Harvest Time

June 26–July 7, 2005

Is there no better metaphor for the ubiquitous “international film festival” than the theme park at the center of Jia Zhang-ke’s The World (2004)? I’ve seen the film at more than one such festival now, and I can’t help but notice the similarities between the two illusions of “the world” – one a Chinese theme park (motto: visit the world without leaving Beijing) where miniature Eiffel Towers and Egyptian Pyramids project a vision of global harmony to local tourists who can’t afford to leave the country; the other a two week buffet of international cinema, bringing in the world’s best films so locals don’t actually have to leave the country. If that’s a dismal way of looking at such festivals – after all, we should be lucky to see any non-mainstream films at all – it only seems so because we’re so comfortable in our individual definitions of “alternative” cinema that we neglect to consider that what is “international” to our city’s festival may not be so “international” to another. In an era where transnational business and globalisation are often masks for political and economic interests, we need to constantly question the way the concept of the “international” is deployed by governments, corporations and film festivals and consider the cultural consequences of “selling” the world to those who, for practical or political reasons, cannot or choose not to leave their own country.

The seventh annual Taipei International Film Festival was my first time at an “international” festival outside of the United States (which itself defines “the world” in countless ways), and the films it chose to fill out its “international” quota was unlike any that I’d encountered before. Aside from local talent like Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang, the who’s-who of international festivals (Kiarostami et al.) was largely absent, with the exceptions of Jia, Pedro Almodóvar and Alexander Sokurov, who was the subject of a retrospective. This is in part because the Taipei festival is the less-glamorous younger sibling of Taiwan’s Golden Horse Film Festival, so it lacks the star-studded premieres and Cannes contenders, as one would find at similar international festivals such as Toronto, Venice or New York. But perhaps more important is that the Taipei fest plays to a relatively young crowd, comprised of aspiring filmmakers and college students, rather than the middle-age, upper-middle class, Cahiers-reading elites of other festivals. Most of the screenings are held at the President Cinema, a theatre in Ximending, Taipei’s most popular hangout among teenagers, and take place during the summer break. As a result, festival-goers seeking “alternative” international fare (read: non-Hollywood films not starring Hong Kong canto-pop idols) are less interested in what’s hip in other festivals (which includes Hou (1) and Tsai), but more receptive to films that address their lives as young people negotiating a world between the city and the country, between “East” and “West”, and between Taiwan and its Asian neighbours.

Off Beat

Case in point is Hendrik Hölzemann’s debut Kammerflimmern (Off Beat) (2004), which hasn’t received much press or acclaim outside of its native Germany, but which won the audience award in the New Talent Competition at Taipei. Stylistically, the film has the pizzazz of any indie film by a director fresh out of film school, especially in the opening scene where a car crash kills a young couple and leaves their son emotionally scarred. The film’s complex portrayal of the disillusioned boy, who 20 years later becomes a tortured ambulance driver, is effectively sweet and sensitive to the romantic preoccupations of youth. Dream sequences pump the film with an ethereal dizziness, while its indie-pop soundtrack of various nationalities drives the film from sex, violence and drugs to moments of unexpected bliss. During the Q&A after the film, the Taipei audience treated Hölzemann less as an international auteur, but rather as a friend or filmmaking colleague, and it dawned on me that the audience was looking for inspiration from their successful comrades abroad, which makes sense given the notoriously poor state of independent film financing and exhibition in Taiwan.

It’s not surprising that the New Talents jury (comprised of former new talents Clara Law, Fruit Chan, Jia Zhang-ke and others) awarded its prize to documentarian Marina Razbezhkina’s magnificent first narrative feature Vremia zhatvy (Harvest Time) (2004), which follows a farming family in Stalinist Russia, but ends unexpectedly with a powerful address to contemporary young people. In gorgeous full-frame cinematography and a near-absence of dialogue, the film lovingly depicts the everyday events of the family with a Kaurismaki-like deadpan style. The mother is named the winner of the commune’s award for farming, for which she wins a velvet red flag that she then obsessively tries to hide from hungry house mice. The film’s final scene takes place decades later when a modern young woman comes upon the family’s things while moving into the house, and we as young audience members suddenly sense the uncompromising tides of politics which threaten to erase the yearnings and histories of past families and workers.

Asian cinema has become a hot category in international film festivals, which have been instrumental in the categorisation of Asian “new waves” and the creation of Asian “auteurs”, many of them, such as South Korea’s Kim Ki-duk, extraordinarily unpopular in their home countries. How the Taipei International Film Festival programs Asian cinema is then an interesting question. In terms of genre, there is a major difference in what is considered “alternative” and thus festival-worthy. I found that the Asian fare here shies away from action genres and shock- or ghost-horror, which are considered relatively mainstream and everyday in Taipei. Related to the different definitions of mainstream is that what other festivals see in much of Asian cinema – an exotic strangeness, as well as superficial political daring – is not necessarily shared by Asian audiences who see little real substance below the “political”, sexual, or violent stylisations. If one’s definition of the “international” is tied to one’s definition of the “Other”, then an Asian festival like the Taipei fest will obviously have a different sort of lineup when it comes to programming its own identity. From a Western perspective, there’s nothing “exotic” about the mainland Chinese film Sheng dian (The Last Level) (Wang Jing, 2005), which is concerned with video game addiction, or the Taiwanese Lian ren (Fall…in Love) (Wang Ming-tai, 2005), which is a typical love story between two young urbanites. The same goes for Tsao Jui-Yuan’s Gu lian hua (Love’s Lone Flower) (2005), which attracted the giddy local young audience because it was edited out of a popular new soap opera on Taiwanese television.

