Brief history of Taiwanese Cinema
The first film was introduced to Taiwan by Toyojirō Takamatsu (高松豊次郎) in 1901 when Taiwan was still under Japanese control. Until 1937 Taiwan remained one of the largest colonial markets for the Japanese film industry.
At this stage, local cinema, mainly propaganda in nature, played an important role in trying to assimilate the Taiwanese into the Japanese empire.
Some conventions of Japanese cinema then were imported into Taiwanese cinema, such as the figure of the benshi (piān-sū), the narrator of silent films, who was particularly valued for narration and emphasis on plot. Over the years these narrators became veritable celebrities, able to attract viewers intrigued by different interpretations of films.
Among the most famous benshi of the time were Wang Yung-feng, Taiwan’s first benshi, composer and musician (composer also of Peach Girl, 1921 filmed in Shanghai), Lu Su-Shang (benshi and especially screenwriter), and Zhan Tian-Ma.
In any case, Taiwan never became a major center of film production, but rather an outlet for Japanese cinema.
Japanese efforts to integrate within the Taiwan empire are recounted in some celebrated films such as Hou Hsiao-hsien‘s A City of Sadness (1983) and The Puppetmaster (1993), and Wu-Nien-jen‘s A Borrowed Life (1994). With the end of the Chinese Civil War, numerous sympathetic filmmakers arrived in Taiwan along with nationalist forces.
In any case, the vast majority of local production was primarily in Taiwanese Hokkien, and only a virtually insignificant number of films were shot in Mandarin Chinese until at least the early 1960s. Over the years, productions in Hokkien began to decline rapidly, with the last film being made in 1981. Taiwanese cinema of the 1960s depicts a rapidly changing reality due to the economic boom and modernization.
The local cinema is dominated by romantic films, kung fu films, and melodrama, and the cinema of health realism is designed to enhance traditional moral values, which were considered cornerstones to cling to during the years of change.
The First and Second Taiwanese New Wave
Competition from Hong Kong cinema in the early 1980s began to be felt in Taiwan. The Taiwanese government, therefore, decided to actively support its talents, and the ensemble film In Our Time (1982) by Edward Yang, Te-Chen Tao, I-Chen Ko, and Yi Chang marks a milestone in the history of local cinema. Unlike the cinema of earlier eras, New Taiwanese Cinema is more introspective and deals with stories of ordinary people, often relegated to the margins of society, showing some influence from Italian neorealist cinema, which also later marked the cinematic development of Chinese cinema in the 1990s. New themes such as urbanization, the dramatic lives of the less affluent, and conflicts with political authority are told by the new Taiwanese filmmakers. The new Taiwanese cinema thus told a fascinating account of the socio-economic and political changes and transformations that the island at the time was experiencing.
Hou Hsiao-hsien‘s aforementioned A City of Sadness chronicles the story of a family caught up in the “White Terror” unleashed by the Kuomintang government on the Taiwanese people after their arrival from mainland China in the late 1940s, during which thousands of Taiwanese and recent emigrants from the Mainland were rounded up, shot, and imprisoned. The film was the first to publicly address the KMT’s authoritarian transgressions following its 1945 annexation of Taiwan, which had been returned to China following Japan’s defeat in World War II, and the first to show the February 28 Incident of 1947, in which the KMT slaughtered thousands of people.
Growing Up (1983) by Chen Kunhou tells the story of a young boy from an ordinary family forced to cope with an increasingly precarious situation.
Edward Yang‘s A Confucian Confusion (1984) and Taipei Story (1985) illustrate the conflict between traditional values and modern materialism. Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (1991), considered one of the masterpieces of cinema, tells the story of the difficulty of Taiwanese people in search of their identity.
The first wave of filmmakers was followed by a second Taiwanese New Wave, perhaps less serious and more accessible.
Ang Lee, with his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) revives the wuxia genre.
Leste Chen‘s Eternal Summer (2006), Yonfan‘s Prince of Tears (2009), and Tom Lin‘s Winds of September (2009) broke some of the last taboos in Taiwanese cinema, showing youthful suffering in dealing with their sexual identity, male nudity, and dramatic episodes of the White Terror to suppress political dissidents in Taiwan in the 1950s.
Like Hong Kong cinema, Taiwanese cinema in the late 1990s and early 2000s entered a crisis, unable to cope with million-dollar American productions.
Only with Wei Te-sheng‘s Cape No. 7 did Taiwanese cinema manage to revive itself. Cape No. 7 was a huge success, grossing nearly $18 million in Taiwan alone. The film’s success contributed to the revival of Taiwanese cinema, which grossed a few more commercial successes.
Wei Te-sheng’s next two-part film Seediq Bale (2011) turned out to be another box office and critical success.
Since this time, Taiwanese cinema has entered a rather active phase, producing films that manage to enjoy some local and international success such as Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007), Doze Niu‘s Monga (2010), Night Market Hero (2011), Love (2012), Seediq Bale (2011), David Loman (2013), etc.
To expand their audience, Taiwanese filmmakers have made an effort to attract the Mainland Chinese market. All films released there must undergo censorship, which often involves downplaying or deleting any indication that Taiwan is a different nation from China. Several Taiwanese films have had to come to this compromise by removing references to Taiwanese identities, such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin (2015) or The Wonderful Wedding (2015).