Taiwan Film Directors: A Treasure Island

Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh and Darrell William Davis,
Taiwan Film Directors: A Treasure Island
New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
ISBN: 0 231 12898 3 (hb) US$69.50
ISBN: 0 231 12899 1 (pb) US$25.50
(Review copy supplied by Columbia University Press)

Taiwan Film Directors is a very welcome contribution to the burgeoning literature on Chinese cinemas. Taiwan has contributed strongly to Chinese cinemas’ international success story. As well as the festival award-winning performances of directors like Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, and Tsai Ming-liang, it has also spawned the box office triumphs of Ang Lee with films like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (Taiwan / Hong Kong / USA / China 2000), disproving the myth that subtitles are box office poison in America’s mall multiplexes. Yet, Taiwan film has been comparatively neglected in the literature, and this detailed and substantial work, full of insight and analysis as well as important background information, is a vital contribution that helps to fill the gap.

As the title suggests, Yeh and Davis’s book is focused on directors. They claim that authorship has superceded nation as the key way in which films are branded in the transnational cinema (6). Hou, Yang, Lee, and Tsai get a chapter each, and these four chapters form the core of the work. In the absence of any adequate history of Taiwan cinema in English, the opening chapter recounts a director-centred history of Taiwan cinema after liberation of the island from fifty years of Japanese colonization at the end of World War Two, with a particular emphasis on Li Xing, Bai Jing-rui, Li Hanxiang, and King Hu. A bridging chapter then introduces the transformation ushered in by the new wave phenomenon of Taiwan New Cinema, and covers less known directors like Wang Tong, Xiao Ye, Wu Nienzhen, and Wan Ren. This broader coverage makes the book very suitable as a text for courses on Taiwan cinema.

In the main chapters of Taiwan Film Directors, Yeh and Davis cover the professional biographies of each director and their key collaborators, as well as identifying the signature themes, obsessions, motifs, narrative structures and other cinematic characteristics of each auteur and his ouevre. In each case, certain films are chosen for closer analysis. For Edward Yang, Yeh and Davis examine The Terrorizers (1986), A Brighter Summer Day (1991), and Confucian Confusion (1994). Hou Hsiao-hsien’s early commercial films Cute Girl(1980), Cheerful Wind (1981), and The Green, Green Grass of Home (1983) are given individual attention, as are the better known Dust in the Wind (1986) and The Puppetmaster (1993). Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is analysed as the greatest achievement so far in Ang Lee’s career, and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) is framed as presaging it in various ways. For Tsai Ming-liang, The Hole (1998) and Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) are highlighted.

Yeh and Davis treat cinema as a relatively autonomous realm, following the formalist emphasis on poetics pioneered by David Bordwell, a much-cited mentor, in his books on directors such as Ozu Yasujiro (Princeton University Press, 1988) and Carl Dreyer (University of California Press, 1981). For Bordwell, the indeterminacy of interpretation combined with the impossibility of demonstrating direct causal links between large social, cultural, political and ideological movements and individual films leads him to minimize discussion of them and to highlight the process of filmmaking itself, where close links between production and poetics are more demonstrable. Whether this is properly scientific or itself an act of ideological foreclosure and cine-fetishism remains debated.

To their credit, Yeh and Davis do not neglect to locate their chosen auteurs in a larger context. For example, they locate Hou Hsiao-hsien’s shift from the commercial cinema in the general cultural shift on the island towards ‘nativism’, as the growth in local consciousness and the decline of the KMT government’s efforts to emphasize links with the mainland is sometimes known. However, the real revelations are less in this area than in their examination of poetics and production. In the same chapter on Hou, Yeh and Davis also note that Hou’s shift from commercial filmmaking into the ranks of the New Cinema was facilitated by the formation of a partnership with two writers, Zhu Tianwen and Wu Nianzhen, one a mainlander from a privileged background and the other a local Taiwanese.

The bulk of the Hou chapter is then given over to a remarkably rich and multifaceted 30-page examination of the deployment of biography and autobiography. They point out this genre features in many new wave cinemas, including that of Taiwan, as a site where personal and cultural identity are invented and reinvented. The ways in which the different backgrounds of Hou, Zhu and Wu inform the scripts of the different films and the tensions and compromises, productive and otherwise, that result, are explored in detail. They show how it is the 1930s biography of a mainland author, Shen Congwen, which inspires Hou to develop the famous distanced long shot and long take style that has become so identified with his construction of Taiwan culture and identity in his New Cinema films. They then pursue this further in their analysis of The Puppetmaster, where they show how the film sets the eponymous Li Tianlu up as the symbol of Taiwan as a space identified precisely with that distanced stance, which now becomes one of a cultural patrimony transcending the particularities of different political state formations and governments.

Insights such as these, carefully developed on the basis of original research, are truly compelling and characterize each of the core chapters. For Edward Yang, they engage with Frederic Jameson’s famous essay on his Taipei Story (1985), acclaiming it as exemplary of postmodernity. They extend Jameson’s work, showing how tropes such as ‘tunnel vision’ shots with deep perspective are used in Yang’s work to inscribe local detail and local history. In their chapter on Ang Lee, Yeh and Davis show how both his ‘Confucian’ themes and work practices are more original than his middlebrow style might at first suggest, transforming both Hollywood and Chinese cinematic traditions in unexpected ways. Camp is used as the primary framework through which to investigate Tsai Ming-liang’s films. Although I’m not sure that Yeh and Davis understand the pain and defiance of cultural non-existence lies just beneath camp’s cheery surfaces, the highlighting of the gay culture at the core of his work is certainly timely.

Taiwan Film Directors is at its best in these extensive analyses of key characteristics and obsessions of Hou, Lee, Yang, and Tsai. Although it rightly supplements the spotlight on this foursome with chapters on other key older directors and contemporaries, it is not an attempt to counter the existing emphasis on auteurism in the literature on Taiwan cinema, nor should it be mistaken for a broader history or interpretation of Taiwan cinema as a cultural discourse. For those who want to discover new Taiwan films and directors, there may be disappointment. But for those with an established interest in these internationally acclaimed auteurs, the meaty analysis offered here will more than satisfy.

Chris Berry,
Goldsmiths University of London, UK.

Created on: Saturday, 2 June 2007 | Last Updated: 2-June-07