Thursday, August 12, 2010

Visions of Taipei in Recent Commercial Taiwanese Cinema

Chang Chen in Chung Monghong's Parking (2008).

Taiwan has a great tradition of arthouse filmmaking, strongly influenced by European postwar modernism, stretching back to the 1980s, but it's heartening to see the more commercial end of the industry also undergoing a minor revival in recent years.

The locally-produced Cape No. 7 (director Wei Te-Sheng) became the second highest grossing film in the island's history in 2008, beaten only by Titanic. Unfortunately I haven't seen that film, but in the past few weeks I have watched two other recent products of Taiwan's commercial sector on DVD – Chung Monghong's Parking (2008) and Arvin Chen's Au Revoir Taipei (2010), both part of what the Hollywood Reporter calls “the trend of new Taiwan films... [that] weave a circus of zany figures into a tapestry of multistranded stories.”

It's interesting to compare the contemporary focus of commercial Taiwanese directors with the ancient historical obsessions of their mainland counterparts. As I mentioned in my last post on Aftershock, it's rare for mainstream Chinese directors in the People's Republic to touch on the present day or the last 60 tumultuous years of China's history. The so-called Sixth Generation of filmmakers like Jia Zhangke are an important exception, which is one of things that sets their films apart. When it comes to China's multiplexes, the screens are mainly restricted to a seemingly endless stream of ancient historical epics, from Red Cliff to Hua Mulan to Confucius – to name three major titles of the past two years. As the often-acerbic and very popular young Chinese novelist and blogger Han Han wryly notes, “There has never been a country that likes making movies about things that came before the country existed the way the People’s Republic of China does.” (You can read a translation of Han Han's gleeful observance of Confucius' disappointing box office performance here.)

If Parking and Au Revoir Taipei are anything to go by – and I have to admit I haven't seen a lot of commercial Taiwanese cinema – then filmmakers across the Formosa Strait have no such qualms about depicting contemporary life, albeit via stories heavily framed by generic conventions.

Both Parking and Au Revoir Taipei play out over one night in Taiwan's capital, deploying a light noirish touch to explore the city's darkened streets and neon-lit markets. Both films straddle other genres, though Parking manages to more successfully weld its disparate elements into a cohesive whole.

Parking begins with graphic designer Chen Mo (played by Chang Chen, who among other things appeared in Wong Kar Wai's 2046) attempting to buy a cake for his wife on his way home from work. Upon returning to his car, he finds himself parked in. Entering a nearby apartment block in search of the offending vehicle's owner, Chen begins an evening of nocturnal adventures that bring him into contact with a range of unusual characters, all trapped by their circumstances and/or labouring under various forms of loss.

The meandering story draws on elements of the gangster genre and melodrama, lightly seasoned with dashes of comedy that never feel overplayed. The lives of the characters Chen meets seem to imply something about identity and the complex relations between the mainland, Taiwanese and Hong Kong Chinese communities, but it's never really clear what that “something” is.

As so often happens in multi-strand dramas, everything is neatly tied together as the film heads towards it's conclusion, with the result that the final fifteen minutes are the weakest. In fact the story is ultimately reduced to a rather pedestrian, and not very believable, domestic drama. Despite the overly pat and somewhat saccharine ending, Parking does have some great moments and provides an enjoyable peek into the tapestry of life on the nighttime streets of Taipei.

Street life: Chung Monghong's Parking.

Au Revoir Taipei, on the other hand, was a much less satisfying experience. Director Arvin Chen draws more directly on the crime genre, as the lovesick Kai (Jack Yao), who's girlfriend has left him and gone to Paris, gets entwined with a low-level crime boss and his crew of young ne'er-do-wells after he borrows money for the plane fare to Europe.

Lawrence Ko (second from left) and his crew of young ne'er-do-wells in Au Revoir Taipei.

Chen seems to take a page out of Tarantino's book with his attempts to mix crime and comedy, as he follows the inept schemes of the young wanna-be gangsters. I found their slapstick antics entirely unfunny, and the similarly silly attempts of a pair of cops to foil their plans even less so.

It really felt like Chen didn't know what he was trying to do with Au Revoir Taipei. Is the film supposed to be a light-hearted deconstruction of the gangster genre a-la early Godard? A post-modern salute to Hong Kong crime cinema? A half-ironic love letter to Taipei? A romantic comedy? It had elements of all these, but for me it didn't pull any of them off successfully.

Perhaps Au Revoir's humour simply didn't click with me – judging by the online reviews plenty of others enjoyed Chen's debut. Martyn Warren, after viewing the film at the Edinburgh Film Festival last month went so far as to say; “My overall view... is that it is definitely one of my favourite films at the Edinburgh Film Festival and does have potential to even be one of my favourite films this year.” The Wall Street Journal described Au Revoir as a "near-perfect feature."

Jack Yao and Amber Kuo in Arvin Chen's Au Revoir Taipei.

Although I didn't like Au Revoir Taipei, and didn't think Parking entirely succeeded, both films are notable attempts to evoke a distinctive screen identity for a city that has always struggled under the weight of heavy cultural and political baggage. For at least a generation, Taiwan represented a “temporary” home and stand-in for greater China for a significant section of the Chinese diaspora. The curious cultural vacuum and sense of alienation this created in Taiwan itself was the focus of a whole generation of auteurist cinema produced by older directors like Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang, both of whom were born in mainland China.

The fact that films like Au Revoir Taipei and Parking seem to take a local Taipei identity for granted perhaps reflects a cultural shift that has come with a younger generation that never knew life on the mainland. Given Taiwan's increasingly close ties with the People's Republic, and the often heated debates about the island's political future among the Taiwanese, it will be interesting to see how Taipei's screen identity evolves in the coming years.

No comments:

Post a Comment