The Missing

Sometimes the third world film-maker finds himself before an illiterate public, swamped by American, Egyptian or Indian serials, and karate films, and he has to go through all this, it is this material that he has to work on, to extract from it the elements of a people who are missing.

– Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (1)

The Golden Horse International Film Festival has long been one of the most anticipated annual events for Taiwan cinephiles. Many screenings at the most recent festival – held November 27th to December 12th, 2003 – were, as usual, sold out long in advance, as the festival offers the rare opportunity to view both foreign and Taiwanese films in a market dominated by Hollywood along with occasional Hong Kong box office successes. Reliance on the Golden Horse to see such films has been assuaged somewhat of late by the establishment of alternative venues such as the SPOT Taipei Film House, an art house theater co-founded by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. But the festival also serves as the annual report on the status quo of Taiwan cinema, this year once again indicating that the situation is getting worse. The festival organizers decided to drop the “Made in Taiwan” section given the record low number of local productions submitted for consideration. The Government Information Office (GIO) parted ways with the festival it helped create – withholding its usual funding, according to some reports, because of last year’s snub of President Chen Shui-bian, who had asked to speak at the award ceremony. Organizers claimed they could not allow Chen to speak given the festival’s stated policy of remaining apolitical, while Chen’s supporters in the Democratic Progressive Party charged that the real reason was to appease Mainland Chinese officials, who threatened to prevent Chinese actors from attending the event if the pro-independence Chen shared the same stage.

The history of the festival is, indeed, far from apolitical (2). The festival’s very name offers a glimpse of nationalist sentiment, as “golden horse” (jin ma) is a homonym for the Straits islands of Jinmen and Matsu, Taiwan’s frontline of defense against the Mainland. Once only a venue for Chinese-language films, it opened its doors and went international in 1980 at the behest of the GIO, then directed by James Soong, current vice-presidential candidate on the Guomingtang (KMT) Party ticket (3). The festival’s origins lie in the Golden Horse Awards ceremony, the first of which was held in 1962 on Chiang Kai-Shek’s birthday in the wake of the second cross-straits armed conflict. Only Taiwanese (or, rather, “Republic of China”) films or anti-Communist Hong Kong films were eligible for competition. Films required a commitment to political propaganda upholding moral values, which in the 1960s and 1970s was exemplified by the “Healthy Realism” movement of Taiwan’s major studio, Central Motion Picture Corporation (CMPC, owned, at the time, by the KMT). Today the Awards remain one of the most coveted prizes for Chinese-language films.

Beautiful Duckling

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Golden Horse Awards, this year’s program included a retrospective of the past Best Picture winners, a rare opportunity to watch a number of classics of Taiwanese cinema. This program however was relatively poorly attended – undoubtedly partly because many of Taiwan’s younger cinephiles recall mandatory screenings of some of these propaganda films during their college years. The only past Best Picture not on the program was The Escape (Yu Fong-jhih, 1973) – the first martial arts film to receive the award, and widely thought to have won because of its celebration of the early years of the KMT (no films from classical martial-arts directors like Chang Cheh and King Hu, who both worked in Taiwan, ever received the prize). One particular point of interest was the opportunity to survey the oeuvre of the Taiwan filmmaker Li Hsing. Li, who also served as director of the Awards in the early 1990s, directed seven Best Pictures over his long career. His films range from the Healthy Realist classic Beautiful Duckling (1963), to the propagandistic celebration of Chinese heritage and educational fervor under Japanese occupation in Land of the Undaunted (1975), to the contemporary city vs. country sketch in Good Morning, Taipei (1979). Programmers also paid tribute to another Taiwanese filmmaker, Yuan Tsung-mei, awarding him a Lifetime Achievement Award and screening two of his films, Poppy (1954) and The Conscience and Sin (1960).

