The Oceanic Imaginary in Taiwan New Cinema (Excerpts)
Written and translated by Timmy Chen
A movement often starts by chance, so does Taiwan New Wave Cinema.
All too often, critics discuss the beginnings of Taiwan New Wave in 1982-1983 in terms of its debt to the nativist literature (xiangtu wenxue) movement of the 1970s, especially to Huang Chunming’s novels. New Wave films such as The Sandwich Man (1983), A Flower in the Raining Night (1983), and I Love Mary (Ko I-cheng, 1984) were adapted from Huang’s 'native land' (xiangtu) short stories. (On the other hand, Lu Feiyi points out that more films were adapted from modernist literature.) Emilie Yeh contends that such cinematic nativist practice pluralises Taiwanese identities by incorporating 'the other' such as lower-class laborers, Mainlanders, and aborigines into the notion of 'native land’. Taking my cue from Yeh’s notion of nativism as non-exclusivist and non-fascist, I hope to open up the inadvertently enclosed cultural imaginary of native land, rootedness, and indigeneity (Subramani) by shifting toward the connective potentiality of 'Oceanic Taiwan’. Thus, I start with the literal sense of 'Taiwan New Wave' and explore its oceanic imaginary. The oceanic imaginary in Taiwan New Cinema both divides and connects Mainland China and Taiwan (continent vs. island), Hong Kong and Taiwan (island vs. island), Taiwan and the Pescadores [Penghu] islands and Quemoy [Kinmen] (center vs. periphery within an island nation). Situated in the China-Japan-US triangle, it extends to Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Taiwan New Wave’s oceanic imaginary resonates with the aesthetic of European film modernism. It drifts between past and present, between death and life, between memory, dream, and reality. It symbolises perils and hopes. Above all, it stages encounters and separations, drifting identities and shared destinies.
Growing Up (1983) as Xiao Bi’s coming-of-age story is set in the seascape of Tamsui, Taipei. The sound of waves attends the opening credits accompanied by the melody of Kay Huang’s synthesiser title song. Chen Kun-hou builds the female bonding between the two women and the mother-son relationship through the sound of waves, lyrical popular music, and the subtle yet silent interaction between characters. While Bi is learning at school, words like 'retrocession' and 'crossing the ocean' are written on the blackboard, inscribing the connection between the juancun or military compound memory, cross-Strait relationship, and oceanic experience.
Shot in documentary style, the opening of A Flower in the Raining Night presents the activities and downtime of Nan-fang-ao Fishing Harbor in Yilan. Prostitute Bai Mei (Lu Hsiao-fen) takes the train to Jiufen. Her stream of consciousness drifts between present and past, between reality and memory. Bai Mei bumps into her old-time friend Yin Yin on the train. Yin Yin has married a Major from Shandong province, a union between Mainlander soldier and local woman like the one in Growing Up. Bai sits on the rocking train with windows open to the seascape, her thoughts shuttling between present and past. Bai talks to Yin Yin’s eight-month-old boy in a rhythmic language akin to poetry and music. The boy is too young to understand her meaning so Bai’s poetry can be understood as her longing for freedom, life, and energy that constitute the oceanic imaginary.
That Day, on the Beach (1983), co-produced by CMPC and Cinema City, employs a wave-like complex narrative structure that involves flashback within flashback. Packaged as a tale of mystery and suspense, the film tells Lin Jia-li’s (Silvia Chang) coming-of-age story. Through listening to Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto on the radio, Jia-li reunites with her professional pianist friend Ching-ching after 13 years of separation. Edward Yang freely interweaves both women’s present and past, and the past within the past. Their wave-like memories are stirred up for the audience to piece together what happened in their lives. In the denouement, however, the truth is no longer important. What matters is that both women collaborate to retrieve lost memories through the association of the 'death of husband' with oceanic imaginary. Jia-li has grown up to become a 'perfect woman' and Ching-ching can concentrate on her 'solo performance'.
Finally, I’d like to discuss Hou Hsiao-hsien’s most oceanic film The Boys from Fenggui (1983). Edward Yang rescored the film for Hou after its theatrical run, replacing Jonathan Lee’s pop title song with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Bach’s 'Air’. Through classical music, Yang makes the salty sea air Hou has captured closer to Shen Congwen’s 'distanced, detached perspective' (James Udden) as seen in Shen’s autobiography Chu Tien-wen lent Hou during shooting. The good-for-nothing boys from Fenggui, Penghu islands listen to the pulsing sound of wind and waves. They sneak into the theater to see 'erotic inserts’, but what awaits them is Italian director Visconti’s black-and-white Rocco and His Brothers (1960) dubbed in English with Chinese subtitles. (Elliot Hsieh points out the village-to-city trajectory in Visconti’s film prefigures the boys from Penghu migrating to Kaohsiung city and both films involve a triangle relationship.) To the freezing air of the third movement of Vivaldi’s 'The Winter' from Four Seasons, A-ching’s friends try to take off A-ching’s (Doze Niu Cheng-tse) pants. The four boys dance to the pulsing sound of waves. The camera pulls back to reveal they are actually teasing Yang Chin-hua. A-ching and A-jung migrate to Kaohsiung city because of a fight in Penghu. A-jung’s sister takes them to Cijin via ferry and introduces them to A-ho from Penghu and Peach from Keelung. A-ching listens to 'Lukang, the Little Town' (1982) from Lo Ta-yu’s debut album blaring out of the radio. Lo’s pop song played in loud volume and the lyrics’ reference to Lukang as 'a fishing village' connect the people from three ports (Penghu, Kaohsiung, and Keelung) and predict Peach’s taking the bus to Taipei to work, just like the narrator in Lo’s song. The second movement of Vivaldi’s 'Spring' permeates the flashback sequences of A-ching’s memory of his father before and after his funeral. A-ho is caught stealing goods from the factory and has to become a sailor. When his ship is broken, it is repaired in Japan. The ambiguous relationship between A-ching and Peach after A-ho’s departure is embodied by the return of the third movement of Vivaldi’s 'The Winter’. The indifferent nondiegetic music overwhelms a silenced fighting sequence in the Hong Kong kungfu film Drunken Master (Yuen Woo-ping, 1978) A-ching and Peach watch in the theater. Their relationship fades away in Bach’s 'Air.' Hou’s oceanic imaginary seeks to incorporate the expansiveness, sound, rhythm, air, and smell of the sea. It connects Penghu, Italy, Kaohsiung, Keelung, Lukang, Japan, Taipei, and Hong Kong while capturing the ineffable real feelings between human beings.