in Taiwanese Documentary Film

Wang Mo-lin

The history of Taiwanese documentary film has progressed from being dominated by the ruling class and reduced to a tool for making social issues irrelevant, to its modern usage by the new generation to write a social history in which they themselves are established as central actors

From a contemporary perspective, Taiwan may be seen as continually concerned with the search for its own identity. Any treatment of Taiwanese history may be cast as a history of identity. As far as the Taiwanese are concerned, the fifty years under the Japanese Occupation combined with the forty years under martial law imposed by the Nationalist Party amount to what approaches a century of history - during which time they have been deprived of any sense of being the subject of history. In the case of documentary film, about the only visual sources we can see in Taiwanese film history are genres like newsreels, propaganda films, and information films.

Beginning when it took the reins of Taiwan from the Japanese in 1945, the Nationalist Party government used the "Taiwan Motion Picture Association" to shoot a series of newsreels on events including the official arrival in Taiwan of Administrator-General and Garrison Commander Ch'en I; the signing of Japan's letter of surrender by Ando [Rikichi, the last Japanese governor of Taiwan]; and the celebration of retrocession in every corner of Taiwan. After 1950, newsreels and information films on military matters were shot under the auspices of the army's "China Film Production Workshop." The "Taiwan Film Production Workshop," under the jurisdiction of the Taiwan Provincial Government, had responsibility for shooting short social information films and newsreels. Finally, the Nationalist Party's party apparatus, the "Central Film Company," primarily shot anti-Communist fiction films.

The very first appearance of a true documentary film in Taiwan would have to have been in 1966 with Ch'en Yao-chi's Liu Pi-chia. It must first be noted that this work was Ch'en Yao-chi's masters thesis from the film department at the University of California at Los Angeles and that Taiwanese society was first exposed to this work through the Association for the Production and Distribution of Experimental Film sponsored by Theater, an avant-garde cultural magazine.

However, Liu Pi-chia in fact consisted of an account of a Nationalist Party soldier who came to Taiwan in 1953 and retired from the army in 1964 to open up farmland in the mountains of Taiwan. Why did Ch'en Yao-chi [a.k.a. Richard Chen], who was off studying film in the West, deem such an ordinary, realistic subject to be important? And why was it also admired by a film magazine deeply influenced by the cultural avant-garde of the sixties in the West? Actually, the hidden subtext of Liu Pi-chia was the historical tragedy of an average person being constrained by the government, and it was the presence of this political element that acted as the common link that united the documentary film director Ch'en Yao-chi and Theater, a magazine intent on creating a culture of rebellion. At their core, the fifties were the period of "White Terror" when under government restrictions it was impossible to portray people as they were, but only mold characters full of respect for their country, for their people, or for Confucian morality. By contrast, the history of the main character, Liu Pi-chia, is suddenly changed by the dislocations of his generation, and his personal fate is jerked about mercilessly by history. In addition, due to changing political circumstances that he could not fathom, Liu Pi-chia could serve as an image of post-1945 non-native lower class Taiwanese who had escaped the Chinese Communist Party. Later, Ch'en Yao-chi was imprisoned by the government because of his participation in a reading group that studied Marxist materials.

The connection between film and society was completely severed during the forty years of martial law. Aside from Liu Pi-chia, we hardly saw any other documentary films that reflected the situation in Taiwanese society at the time. This was true to the extent that it might be said that, in comparison to plot-driven films, young people of the time lacked a complete conception of what a documentary film was. It was this way until the sixties and the appearance of television in Taiwan.

