Taiwan Film Directors: A Treasure Island

By Jian, Yu-Jyuan | Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Taiwan Film Directors: A Treasure Island


Jian, Yu-Jyuan, Canadian Journal of Film Studies


TAIWAN FILM DIRECTORS: A TREASURE ISLAND Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh and Darrell William Davis New York: Columbia University Press, 2005, 296 pp.

Reviewed by Yu-Jyuan Jian

Through the study of selected directors and the investigation of social contexts in cultural reproduction, Taiwan Film Directors: A Treasure Island explores how the concept of Taiwan is represented and reinvented on the cinematic screen. Early sixteenth-century Portuguese traders named Taiwan "Formosa," and ever since, the image of exotic beauty has been emblazoned in the cultural memory of Taiwan. As a "treasure island," Taiwan has also been an "island of greed," namely a desirable colony in the devouring gaze of its foreign occupants. Evolving from the correlation between the colonial background and the contested nationhood of Taiwan, Taiwan Film Directors presents a storyline of Taiwan film culture since the New Cinema movement of the 1980s. With an authorshiphistoriography framework, co-authors Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh and Darrell William Davis move from historical description to in-depth analysis of directorial style and film form, effectively demythologizing the myths of national cinema and over-romanticized auteurism. As a work centering upon the cross-pollination of culture and cinema, Taiwan Film Directors remaps Taiwan film history through a strategic analysis of historiography and authorship.

Distancing itself from the homogenizing project of nationalism in cinema, Taiwan Film Directors places Taiwan film culture under the umbrella of formal analysis and historical investigation. The first two chapters, "Parallel Cinemas: Postwar History and Major Directors" and "Challenges and Controversies of the Taiwan New Cinema," explore the cinematic, cultural, and political contexts of the New Cinema Movement. As a collective movement tackling socio-political issues from indigenous perspectives, Taiwan New Cinema freed the taboo subjects of a local past from the hegemonic authorities. Partly due to the inspiration of the nativist literature of the 1970s, and partly due to the relaxation of censorship in 1983, the New Cinema movement flourished in an atmosphere of cultural liberalization and put Taiwan cinema on the world map at international film festivals in the 1980s. Instead of pinning down the New Cinema as a directordriven achievement, Yeh and Davis provide a detailed account of the collective endeavor by off-screen participants, including lesser-known artists and critics and the public, supported by interviews and biographies. In addition, by returning to the historical moment, the authors broach not only the issue of historical revision and identity politics in the change of the cultural atmosphere, but they also show how the New Cinema represented Taiwan as a "nation" through film form. As the meaning of Taiwan is open to various interpretations, the notion of national identity, always already split in itself, can be co-written by different ethnic groups through cultural reproduction. In this sense, the authors reject the generalization of national cinema and remap the multiple layers of Taiwanese identity by exploring the vestiges of lost history and cultural patrimony and by incorporating directors of diverse ethnic backgrounds.

Yeh and Davis turn to the demythologizing act of national allegories in their third chapter, "Navigating the House of Yang," which deals with the director Edward Yang. Through an overview of Yang's productions, the authors associate his visual aesthetics of time and space with historical and social specificity, thereby rebutting Fredric Jameson's generalized postmodern reading of Yang's The Terrorizes. In The Geopolitical Aesthetic Jameson fits the film into the unified world-system by positioning it as a national allegory of a post-Third World country in the age of late capitalism. With detailed research into local production factors and major Taiwan directors, Yeh and Davis demythologize the totalizing project of national allegories, while also pointing to the multifaceted nature of Taiwanese identity-including Taiwanese, Hakka, mainlanders, indigenous people, and foreigners as they are represented in cinema. …

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