Flowers of Taipei: Taiwan New Cinema
Taiwan, 2014, colour, 16:9, 108 mins.
Director: Xie Qingling 谢庆铃.
Scrappy, celebrity-led documentary is a major lost opportunity.
Portrait of New Taiwan Cinema, from its beginning in the early 1980s to its evolution in the present day, as remembered by various film-makers, critics, programmers and artists, both Asian and western.
A massive lost opportunity lies at the heart of Flowers of Taipei: Taiwan New Cinema 光阴的故事 台湾新电影, a commissioned project by Taibei City Government’s Department of Cultural Affairs to celebrate the artistic phenomenon that took root on the island some 30 years ago. The title suggests a documentary study of the whole movement – sorely needed, given the rewriting of history that has been gradually taking place over the past decade or so. The result, directed by France-based producer and Rotterdam festival programmer Xie Qingling 谢庆铃, is a largely pointless exercise in celebrity endorsement, a parade of international names drawn from the festival circuit who, despite their considerable intelligence, appear to have little of interest to say on the subject.
Though Xie – who emigrated to France in 1988, in her early 20s – was a hired hand rather than the initiator of the project, the approach to the subject is all hers: a look at the impact of New Taiwan Cinema 30 years on, rather than a chronological history. Alas, by largely interviewing non-Taiwanese whose experience doesn’t go far beyond the two major names and their films, the documentary ends up as a repetitive series of encomiums to Hou Xiaoxian 侯孝贤 and Yang Dechang 杨德昌 [Edward Yang], along the lines of “I’ll never forget the first time I saw [fill in film title].” Such is of passing interest when coming the mouths of established directors like Kurosawa Kiyoshi 黑泽清, Koreeda Hirokazu 是枝裕和, Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯 or Tian Zhuangzhuang 田壮壮, but not enough to animate a 90-plus-minute documentary. And who, honestly, really cares whether Ai Weiwei 艾未未 was “blown away” when he first saw Hou’s films?
The only member of the original pack to be interviewed is Hou who, now in his mid-60s, admits rather sadly that New Taiwan Cinema’s effect was short-lived. There’s an honest acceptance that it was never really a cohesive movement, either artistically or politically, and soon lost its impetus as financial pressures and disintegrating friendships inevitably took their toll. Maybe that’s all there is to say on the subject, and Xie is operating from a flawed viewpoint.
Even so, there’s no discussion of New Taiwan Cinema’s real roots – which were much more complex than just a group of US film school graduates returning to make portmanteau films like In Our Time 光阴的故事 (1982) and The Sandwich Man 儿子的大玩偶 (1983) – and little discussion of film-makers like Zhang Yi 张毅, Chen Kunhou 陈坤厚, Wan Ren 万仁, Zhang Aijia 张艾嘉 [Sylvia Chang], Wang Tong 王童, Yu Kanping 虞戡平 or Zeng Zhuangxiang 曾壮祥, or intermediate film-makers like Lin Qingjie 林清介, Chen Yaoqi 陈耀圻 [Richard Chen] or Wang Jujin 王菊金 [Jo Jo Wang]. All of these, and many others, played a part in New Taiwan Cinema’s varied development, along with the encouragement of then Government Information Office 新闻局 head Song Chuyu 宋楚瑜 [James Soong].
That’s mostly because those directors’ films failed to penetrate the festival circuit in the way that Hou’s and Yang’s did – and it’s from this limited perspective that Xie, long based in France, has angled her documentary rather than from the perpective of what really happened in Taiwan. Thus, we see Asiaphile director Olivier Assayas and critic Jean-Michel Frodon in an earnest but vapid discussion in the Tuileries; former Venice festival director Marco Müller and programmer Marie-Pierre Duhamel exchanging bland thoughts in the Paris Métro; and former Cannes consultant Pierre Rissient saying almost nothing in a backstreets cafe. Both Müller and Rissient, who have interesting stories to tell, are made to look particularly superficial; other interviewees, like Malaysia-born, Taiwan-based director Cai Mingliang 蔡明亮 or Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, are artfully framed but have less to say than their carefully shot backgrounds.
The most substantial contributions come from Kore-eda, whose father was actually born in Taiwan; Japanese critic Sato Tadao 佐藤忠男, who manages at least to get in a mention of director Wan; UK critic/programmer Tony Rayns, who gives some kind of realistic perspective to the phenomenon; and Hong Kong scholar/film-maker Shu Qi 舒琪 [Shu Kei]. Given the film’s scatter-gun approach, however, it seems almost by accident that these contributions survived. The end credits list a further 20-30 people whom Xie interviewed – including Zhang, Guan Jinpeng 关锦鹏 [Stanley Kwan], Niu Chengze 钮承泽 [Doze Niu] and Xiaoye 小野 [Hsiao Yeh] (one of the major hidden figures of New Taiwan Cinema, who also co-executive produced the documentary) – but who didn’t make it into the final cut. At a time when the true story of New Taiwan Cinema needs to be told by its participants – rather than the revisionist version now current – Flowers of Taiwan does a particular disservice to the very subject it should be celebrating.
The film’s Chinese title is that of the portmanteau feature In Our Time, popularly seen as the start of New Taiwan Cinema.
Presented by Taibei City Government (TW). Produced by Rice Flower Films (TW).
Photography: Olivier Marceny. Editing: Olivier Marceny. Music: Pan American. Sound: Du Duzhi, Zeng Yanian.
With: Ai Weiwei, Asano Tadanobu, Olivier Assayas, Bao Jingjing, Marie-Pierre Duhamel, Jean-Michel Frodon, Hou Xiaoxian, Ichiyama Shozo, Jazmin Lopez, Jia Zhangke, Koreeda Hirokazu, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Luo Weiming, Lin Huaimin, Liu Xiaodong, Marco Müller, Gerardo Naumann, Tony Rayns, Martin Rejtman, Pierre Rissient, Sato Tadao, Shu Qi [Shu Kei], Tian Zhuangzhuang, Cai Mingliang, Wang Bing, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Yang Chao, Ying Liang.
Premiere: Venice Film Festival (Venice Classics: Documentaries), 3 Sep 2014.
Release: Taiwan, 6 Mar 2015.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 25 Sep 2014.)