Although the Awards ceremony in principle celebrates films from all over Greater China, the People’s Republic of China is often poorly represented due to, among other things, trade restrictions; local press often lament the increased dominance of Hong Kong films at the expense of kudos to local productions. However, the 40th anniversary series served as a reminder of the long-intertwined history of the Hong Kong and Taiwan film industries: the first two screenings (and first two Best Picture winners) came from two major studios of the “golden age” of Hong Kong Mandarin language film – Motion Picture And General Investment Company (better known as Cathay Films) and Shaw Brothers – both of which were also sympathetic to the KMT and considered Taiwan’s Mandarin dialect-speaking audience a major market (4). The program opened with Sun, Moon, and Star (Yi Wen, 1961), an epic tale, told in two parts, privileging the role of KMT resistance during the Sino-Japanese war. This film displays familiar traits of the Cathay melodrama of the 1960s, characterizing its male leads as victimized and pitiful, while it also in retrospect could invite an alternative reading as a lesbian love story among two of the three female leads. As in many Cathay films, the women are the real attraction, particularly the great singer and dancer, “Mambo Girl” Grace Chang. The same female star-power is found in the preceding award winner from the Shaw Brothers, The Love Eterne (1963), directed by Li Han-hsiang, who also directed two Taiwan films on the program: His-shih, Beauty of Beauties (1965), a production that had its origins at Shaws, and The Story of Ti Ying (1971), a melodrama set against a tale of medical malpractice in imperial China. Recently digitally re-mastered along with much of the Shaw Brothers library, The Love Eterne depicts an aristocratic daughter (Betty Loh) who disguises herself as a man in order to get an education at a prestigious academy. There she meets a male classmate (played by a woman, Ivy Po) and clumsily falls in love, a love unrequited until her true sex is revealed. Ivy Po’s performance was so convincing that judges could not decide whether she deserved the Best Actress or Best Actor award, finally establishing the precedent of a “Special Award for Acting.” This year Po reunited with other members of the original cast for an acclaimed stage production of The Love Eterne in Taiwan, later touring Hong Kong and Las Vegas.

As for present-day political intrigue, Mainland Chinese film officials this year opposed the participation of any Mainland/HK co-productions. This proved difficult for festival organizers, as such co-productions are an increasingly important trend in Chinese language film production. For example, Johnnie To, a vocal critic of HKSAR Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and of Hong Kong’s controversial Article 23 anti-subversion legislation, was thought to have a strong chance to pick up a few Golden Horses for his latest film, Running on Karma (2003) but did not submit the film for competition due to its share of Mainland financing. However, two other films from the prolific To – P.T.U. (2003), featuring the first starring-role for longtime To collaborator Lam Suet, and the Warner Brothers production of a Taipei comic, Turn Left Turn Right (2003) – were nominated for numerous awards. There were a handful of films from Mainland directors in competition and elsewhere in the festival: Purple Butterfly (2003), a story of war-torn 1930s Shanghai and one of Lou Ye’s most ambitious films to date with Japanese financing and major stars like Zhang Ziyi; Cala, My Dog (2003) by another Sixth-generation filmmaker Lue Xuechang; and Blind Shaft (Li Yang, 2003), an underground film set in China’s deadly mining industry (5).

In This World

The festival featured no major premieres, but included a number of acclaimed films from this past year’s festival circuit, such as Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003), Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003), Sweet Sixteen (Ken Loach, 2002), In America (Jim Sheridan, 2003), American Splendor (Shari Springer and Robert Pulcini, 2003), Ten (Abbas Kiarostarmi, 2002), Le Divorce (James Ivory, 2003), The Magdalene Sisters (Peter Mullan, 2002). Well received was Michael Winterbottom’s In This World (2003) a road movie shot in incredibly convincing cinema-verite style, following the travels of two Afghani migrants trying to make their way over land to England. Two small retrospectives focused on the work of Todd Haynes and Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy.