Taiwan Black Movies

It wouldn’t be surprising then that the festival’s Taiwanese films are different from what the label “Taiwanese cinema” has come to mean on the international film festival circuit. For the past 20 years, the films of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang have made long-take, long-shot naturalism the hallmark of Taiwanese film to audiences abroad. A consequence is that Taiwanese films that don’t conform to such expectations are deemed inferior (just as Mani Haghighi’s wonderful comedy Abadan [2003] was rejected by European festivals for not being “Iranian enough”). Viewing the short film, animation and documentary programs at the Taipei fest, one sees that Taiwanese cinema is so much more: for example the exuberant imagination of Chen Kang-wei’s animated short Xia ban shi hou (The Man of the Hour) (2004), the twisted video game fantasy Di shi wu ci fu qi (Server #15) (John Hsu, 2004), or the Amelie-like whimsy of Shenqi xiyiji (The Magical Washmachine) (Lee Yun-chan, 2004), which features digital effects and an adorably feisty performance by up-and-comer Li Kang-yi. These films seem to be actively defying the stereotypes of Taiwanese cinema abroad and at home. Hou Chi-jan’s documentary Tai wan hei dian ying (Taiwan Black Movies) (2005) literalises this defiance by exploring the history of Taiwanese cinema immediately before Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang and others ushered in the new wave in the 1980s. As a documentary, the film is simple and unexciting; as a piece of film history, it is essential viewing, interviewing forgotten filmmakers and piecing together the history of the social realist sex/crime cinema popular in the 1970s, films which Taiwanese film scholars have dismissed as insignificant, mainstream and exploitative. Other films do reveal Hou’s influence, such as Lee Li-shao’s moving documentary short Mo li ya de xiao dao (Molia) (2005), which accompanies a 13 year-old Jakartan housemaid on her trip back to visit her family, and Chou I-wen’s debut Go Out to Sea (2004), whose use of non-professional actors as carefree old fishermen rivals the naturalism and occasional humour of Hou’s films and is in my opinion one of the festival’s real discoveries. Part of the appeal of Go Out to Sea is that, like Da zheng nan (Grandpa’s Mountain Ballad) (Chen Po-wen, 2005) and the festival-winning Wu mi le (Let it Be) (Yen Lan-chuan and Cres Juang, 2004), it gains its energy and credibility from its patience about listening to old people talk (not unlike Hou’s Hsimeng jensheng [The Puppetmaster] [1993]). One could read this as symptomatic of the recent cultural vogue of the Taiwanese language (as opposed to Mandarin) in mainstream Taiwanese culture, but I see it as more complicated because these films don’t just turn to old people for pre-Kuomintang wisdom, but for the humour, pacing and vitality that audiences are looking for in their cultural products. These films deploy Taiwanese as a language that survives despite political and cultural transformations, evoking the charms of everyday life in Taiwan and a history that’s not only tragic (as is often the case in Hou’s films) but playful and light-hearted as well. When incorporated intelligently, this playful tone brings out the tragedy lurking beneath many of the films, as in Lin Yu-hsien’s heartbreaking documentary Fan gun ba! Nan hai (Jump! Boys) (2005), which buries the filmmaker’s tear-jerking letter of admiration to his has-been brother beneath the comic (and instantly marketable) tale of elementary school boys in leotards hoping to become national gymnastics champions.

