The Eng-Lite Program Lecture Series: Talk No 3


Topic:The Many Histories of Taiwan Cinema

Lecturer:Guo-Juin Hong, Associate Professor, Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Duke University

Host:Wen-Hsun Chang, Associate Professor and Institute Director, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University

Venue: NTUGITL R324, Guo Qing Bldg.

By Conrad C. Carl

The history of Taiwan cinema is moving. For instance, noncanonical dialect films have been brought under the spotlight in recent years. What constitutes history is constantly contested. Significant questions remain: How is history negotiated ?  What transformations and shifts can we observe when we switch the emphasis from history to historiography? What are the many histories of Taiwan cinema?

Guo-Juin Hong, Associate Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University, utilizes his vast experiences of teaching and researching Taiwan cinema to lay out a tentative framework and proposes three major historiographical modes. Professor Hong invites the audience to take part in this journey with the support of various film scenes. They range from early Japanese colonial documentaries and the iconic Brother Wang and Brother Liu Travel Taiwan, through the post-1949 films of Li Hsing (Our Neighbors and Beautiful Duckling), to New Taiwan Cinema of the 1980s (Banana Paradise).

When did history start? This must be answered first whenever we ask how certain histories are written. For histories of cinema, it has always been modernization. Not only is modernization the keyword in research on early Taiwan cinema, it is also tightly linked to debates surrounding the history of Taiwan itself. But how does the concept of modernization inform a particular historical perspective? Professor Hong points out that, during the Japanese colonial period, the history of Taiwan is caught in a dynamics between the modern and the primitive. Colonial documentaries portray a Taiwan whose history started only after Taiwan was ceded to Japan in 1895. This has shaped the ways Taiwan’s history was written for many generations to come, for a modern Taiwan could only be imagined as a colonial Taiwan. Colonial documentaries oscillate between realist depictions of Taiwan’s modernization under Japanese rule and the imaginary or even fantastical representations of indigenous culture. The purpose of this design is clear. Taiwan only became a modern Taiwan as part of the Japanese empire. The beginning of Taiwan’s modern history is thus defined. Modernization as the cornerstone of the Japanese colonial quest shapes the way we understand Taiwan and its cinematic history. The meaning of history is determined by what is modern and what is not.

Homemaking is a crucial theme that Professor Hong identifies in post-1949 Taiwan cinema and Our Neighbors (1963) by Li Hsing is a striking example of that. In the film, documentary footage and constructed sets intermingle. While modernization is placed in the background, its impetus never subsides: homemaking becomes the center of narrative attention. The lives of neglected people without a place to call home are highlighted against a rural, traditional, agricultural background. Neglected they are, furthermore, not only in the cities but also in the times, in cinema and its histories. We are witnessing their endeavors to make a living, to nourish traditions and to find stability in times of turmoil. What used to be a political history of national sovereignty has now turned into the ideology of homemaking that would shape the cinematic landscape of Taiwan cinema for the following several decades.

The last stage Professor Hong sheds light on coincides with the period of Taiwan’s New Cinema and extends into the decades following it. While films of this time are commonly analyzed in aesthetic terms, it is the very notion of history itself that undergoes a shift. National narratives and the concept of nation are examined in films like Banana Paradise and later in Cape No 7. In the former, it is the specific perspective of the soldiers that signals this historiographical shift. Tensions between home, nation, and history are left unresolved. The latter champions the abandonment of a fixed understanding of nation and creates an intriguing version of nation in its multitude. This marks the conclusion of the presentation that, in itself, is an act of writing history.

A broad range of topics were covered in the ensuing discussion, such as the relationship between the different historiographical periods, the representation of indigenous people, the necessity of the national framework, and the anxiety for modernity that still permeates Taiwan’s society and cinema to this day. This showed not only how well received and stimulating Professor Hong’s talk was, but also, how it can be treated as an incentive for students, teachers, and researchers alike to keep exploring other ways of understanding the past and the future, the many histories of Taiwan and its cinema.