The festival closed with The Saddest Music in the World (Guy Maddin, 2003), and opened with two films. One, the big-budget Devdas (Sanjay Leela Bhansali, 2002), represents a new blockbuster formula trend in Bollywood filmmaking. The other opener, Goodbye Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2003), introduced what could have served as a theme of the festival, that of mourning – here, Tsai’s film mourns the decline of filmgoing. In a closing-down movie theater, a few patrons attend a final screening of the martial-arts classic Dragon Inn (King Hu, 1967). Among the patrons are a few strangers looking for company, a Japanese tourist (played by Kiyonobu Mitamura, an amateur actor who is actually a Tsai Ming-Liang groupie), and two stars of Dragon Inn: Shi Juan and a Tsai regular, Miao Tian. That film again reminds us of the long history of collaboration between Taiwan and Hong Kong film industries, being the first Taiwan production of the Beijing-born Hong Kong film director, King Hu.

Goodbye Dragon Inn has received numerous words of praise at international festivals and made a number of critics’ top ten lists for 2003. However, I would like to offer a dissenting opinion. The film reaches its peak of self-indulgence in the final moments, as the old stars exchange self-pitying dialogue, complaining that “no one comes to see us anymore.” The film’s critical reception has been couched in terms of mourning the death of cinema, demonstrated by the handful of transients who sneak in and out of the last show of a decaying theater, only actually watching Hu’s masterpiece as an afterthought. Another film in the festival program, Cinemania (Angela Christlieb and Stephen Kijak, 2002), an excellent documentary on the most obsessive cinephiles in New York City, demonstrated that the cinema is in fact far from dead. If Taiwan cinema is dying, it is this film, if any, that is killing it. The film’s intensely long takes that are more photographs than moving pictures show a certain degree of contempt for a popular audience: in other words, the film is incredibly boring. Of course, a principal formal objective of experimental film has been the resistance to classical cinema’s suturing powers. Given plenty of time to comprehend the essential still images of the film, one inevitably turns one’s attention away from the screen (like the characters in the film). At times, I found myself amused by perceiving my surroundings: at one such time, a patron accidentally entered my small theater just as a character was doing the same on screen. But then I realized: I, like those shown in Cinemania, hate it when someone in the theater is talking, or kicks the back of my seat, is chewing nuts…or is breathing too loudly. While of course many of the now well-known avant-garde classics deconstruct the film experience, it should not be forgotten that much of this work (found footage films especially) has its origins in cinephiliac practice. After all, it was at the main venue for the “New American Cinema” and the New York avant-garde film community – Anthology Film Archives – that Peter Kubelka’s “Invisible Cinema” was constructed, a theater with seats divided by partitions, so spectators would not be disturbed by their neighbors (6). Tsai has been visiting Taipei theaters to introduce screenings of his films, and while busily promoting his film, he also emphasizes that it was made for himself, not an audience. If Taiwanese film professionals continue to relegate Taiwan cinema chiefly to the international festival exhibition circuit, they really have no place to complain about the demise of a Taiwan cinema that has no serious ambitions of attracting a local mass audience. Unfortunately there are no more Dragon Inns or other Taiwan films equal in popularity to King Hu’s works – except of course for the Hu homage, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000).

Shown alongside and promoted in tandem with Tsai’s film was The Missing, the directorial debut of longtime Tsai collaborator Lee Kang-sheng. Adopting a similar style to Tsai’s film, The Missing is told in long takes of one 360-degree pan after another. The Missing has very little discernible story and is equally tiresome, but is nevertheless more interesting than Goodbye Dragon Inn. An older woman (Lu Yi-Ching) “loses” her granddaughter in a public park (the film’s primary setting) and a teenager (Chang Chea) loses his grandfather (Miao) to Alzheimer’s. We are never quite sure if the widow really lost her granddaughter, or is just lonely and misses her family; two bathroom scenes highlight a correlation between melancholy and the scatological, so one can wonder, is diarrhea a symptom of depression? Made during the SARS outbreak last year, the film uses the trope of “missing” – as both being invisible and as an act of mourning – in a way that approaches the quarantine and fears of being close together that masked the faces of Taiwan last summer.

