Review: Saint and Sinner: Literature and Life of Chen YinJen (2010)

Saint and Sinner: Literature and Life of Chen YinJen

圣与罪  陈映真文学与人生的救赎

Taiwan, 2010, colour/b&w, 16:9, 101 mins.

Director: Zhu Quanbin 朱全斌 [Bing Chu].

Rating: 7/10.

Detailed portrait of leftist Taiwan writer Chen Yingzhen is a long overdue tribute.


Portrait of leftist Taiwan writer Chen Yingzhen (b. 1937), from his adolesence during the anti-communist White Terror, through his political radicalisation at college, to his imprisonment by the Taiwan Garrison Command during 1968-75, and his later years as a writer and publisher of Ren Jian 人间 magazine.


Now largely forgotten, even in his native Taiwan, Chen Yingzhen 陈映真 remains a major figure in the island’s literary development of the past 60 years. The feature-length documentary Saint and Sinner: Literature and Life of Chen YinJen 圣与罪  陈映真文学与人生的救赎 by Zhu Quanbin 朱全斌 [Bing Chu] on his life and career is a timely reminder of an age during the 1950-80s when Taiwan produced a stream of socially and politically engaged writers on a par with anybody else in the Chinese literary world of the time. TV producer-cum-teacher Zhu and his longtime partner, writer Han Lianglou 韩良露, adopt a purely chronological approach to Chen’s life, from his childhood in the small town of Yingge, outside Taibei, through his radicalisation during his years at Danshui’s English College (where he was captivated by 4 May Movement writers like Mao Dun 矛盾, Lao She 老舍, Lu Xun 鲁迅 and Ba Jin 巴金 in China), to his imprisonment for seven years (1968-75) as a supposed communist by the Taiwan Garrison Command and his eventual release and adaptation to an aggressively capitalist, US-dependant Taiwan.

Use of documentary footage and photos from the time, plus b&w staged scenes of excerpts from his stories and novels (one read by Chen himself), give a good idea of the island’s moods and development. Other well-known writers, like Huang Chunming 黄春明, Bai Xianyong 白先勇 and Chen Ruoxi 陈若曦, supply personal testimonies and evaluations, with an especially moving one from Cloud Gate Dance Theatre 云门舞集 founder Lin Huaimin 林怀民, who staged a modern ballet inspired by his work. Though the documentary never mentions it, Chen’s works (unlike, say, Huang’s or Bai’s) were never adapted into films during the flowering of the Taiwan New Wave during the 1980s, partly accounting for his lack of a wider profile.

By taking a purely chronological approach, the film also doubles as a social history of Taiwan during the past 50 or so years. But there’s a point during the second half where the structure and affidavits start to become repetitive: a horizontal approach could have tightened the film to a more manageable 75 minutes, as well as mentioning things like Chen’s position within Taiwan’s “native literature” 乡土文学 movement alongside writers like Huang and Wang Zhenhe 王祯和.

Chen’s reflective, naturalistic style, best fitted to the short-story format, often drew on real-life events or personal memories, and the simply but evocatively staged extracts from nine of his works (including The Generals 将军族, Oh! Susanna 哦!苏珊娜, Chunghsiao Park 忠孝公园, Backstreet 后街 and Night Fog 夜雾) give a good idea of that style. Black-and-white animation in a variety of styles (cut-out, stop-frame, pen-and-ink) also lends further variation. Now in his mid-70s, and still recuperating from two strokes, Chen was not available for interview but is seen and heard in several clips.

[Chen – real name Chen Yongshan 陈永善 – died in Beijing on 22 Nov 2016, aged 79.]


Produced by Jupiter Creative Enterprises (TW).

Script: Han Lianglou, Zhu Quanbin [Bing Chu]. Photography: Zhu Boying. Editing: Zhang Haoran. Music: Chen Jianqi. Art direction: Chen Zhihao, Ye Naijing. Costumes: Dong Yanxiu. Sound: Shen Changxun, Chen Yiwei, Cao Yuanfeng. Visual effects: Wu Chongrong, Hong Tianxian, Zhang Haoran. Animation: Hong Tianxian, Li Jingyi.

With: Jiang Xun, Chen Ruoxi, Chen Zhongtong, Bai Xianyong, Luo Yijun, Zhang Zhaotang, Lin Huaimin, Wang Haowei, Huang Chunming,
Zhong Qiao, Jiji, Yang Du, Zhou Yu, Lan Bozhou, Zhang Mingzheng, Yang Zhao, Zhong Junsheng, Hu Defu.

Premiere: Taibei Film Festival (Taipei Awards: Documentaries), 29 Jun 2010.

Release: Taiwan, 7 Feb 2011 (Public Television Service).

(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 5 Mar 2011.)