One of the main delights on offer at festivals is the opportunity to stumble across films that might otherwise never receive the exposure they deserve. This is particularly true of documentaries that are increasingly relegated to Netflix’s eccentric collection. It’s a shame because there are real gems out there.
Flowers of Taipei: Taiwan New Cinema is one such example. It tells the story of the Taiwan New Cinema movement that emerged in the early 1980s through the impact it had on a distinguished collection of international filmmakers and experts that range from Jia Zhangke and Kore-eda Hirokazu to Olivier Assayas and Martin Rejtman. Flickfeast sat down with director Chinlin Hsieh who spoke about her initial involvement in the project, the impact Taiwan New Cinema had and just how she got hold of so many impressive contributors.
Flickfeast: This is your first film as director. What drew you to the project?
Chinlin Hsieh: I actually didn’t choose it, the project came to me. It was initiated by the city of Taipei Department of Cultural Affairs following the 30 year anniversary of Taiwan New Cinema. Someone had the idea that maybe they can do a documentary so they found a producer to put everything in place.
The producer is a friend so she came to me to talk about the project to gather ideas. We were just chatting about how I would like to see it done. I explained that I would focus on the impact 30 years later rather than tell a chronological story. It’s more interesting to look not at what happened but at what’s left. I don’t think I was the obvious choice but she must have liked my ideas as a month later she asked me to direct.
FF: What’s your own connection with Taiwan New Cinema?
CH: I worked with Hou Hsiao-Hsien at the start of my cinema life and I have crossed paths with those connected to Taiwan New Cinema since so I know some of these people. It was Taiwan New Cinema that first got me into film. I’ve never studied cinema but I’ve been a cinephile since the age of 16. My awakening happened with The Sandwich Man (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Wan Ren & Tseng Chuang-Hsiang, 1983). Watching that at 16, it triggered my cinema sensibilities and I’ve been watching ever since. It was just a habit at first though. I used to go 4-5 times a week to watch films. I never really thought about it as something I could do until I was over 30.
FF: Taiwan New Cinema is badged as a movement but as several contributors in your film attest, it’s not a coherent movement in the traditional sense with shared aims and a way of working. How would you describe it?
CH: It was a happy circumstantial event. Society at that time was very explosive in Taiwan. Something had to happen to help lead the country towards the lifting of Martial Law in 87 and the first free presidential election in 92. Taiwan New Cinema was the last movement in the chain but made more explosive because cinema is bigger and more visible. Before that, theatre and literature movements had happened, nourished by the same energy that would spark change.
The emergence of Taiwan New Cinema is the same as the Japanese New Wave in some ways. It came together in the system. In Japan you have the studios and you have to wait 30 years before you can direct films. All the masters directing tended to do expensive commercial films. But in the late 50s to early 60s American TV arrived in Japanese households. The biggest audience then, and still now for cinema, was housewives, and suddenly no one went to cinema. They were all deserted. The housewives preferred to stay at home fascinated by the wealth on TV in America as it was just after the war and they were very poor. So the studios didn’t know what to do and it was too expensive to continue to produce the same kinds of films when they didn’t bring in the audience. They started to turn to the assistants and asked them to do something different and cheap. In exchange for all kinds of budgetary conditions, they were free to choose subject matter.
Taiwan New Cinema is a very similar story. The melodramas studios used to champion didn’t work and action films were taken over by Hong Kong that did it better. And of course there was Hollywood. Nobody wanted to see Taiwanese commercial films so they turned to this new group who were in collaboration with the new literature movement centred on local stories. That’s how they started. They were put together by chance.
FF: How much collaboration occurred across projects?
CH: They worked together at the beginning but it lasted for very few years. 3 years and then it was gone. Then some of them became visible internationally and jealousy came. Hsiao-Hsien kept winning prizes overseas and Edward Yang didn’t. This is just my guess, but it’s based on what I heard from the others; directors that were in the circle but on the edge. In the beginning they were all nobody; no one knew them. There was a camaraderie that pushed them to do something but soon they weren’t together anymore.
It’s an ego thing. Very natural when you have passionate, creative people. Like the French New Wave they fought and stopped talking to each other. But they’d come together accidentally in the first place.
FF: How much impact did the films have domestically?
CH: They were a big success in the beginning but like the cohesion of the group, it dissolved very quickly. Growing Up (Chen Kunhou, 1983) and The Sandwich Man (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Wan Ren & Tseng Chuang-Hsiang, 1983) were huge successes. It was fresh so they continued. Then Hsiao-Hsien went on to star and co-write Taipei Story (Edward Yang, 1985). He had to mortgage his house to finance it and it flopped. That was in 85. The successful period only lasted 3 years.
FF: But the international impact continued on after that?