The only international competitive section of the festival, the Digital Shorts Competition, was held for the fourth time. Although the only film of interest I caught was Benoit Dervaux’s Black Spring – a self-reflexive, exhibitionist presentation of forms of African dance – the programmers should be commended for inviting a number of these short filmmakers to attend the festival in person.

A new program this year titled “Fantasia,” focusing on horror/fantasy, proved too vast a field for the programmers, resulting in a hodgepodge of works. Among a few German Expressionist classics were some early Peter Jackson films – Braindead (1992), Meet the Feebles (1989), and Bad Taste (1987) – and two recent films from Takashi Miike, Gozu (2003) and Ichi the Killer (2001). Animated films in this program included Wonderful Days (Kim Moon-saeng, 2003), Corto Maltese (Pascal Morelli, 2002), WXIII: Patlabor the Movie 3 (Takayama Fumihiko, 2002), and Vampire Hunter D Bloodlust (Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 2000). Having a difficult time choosing films from such a range, programmers anticipate continuing the program next year, indicative of a renewed interest in the horror film worldwide.

Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui at the 1987 Golden Horse Awards

An additional program mourned the recent loss of one of the great Hong Kong actors and frequent attendee at the Golden Horse Awards, Leslie Cheung, who committed suicide earlier this year. Among the screenings was another mourning work featuring one of Cheung’s most poignant performances: Farewell, My Concubine (Chen Kaige, 1993). Further mourning was yet to come – another former Golden Horse award-winner, Anita Mui, named Best Actress for her role alongside Cheung in Rouge (Stanley Kwan, 1987), lost her battle with cancer just a few weeks after the festival’s close.

Results of the 40th Golden Horse Awards

Best Feature Film: Infernal Affairs (dir. Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, 2002)

Best Director: Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, Infernal Affairs

Best Leading Actor: Tony Leung, Infernal Affairs

Best Leading Actress: Sandra Ng, Golden Chicken (Samson Chiu, 2002)

Best Supporting Actor: Anthony Wong, Infernal Affairs

Best Supporting Actress: Lin Mei-siu, Black Dog Is Coming (2003)

Best New Performer: Megan Zheng, Homecoming (Jack Neo, 2003) and Wang Baoqiang, Blind Shaft (Li Yang, 2003)

Best Original Screenplay: Yau Nai Hoi and Au Kin Yee, P.T.U. (Johnnie To, 2003)

Best Screenplay Adaptation: Li Yang, Blind Shaft

Best Cinematography: Liao Pen-jung, The Missing (Liao Pen-jung, 2003)

Best Taiwan Film of the Year: Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-liang, 2003)

Best Visual Effects: Eddy Wong, The Twins Effect (Dante Lam, 2003)

Best Art Direction: Yee Chung-Man and Peter Wong, Golden Chicken

Best Make-Up and Costume Design: Yee Chung-Man and Dora Ng, Golden Chicken

Best Action Choreography: Donnie Yen, The Twins Effect

Best Original Film Score: Marco Wan, Color of the Truth (Wong Jing and Marco Mak, 2003)

Best Original Film Song: Chet Lam, Turn Left, Turn Right (Johnnie To, 2003)

Best Film Editing: Chen Sheng-chang, Goodbye, Dragon Inn

Best Sound Effects: Kinson Tsang, Infernal Affairs

Best Documentary: Chien Wei-si and Kuo Chen-di, Viva Tonal – The Dance Age (2003)

Best Short Film: Badu’s Homework (Cheng Wen-tang, 2003)