The Wayward Cloud

Perhaps it’s indicative that this new breed of Taiwanese cinema is still developing its own styles, or it’s indicative of my position as a cinephile reared on Euro-American art cinema, that my favourite discovery of the festival and the one that haunted me for days after my initial viewing was Tsai Ming-liang’s Tian bian yi duo yun (The Wayward Cloud) (2005). The film picks up roughly from where Tianqiao bu jianle (The Skywalk is Gone) (2002) leaves off: Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng) is now working in pornography while Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi) has returned from Paris. In a curiously wordless scene, she meets Hsiao-kang and the two become romantically involved, creating as close to a Hollywood romance as ever witnessed in a Tsai film; one scene even parallels Woody Allen and Annie Hall sweetly attempting to cook a lobster. But the deformity beneath their superficial cuteness bubbles to the surface as Hsiao-kang is unable to satisfy her sexual desires (presumably because his job as a porn star has left him dead to a healthy sexual relationship). Perhaps because Tsai taunts us with the thrill of a potentially successful romance – we’ve been cheering for their union since Ni neibian jidian (What Time is it There?) (2001) – that their inevitable inability to connect physically is that much harder to bear. In fact, The Wayward Cloud is easily Tsai’s most brutal film emotionally and physically, although it rarely hits the complexity of human desire as Aiqing wansui (Vive l’Amour) (1994) or Dong (The Hole) (1998). Tsai’s penchant for long takes manifests here in the sex scenes, in which we see Hsiao-kang jackhammering his Japanese co-star until any semblance of eroticism is long gone. The sheer physicality of sex is masterfully and humorously detailed in a scene in which the filmmakers of the porno attempt to shoot a scene of Hsiao-kang having sex in a shower, however there is a water shortage and the film crew resorts to using recycled water from bottles. Wetness and dryness, sweat and semen overwhelm the scene until the grime of urban desolation is oozing out of the film’s surface. The song and dance numbers are more impressive than they were in The Hole, partly because they exhibit a delirious sexuality far more erotic than anything in the film’s many sex scenes. These numbers are the flip-side of the film’s narrative portions: through bombastic colour, zany Mandarin pop oldies, giddy cross-dressing, expressive gestures and costumes, and melodramatic emotional brooding, they schizophrenically reveal the very real desires of people who have watched too many unreal Hollywood films. Tsai’s relationship to pornography is somewhat less enthusiastic. For him, they have betrayed the eroticism they purportedly display, and are sucking the life out of its makers. In this way, The Wayward Cloud can be read as a genre critique. While Tsai has adamantly argued (somewhat polemically, in my opinion) that his film is not pornography, it’s hard to deny that this is how many Taiwanese viewers read the film, given that “porn versus erotica” (seqing versus qingse) was at the core of popular discourse surrounding Tsai’s film, probably Taiwan’s most controversial release since Hou’s Beiqing chengshi (City of Sadness) (1989); the Q&A with Tsai and Lee following the film’s screening continued this debate. That the film starred an actual porn actress from Japan only contributed to its reading as pornography. Scholar Linda Williams has argued that the meat shot has been a staple of the stag and porn genres because they provide visual evidence to the viewer that penetration is indeed taking place (2). In The Wayward Cloud, the meat shot is constantly denied us; it is as if Tsai is willing to give us graphic, but R-rated action, yet he refuses us a central pleasure associated with pornography, namely the meat shot. However, when Tsai finally delivers it to us in the film’s final sequence, it is as disturbing, ugly, and heartbreaking as anything this side of Michael Haneke. Some critics have accused the scene of misogyny, but if read as a critique of Japanese pornography (which can be far more misogynistic than American porn), it makes sense; the difference between the misogynistic rape fantasies in mainstream pornography and the static cruelty in the last shot of The Wayward Cloud is the difference between depictions of utopian sexual union which celebrate penetration as the ultimate goal of human relations and representations of sexual contact which bring all of its contradictions, anguish, and histories to the fore.

While the festival audience seemed to enjoy The Wayward Cloud (it won the audience award for narrative feature), the general consensus in Taiwan upon its release was negative. I was tempted to accuse the local audience of not being sophisticated enough to “get” Tsai’s film, before I accepted that my personal response came from my own location as an outsider to the Taiwanese festival scene. My reading of the film through Linda Williams is already problematic because it filters the film through traditions of American pornography (3). And Taiwanese audiences haven’t had the access to his previous films to properly locate The Wayward Cloud within Tsai’s oeuvre, which Helen Bandis, Adrian Martin and Grant McDonald argue is crucial for understanding the film (4). For example, while The Hole won the critics prize at the first annual Taipei International Film Festival, at the time of this year’s festival, the film wasn’t even available on DVD or VCD. In other words, we arrive at festivals bringing our own cultural capital, comfortably equipped with our own conceptions of “international film”. To criticise another culture’s view of world cinema is as ignorant and self-centered as the tour guide in Jia Zhang-ke’s The World who looks at a miniature New York’s skyline in the Beijing theme park and proudly proclaims, “Even though the twin towers fell on September 11, we still have them.”

Endnotes

  1. The English-language review of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Zui hao de shi guang (Three Times) (2005) in Pots – Taipei’s bilingual answer to The Village Voice – shows the dissatisfaction many young locals are having with Hou’s recent films, which was the festival’s opening night film. See http://publish.pots.com.tw/english/Film/2005/07/01/366_21_film. I missed Hou’s film at the festival, but saw it later at the American Film Market, and I have to disagree with the reviewer’s assessment, which probably indicates that I’m getting old.
  2. Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible”, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1989, pp. 72–73.
  3. Which might not be completely incorrect; after all, in The Skywalk is Gone, Hsiao-kang professes his love for American pornography.
  4. Helen Bandis, Adrian Martin, and Grant McDonald, “The 400 Blow Jobs”, Rouge 7, 2005.