Taiwan’s official status is complicated. Some view it as a renegade region of China, others as the sole legitimate government of the mainland (the Republic of China). Still others believe it to be an island with a unique history stretching back tens of thousands of years and with a distinct culture influenced by Austronesian, Han, and Japanese history, colonization, and occupation. Lastly and leastly, there are those that think it’s the same thing as Thailand or as the mysterious origin of all our cheap tchotchkes and appliances.
TAIWANESE FILM UNDER THE JAPANESE
The first films shown in Taiwan were brought by the Japanese, as early as 1901. As with Japanese films, they relied on a narrator (rather than intertitles) known as benzi. The first Taiwanese benzi was also a musician and composer, Wang Yung-feng.
In 1903, Japanese director 高松豐次郎 (Takamatsu Toyojiro) began exhibiting films from Europe and Japan and built eight cinemas. In February 1907, he filmed 台灣實況の紹介 (Introducing Taiwan today), a documentary shot in over a hundred villages and meant to showcase Japan’s civilizing influence on Taiwan. The first Taiwanese feature film was Tanaka King‘s Da fo de tong kong (The eyes of Buddha), a 1922 film that starred Liu Xiyang, the country’s first film actor.
Other noteworthy films from this era include Whose fault is it? (1925) and サヨンの鐘 (Sayon’s bell ) (1943), the latter depicting helpful interactions between the Japanese and Taiwan’s indigenous Atayal people.
TAIWANESE FILM UNDER THE CHINESE NATIONALISTS
After the Chinese Civil War, many Chinese filmmakers sympathetic to the Nationalists came to Taiwan. During this era, Taiwanese language films dominated. In 1962, seven films were shot in Mandarin and 113 in Taiwanese. The Nationalists promoted the use of Mandarin over Taiwanese. In 1963, the Central Motion Picture Corporation introduced the “Health Realism” genre, designed to promote the ROC’s agenda. The last Taiwanese film shot exclusively in Taiwanese was in 1981.
Meanwhile, martial arts films, not seen as overtly political, also grew in production numbers and popularity in a climate subject to strict moralistic censorship. 胡金銓 (King Hu), in particular, introduced the wuxia genre, which literally took martial arts to new heights (with the strings and stuff — get it?). The Beijing-born director got his start with the Shaw Brothers and moved to Taiwan in 1966, where he filmed 龍門客棧 (Dragon Gate Inn), which broke several box office records.
POPULAR FILM STARS OF THE ERA
林鳳嬌 (Lin Feng-chiao) 秦祥林 (Charlie Chin Hsiang-lin)
林青霞 (Brigitte Lin) 張艾嘉 (Sylvia Chang)
郎雄 (Sihung Lung)
布袋戲 (Po-te-hi), a form of operatic puppetry, began in the 17th century in Fujian, just across the Taiwan Strait. It soon spread to Taiwan. Traditionally the puppets had cloth costumes and wooden heads.
In 1985, 霹靂 (Pili) began televising, a popular drama that still airs today. The puppets have grown more ornate over the years and now seem to even cry tears and cough blood. In 2000, Pili made a film, 聖石傳說 (Legend of the sacred stone).
NEW TAIWAN CINEMA
In part to combat the juggernaut of Hong Kong films, in the early 1980s the CMPC began supporting home-grown directors with highly artistic sensibilities.
The New Taiwan Cinema, also called the Taiwanese New Wave, began with 光陰的故事 (In our time), which featured four shorts by 楊德昌 (Edward Yang), Te-Chen Tao, I-Chen Ko and Yi Chang. In contrast to melodramas and action films, the New Wave films were grounded in more muted tones and dealt with the comparatively mundane struggles of ordinary people.
侯孝賢 (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
Key films include of the era include 1983’s 小華的故事 (Growing up), 1985’s 青梅竹馬 (Taipei story), and 1989’s 悲情城市 (A city of sadness) (1989). Other important directors include 侯孝賢 (Hou Hsiao-hsien) Hou’s frequent collaborator, Chen Kunhou, and veteran Chinese-born Wang Tung. In 2014, Chinlin Hsieh directed an excellent documentary about this key cinematic movement, Flowers of Taipei: Taiwan New Cinema (光陰的故事-台灣新電影).
NEW TAIWANESE CINEMA UNDER DEMOCRACY
In 1987, after nearly forty years, Taiwan’s long, brutal era of martial law and political suppression, the White Terror, finally ended. The films that followed tended to be (sometimes) less somber but still grounded in the same realist tradition. Without a doubt, the biggest name associated with this era, at least internationally, is 李安 (Ang Lee).
李安 (Ang Lee)
After directing 1995’s British production of Sense & Sensibility, he set his sights on Hollywood, where he went on to direct The Ice Storm, Ride with the Devil, Brokeback Mountain and… Hulk.
Other key filmmakers include 蔡明亮 (Tsai Ming-liang), 吳念真 (Wu Nien-Jen) and 賴聲川(Stan Lai). Other key films of the scene include 1991’s 推手 (Pushing hands); 1993’s 喜宴 (The wedding banquet); 1994’s 飲食男女 (Eat drink man woman); 愛情萬歲 (Vive l’amour),and 獨立時代 (A Confucian confusion); and 1998’s The Hole.
KEY ACTORS OF THE ERA
吳倩蓮 (Wu Chien-lien) 金城武 (Takeshi Kaneshiro)
舒淇 (Qi Shu) 任賢齊 (Richie Ren)
劉若英 (Rene Liu) 吳奇隆 (Nicky Wu)
張震 (Chang Chen) 楊貴媚 (Yang Kuei-mei)
Although Taiwan continues to produce popular films, including 2008’s 海角七號 (Cape no. 7) and 2010’s 艋舺 (Monga) and 一頁台北 (Au revoir, Taipei), overall film audiences are declining. In the last decade, 台灣電視劇, or Taiwanese Drama, has exploded in the wake of Korean Drama’s global popularity. Lack of acting talent isn’t always an impediment to success in TDrama. So-called “vases” are cast primarily to please the eyes. Pop stars and members of boy bands are also frequent actors. “Idol Dramas” developed out of girls comics and usually deal (fairly tamely) with puppy love and crushes.
Popular TDramas include 100% Senorita, Autumn’s Concerto, Brown Sugar Macchiato, Bull Fighting, Corner With Love, Devil Beside You, Down With Love, Easy Fortune Happy Life, Fated To Love You, Hanazakarino Kimitachihe, Hi My Sweetheart, Hot Shot, Invincible Shan Bao Mei, It Started With a Kiss, KO 3an Guo, Love Contract, Love or Bread, MARS, Meteor Garden, Miss No Good, Lucky Star, Mysterious Incredible Terminator, Pi Li MIT, Rolling Love, Romantic Princess, Smiling Pasta, Staying by You, Summer’s Desire, The Legend of Brown Sugar Chivalries, The Outsiders, The Prince Who Turns Into a Frog, The Rose, The X-Family, They Kiss Again, ToGetHer, Tokyo Juliet, Why Why Love and Ying Ye 3 Jia 1.
Popular actors in TDramas include Ady An, Alec Su, Amber Kuo, Ambrose Hsu, Angela Zhang, Ariel Lin, Barbie Xu, Chen Qiao En, Cyndi Wang, Danson Tang, Eddie Peng, Ethan Ruan, Genie Zhuo, Gui Gui, Ivy Chen, Jimmy Lin, Joe Cheng, Johnny Yan, Kingone Wang, Kwai Lun-mei, Mike He, Nicholas Teo, Penny Lin, Rainie Yang, Roy Chiu, Ruby Lin and Show Luo.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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