted the concept of "health realism" as a guideline for filmmaking, which was to "reveal the bright side of social reality" and "to promote the good qualities of humanity such as sympathy, care, forgiveness, consideration and altruism" (cited in Chen, op. cit. p. 66). The term was supposed to distinguish a positive and "healthy" cinema from the lurid naturalism of a social realism that dwelt on the negative and unhealthy aspects of experience. Interestingly, the term "social realism" was used later to promote films, mostly set in underworld milieus, which featured explicit sex and violence (see Chen, p. 71). I, by contrast, am using the term "social realism" in Lukács' sense to describe films that address existing problems, issues, and conflicts with typical characters and forms of behavior in familiar social environments.

11. Hsiung-ping Chiao, "The Emergence of the New Cinema of Taiwan," Asian Cinema, Vol. 5, no. 1 (March 1990: 9).

12. On The Classic Hollywood Cinema, sec David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986). On the contemporary Hollywood cinema, see Douglas Kellner and Michael Ryan, Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1988).

13. For a historical account of the February 28 events and their aftermath, see George Kerr, Formosa Betrayed (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1965) and the documents assembled in Institute of Modem History, Academia Sinica, The 228 Incident: A Documentary Collection, Vol. 1 (Taipei: Academia Sinica, 1992).

14. Critical views of the film are found in Mi-Zou and Liang Xing-Hua, editors, op. cit. and are discussed in Chen, op. cit., pp. 133-141.

15. See Chen, op. cit., 112f.

16. Chiao-Hao Chang, "An Interview with Yang De-chang," World Cinema Weekly 254 (March 1985): p. 60.

17. See, for instance, Jameson's reading in The Geopolitical Aesthetic, op. cit., 114ff.


The following list represents key films of the 1980s new Taiwan cinema that I watched for this study. Many are available on video with English subtitles.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien
1982, co-director, GREEN GREEN GRASS OF HOME
1983 episode in THE SANDWICH MAN, "Son's Big Doll"
1993 "THE PUPPETMASTER" — Part of the director's trilogy of generational sagas spanning the years 1900 to the present and including CITY OF SADNESS and Hou's upcoming film, A MAN NAMED PUTAO TAILANG.

Edward Yang
1983 Episode in "IN OUR TIME"
1985 TAIPEI STORY (Oing-me-zhu-ma)
1986 THE TERRORIZER (Kong bu fen zi)

Wan Jen
1982 "A Taste of Apple" in THE SANDWICH MAN
1983 AH FEH

Lu Kang-Ping

Chang Yi

Zeng Shuan-xiang
1983 "Vicki's Hat" in IN OUR TIME

Yi-Zheng Ki

Yeh Horng-Wei

Ang Lee

Tseng Chuang-hsiang