During the seventies and beyond, when documentaries were being produced in 16mm, a form of documentary film began to come into being through the medium of television. An example of this type of film is Fragrant Jewel Island, which was broadcast on television and was very well known in its time. It brought together a group of cultural workers which included novelist Huang Ch'un-ming, producer Chang Chao-t'ang, and experimental film director Wang ChÉ-chin. In terms of their creative perspective, they were chiefly modernists, and the thirteen-part Fragrant Jewel Island on which they collaborated was imbued with a strong sense of the local flavor of the Taiwanese countryside. The new generation documentary film director Lee Daw-ming said that "for the first time, Taiwanese culture received the caring attention of the movie camera." However, the unique rebelliousness of modernism was soon reduced to a humanism devoid of any perspective on social issues. The hotly contested "Nativist Literature Debate" was enacted on another cultural stage at the same time: should Taiwanese literature reflect the model of a Western modernist aesthetic sense, or the social issues which grew out of the oppression of the weaker classes in Taiwan? The questions raised by this cultural movement also provided a reappraisal of Taiwanese self-identity. It was, however, also falsely called "communistic" by the propaganda organs of the Nationalist Party.

Because Fragrant Jewel Island had received positive criticism, a 13-part sequel was made in 1980 and broadcast on television. Afterwards, films like the 1981 Too Beautiful for Words and the 1982 Journey in Images were documentaries about Taiwanese native culture, and were all artistic works that grew out of the post-seventies humanist atmosphere. In that era of martial law, social portrayals could not overstep the boundaries of safety, otherwise one might very possibly end up falsely accused of being a communist who instigated social problems. Therefore, a kind of traditional - even Narodnikist - kind of local awareness became the only outlet. This was the case with Chang Chao-t'ang, whose style might be said to have been especially surreal: the documentary films he shot were placid and devoid of controversial topics. The scope of Taiwan's documentaries was, for a long time, subject to the restrictions of martial law culture, and it was completely impossible to find a work that reflected the real issues of Taiwanese society. Only on the eve of the lifting of martial law did this aspect of documentary films under martial law gradually became more flexible.

In the eighties the cost of electronic photography had become much lower than that of film stock, and video technology also had become such that it could maintain a fixed picture quality. With the influx of popular broadcast culture, some artists realized that if they grasped the function of the mass media, they could communicate their own particular standpoint to the people. The "Green Team" was established in 1986 and used personal portable video cameras, set up on street corners or in locations where there were mass gatherings, to film documentaries that could serve as testimony from a perspective different from the one taken by official materials. In 1987, when the longstanding forty-year decree of martial law was lifted, not only the Green Team, but several other organizations were created one after another which used videocameras to film each type of social movement. Among them only the Green Team lasted very long, but the series of documentaries they shot of social movements after the lifting of martial law have become an extremely important source for those researching modern Taiwanese society.

If the legacy of the period prior to the lifting of martial law was a set of films which were "placid and devoid of controversial topics," then the period after the lifting of martial law was in fact characterized by an untrammeled shift towards the shooting of documentary films dealing with social movements. Between these two extremes there seemed to be no middle ground on which documentary filmmakers could concentrate their attention. Could these filmmakers do something other than just show this or that group holding up their fists while marching in formation and screaming out political slogans, and present the sounds of the people on this island of Taiwan through the process of making and developing images?

Take films like the Green Team's documentaries of social movements, especially from the latter period when the worker's movement was their primary subject, as in Lin Hsin-i's documentaries. It was not simply technical advances that set them apart from what had come previously, but also their use of the accumulated experience of the past. This was the case with the evolutionary narrative used in Keelung Transit Strike, which was connected completely by interviews with the wives and children of the workers, in which they narrate their strong support of their husbands and fathers. We are allowed to see the family's support and acceptance of the worker's revolutionary activities, giving us a sense of loneliness as well as warmth. Because the filmmakers clearly took a position sympathetic to the working class, these documentaries of the worker's movements demonstrate an unmistakably radical political perspective in the exposition of Taiwanese documentaries. The Green Team must be considered documentary filmmakers possessed of a strong social consciousness, especially Lin Hsin-i's later works that bear historical eyewitness for Taiwanese workers to the oppression of a flourishing economy.