Best Taiwan Film Professional of the Year: Liao Pen-jung

Audience Choice Award: Infernal Affairs

Lifetime Achievement Award: Yuan Tsong-mei

40 Golden Horse Awards Best Pictures

1962 Sun, Moon and Star (Yi Wen, 1961)
1963 The Love Eterne (Li Han-Hsiang, 1963)
1965 Beautiful Duckling (Li Hsing, 1964)
1966 His-shih, Beauty of Beauties (Li Han-hsiang, 1965)
1967 Orchids and My Love (Lee Chia, 1966)
1968 The Road (Li Hsing, 1967)
1969 Spring in a Small Town (Yang Wen-gan, 1969)
1970 Home Sweet Home (Pai Ching-jui, 1970)
1971 The Story of Tin-Ying (Li Han-hsiang, 1970)
1972 Execution in Autumn (Li Hsing, 1972)
1973 The Escape (Yu Fong-jhih, 1973)
1975 Land of the Undaunted (Li Hsing, 1975)
1976 The Victory (Liu Jia-Chang, 1976)
1977 Heroes in the Eastern Sky (Jhang Zeng-ze, 1977)
1978 He Never Gives Up (Li Hsing, 1978)
1979 Story of a Small Town (Li Hsing, 1979)
1980 Good Morning, Taipei (Li Hsing, 1979)
1981 If I Were for Real (Wang Toon, 1981)
1982 The Battle for the Republic of China (Ting Shan-his, 1981)
1983 Growing Up (Chen Kun-hou, 1983)
1984 Old Mao’s Second Spring (Lee You-Ning, 1984)
1985 Kuei-Mei, a Woman (Chang Yi, 1985)
1986 The Terrorizers (Edward Yang, 1986)
1987 Straw Man (Wang Toon, 1987)
1988 Painted Faces (Alex Law, 1988)
1989 Full Moon in New York (Stanley Kwan, 1989)
1990 Red Dust (Yim Ho, 1990)
1991 A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang, 1991)
1992 Hill of No Return (Wang Toon, 1992)
1993 The Wedding Banquet (Ang Lee, 1993)
1994 Vive l’Amour (Tsai Ming-Liang, 1994)
1995 Summer Snow (Ann Hui, 1995)
1996 In the Heat of the Sun (Jiang Wen, 1994)
1997 Comrade Almost a Love Story (Peter Chan, 1996)
1998 Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl (Joan Chen, 1998)
1999 Ordinary Heroes (Ann Hui, 1998)
2000 Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)
2001 Durian Durian (Fruit Chan, 2000)
2002 The Best of Times (Chang Tso-chi, 2002)
2003 Infernal Affairs (Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, 2002)

Endnotes

  1. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1989, p. 217.
  2. I rely in part on one of this year’s festival publications, especially Yu Ye-Ying, “The History and Development of the Golden Horse Awards,” trans. Perry Svensson; and “The Chronicle of Golden Horse Awards in the Past Four Decades,” trans. Huang Shu-mei, both in 40th Anniversary of Golden Horse Awards. Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival Executive Committee, Taipei, 2003.
  3. Soong was also in the news around festival time for his disregard of freedom of speech, threatening to sue not only the producers of Special Report (2003), a VCD lampooning him and members of his “People’s First Party,” but also the struggling actors who participated in the alternative media workshop production.
  4. An overview of this relationship can be found in Yeh Yueh-yu, “Taiwan: The Transnational Battlefield of Cathay and Shaws,” in Wong Ain-ling, ed., The Cathay Story, Hong Kong Film Archive, Hong Kong, 2002.
  5. Further discussion of Blind Shaft can be found in a recently published interview with the filmmaker: Stephen Teo, “‘There Is No Sixth Generation!’ Director Li Yang on Blind Shaft and His Place in Chinese Cinema,” Senses of Cinema no. 27, July-August 2003.
  6. For more on the relationship between cinephilia and the New American Cinema, and on the “Invisible Cinema,” see Annette Michelson, “Gnosis and Iconoclasm: A Case Study of Cinephilia”, October no. 83, Winter 1998.