CH: Taiwan New Cinema has never been a box office success overseas either. There was that little period in Taiwan for 3 years and then nothing. The films received critical acclaim internationally and had a deep impact on other filmmakers but there was never anything significant at the box office.
FF: The list of contributors involved is quite incredible. How did you manage to get so many of the leading lights of international cinema to participate?
CH: Because of all the work I’ve done for festivals, I knew a lot of them. I’ve known Apichatpong Weerasethakul since he brought Blissfully Yours (2002) to Cannes. I came out of the screening and he was with a friend I knew so we were introduced and we’ve remained friends ever since. Many of the contributors came about like this.
FF: What was the process for deciding on contributors? Did you already know they were influenced by Taiwan New Cinema?
CH: I knew some of them were. I’m Taiwanese myself so it comes up in conversation over the years. Others I didn’t know in advance like Martin Rejtman in the Argentinian New Wave. I happened to be on a jury in a festival in 2013 over there and had a friend who told me I should meet Martin as he was deeply influenced by these films. I went to meet him and he was interested. It was a great opportunity to get him on film as I was already there so we did the interview straight way. Everyone helping me out was a director. The camera operator was a director as was the soundman. Even one of the extras in the background was a director. That was the first scene I shot.
FF: Is there anyone missing that you really wanted to include?
CH: I interviewed around 45 people in total including Wong Kar-Wai. I used half of them. Some like Kar-Wai weren’t interesting or were similar to what someone else said in a better way. It became a question of balance. I didn’t want to put in someone like Kar-Wai just because he’s Wong Kar-Wai. It’s a film about the impact of Taiwan New Cinema over the past 30 years. When you know all these filmmakers you want to interview them but I decided to be careful not to overexploit them. The interviewees in the film are only there because they had something interesting share.
FF: What state do you think the Taiwanese film industry is in today? There didn’t seem to be many Taiwanese filmmakers interviewed.
CH: I tried to interview new Taiwanese filmmakers to understand the impact of this time. I wanted to speak to young filmmakers to see if there is anything left from this glorious past – to find out if they inherited anything. I tried twice and shot 3 different groups of young filmmakers and didn’t use them at all. It just didn’t work. What they said was either uninteresting or they were too conservative and afraid to speak out. I didn’t necessarily want positive comments. It’s not the Taiwanese way though. We are a very respectful culture. I wanted to know what was left in Taiwan after 30 years but couldn’t get them to talk.
FF: There’s a bittersweet feeling to much of the film. It feels like this is a time that has now passed. Do you think these new filmmakers are producing interesting work?
CH: The Taiwanese cinema industry is back to business now. From 1985 until 2007 – 20 years – it was complete downfall. We went from 200 films in production every year to less than 20. It was a very, very dark period for the industry as there was no audience for local films. There were a couple of standouts that came after but otherwise almost nothing. You felt those that followed were completely in the shadows of the masters – as if there was no voice possible and it was just gone for 20 years. That was until 2007 when a film was produced that miraculously was a huge box office success. This was immediately followed by 2-3 others and now we are back to 60 films a year, many of them big budget. We are still digesting the aftermath of this whole period of unsuccessful connection, a period where the audience did not want to see local films.
Now there is a renaissance and people are talking about it. These new filmmakers don’t want modest budgets that allow them to make more creatively free films. Instead, they want big money to make big productions that conquer the audience. I think it’s a reaction to what happened after Taiwan New Cinema and the 20 year break between filmmakers and audience. Now they’ve finally got them back they don’t want to walk away from them.
FF: Do you think it damaged Taiwanese cinema then?
CH: Taiwan New Cinema represents a lot of paradoxical things. Those amazing years from 82-85 and the wonderful films that were made did cause damage to the industry locally because they didn’t manage to keep their connection with the audience. In the beginning they made simple accessible films but then wanted to affirm their individuality which is natural. We are talking about auteurs who want to evolve. Hsiao-Hsien says that in a film you have to turn your back to the audience. When you are making a film you shouldn’t think about them. If you think of film as an art form and not a product of commerce you think about what you want and not profit. So they started with simple films but wanted to go deeper and soon started to detach and make films the audience couldn’t follow.
FF: So they were held back when they were perceived to be difficult?
CH: Many stopped making films completely. Only Hsiao-Hsien and Yang could continue because they had enough international exposure. This is why Hsiao-Hsien got money from abroad and not Taiwan. There was no more money domestically for these filmmakers. Many of the others that tried eventually gave up. It was just Hsiao-Hsien and Yang.
Flickfeast would like to thank Chinlin for taking the time to speak with us. Flowers of Taipei: New Taiwan Cinema premiered at the 71st Venice International Film Festival on 3rd September. Our review can be found here.