From 1990 on, the appearance of Dong Cheng-liang served to recapitulate this phase in Taiwanese documentary film. Dong Cheng-liang was born in 1961 on the island of Kinmen, between Taiwan and Fujian. The identity that he derived from this determined his estrangement from Taiwan, and it has been within the context of his connection with Kinmen that he reflects on Taiwanese history. His 1993 History of the Counterattack was basically a reflection on the epoch of the Taiwanese "Mainland Counterattack" of the fifties from the perspective of Kinmen natives. As far as Taiwanese are concerned, this is a sinister history that has yet to be brought out into the open. These remembered narratives of the average person on Kinmen about the place they occupied in history, as contrasted with a documentary on the artillery bombardment, can amply bring out the blameless involvement of the average person on Kinmen in the agony that arose from this bitter segment of history. The artist himself has said:

Because these descriptions are spoken by genuine voices from the lowest levels of society, conveying their truest experiences, in the end, while spontaneously revealing their true emotions, they turn on its head the official propaganda on the historical role of the "sacred campaign" and the "glorious campaign." In these films, the glorious history has also been "counterattacked" and the voice of the people has gradually accumulated the space in which it may be set free.

In 1994, Dong completed a full-length film called Every Odd Numbered Day [to be presented at YIDFF '95] which alternated fiction and documentary styles. Those appearing in the film are all from Kinmen, playing on the one hand the roles of the dramatic characters in portions recreating Kinmen history, and on the other hand giving their individual reminiscences of days and nights spent alone hiding from artillery in the real-life parts of the film. This feature was made completely outside the commercial system, to the extent that even its funding came from an appeal to "shoot a film about hometown Kinmen." Only when average people on Kinmen had donated about a million yuan [about $40,000 US] could shooting commence. The natives of Kinmen who appeared in the film narrating their own stories were all locals who performed voluntarily. Dong Cheng-liang knew well that such a film would be difficult to secure commercial distribution for; however, if Kinmen history was to be considered a facet of Taiwanese history, he hoped that he could distribute the film underground through various channels. By doing so he could show everyone in Taiwan that Taiwanese history was not just the "February 28 Incident" and the "White Terror," but actually also the even more immediate history of the Cold War as expressed through the personal memories of these Taiwanese.

In the Taiwanese documentary films of the nineties, another filmmaker who merits consideration is Huang Ming-ch'uan, who is currently filming the documentary film series Accounts of Taiwanese Writers. The project is to focus on Taiwanese writers from the Japanese Occupation to the present in a series of recreations based on the interrelated materials of these writers, along with genuine personal narratives. The director wishes to present the writer in the process of Taiwanese history by interlocking time and space and using both the real and imaginary. Through the torturous contemplation of the process of literary creation and the presentation of the maturation process of the writer, the real meaning of Huang Ming-ch'uan's film project is to show the reexamination of self-identity being undertaken by Taiwan's new generation.

The history of Taiwanese documentary film has progressed from being dominated by the ruling class and reduced to a tool for making social issues irrelevant, to its modern usage by the new generation to write a social history in which they themselves are established as central actors. This development process is actually the process of re-invention of the search for the history of self-identity in Taiwan.

— Translated by Mark Csikszentmihalyi


Wang Mo-lin

A native of Taiwan born in the city of Tainan in 1949. A critic of non-mainstream movies, theater, and other vanguard art forms. Prior to departing to study in Japan in 1982, was a film reviewer, publishing Directors and Works (1978) and China's Film and Drama (1981). During three years spent in Japan, was influenced by the theories of Kan Takayuki. After returning to Taiwan in 1985, devoted his time to the small theater movement, promoting outdoor theater, action theater, informational theater, and other forms of vanguard theater - opening up narrative space for Taiwan's small theater movement. Published City Theater and Body (1990) and The Late Showa Japanese Image. In 1992, established the Body Phase Studio, a performance and all-purpose space. In 1994, was invited for the Hong Kong International Arts Festival's "Artist's Lecture Series," as Artist-in-Residence at the first Brussels International Arts Festival, and as Invited Lecturer and Visiting Artist at the ICA Arts Centre in London, England.