In his essay “Taipei at the Turn of the Century in Taiwan Cinema,” Lin Wenchi observes: “…Taiwan cinema…is still dominated by representations of Taipei as a city associated with illness, death, and ghosts.” (1) As if this characterization weren’t depressing enough, the director of the Spot Taiwan Film House, Wang Pai-zhang, notes that Taiwan Second Wave cinema is perceived by mainstream Taiwanese audiences as depressing, slow-moving and impenetrable. Because of this stigma, continues Pai-Zhang, the great directors of Taiwanese cinema are: “reconnus plutôt a l’étranger qu’ici,” (“more recognizable in foreign countries than here [in Taiwan]). With the exception of the recent hit Hái-kak chhit-ho (Cape No. 7, Te-Sheng Wei, 2008) he concludes, Taiwanese audiences are mainly only interested in American and, to a lesser extent, French films. (2)
Fortunately, emerging Asian filmmakers seem to be questioning the “aesthetics of death” that currently surround Taiwanese filmmaking. Arvin Chen, the Asian-American director of the 2010 film Yi ye Taibei (Au Revoir Taipei), seems to be one of these. Although Chen is not a self-proclaimed “Taiwanese filmmaker,” his successful entrance into international film festival circuit certainly raises important questions about how Taiwanese cinema might redefine itself in the coming years.
The film Au Revoir Taipei follows a standard Hollywood romantic comedy formula: Kai (Jack Yao) must deliver a package for a comical and relatively kind-hearted mobster, Brother Bao, to get the money to travel to Paris and to win back his girlfriend, Faye. As he sits on the floor of a local bookstore, Susie (Amber Kuo), a pretty girl who works at the bookstore asks him why he is studying French.
She is, of course, crestfallen when she finds out that Kai is studying French to impress his girlfriend. A bit later, thugs kidnap Kai’s friend Ji-yong so that they can blackmail Kai into handing over Brother Bao’s package. Susie, who is confused and concerned by the situation, accompanies Kai through the streets of Taipei as he attempts to rescue Ji-yong. The film ends more or less predictably: Kai rescues Ji-yong, Susie and Kai fall in love, and the package turns out to contain nothing more than a photograph of Brother Bao’s long lost love.
While the story of Au Revoir Taipei itself is not particularly unique, the film contains four major qualities that emphasize renewal over disappearance in the context of Taiwanese cinematic practice: 1) Chen’s ability, as a filmmaker, to utilize his feelings of displacement and foreignness to his advantage 2) the relatively traditional stylistic elements of the film in relation to other contemporary cinematic representations of Taipei (i.e. “what’s old is new again”) 3) Chen’s use of intertextual references to European cinematic movements (such as the French New Wave) and to other Taiwanese filmmakers such as Tsai Ming-liang, 4) and, finally, the use of language in the film, which I will return to further along in the essay.
Addressing the first point, Chen claims in a recent interview that filming in Taiwan is much easier than filming in America because Taiwan’s Government Information Office (GIO) provides a large part of the funds. He argues that such generous financial support allows for, rather than inhibits, his artistic creativity. Chen has said that he would not label his film “authentically Taiwanese” because he considers himself a foreigner to Taiwan. (3) I would argue, to the contrary, that the film is “authentic” insofar as it functions as a comment on the work of Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang in particular. Rather than turn away from or ignore the past, the film continues “the conversation” so to speak, as it raises a number of important questions: how does one define a film as either authentic or inauthentic to a culture? Even though the primary language of Au Revoir Taipei is Mandarin, it is shot entirely in Taipei, and it seems to capture the distinct spatiality of the city, the filmmaker himself does not perceive the film as “authentically Taiwanese.” Perhaps the question of authenticity becomes less and less relevant as the increasing use of intertextual practices by transnational filmmakers “levels the cinematic playing field.”
Yet the aesthetic portrayal of Taipei in Chen’s film differs in relation to other contemporary cinematic portrayals of the city. Taipei is often linked, in a cinematic context, with the superficiality and ephemeral-nature of modernity. In “Remapping Taipei,” Frederic Jameson observes that in Taiwanese New Cinema: “Taipei is…mapped and configured as a superimposed set of boxed dwelling spaces in which the characters are all in one way or another confided.” (4) For Jameson, therefore, the “non-national nation-state” (5) that is Taiwan functions as a type of analogy for our global society: Taiwan is to the world as the citizens of Taipei are to Taiwan. In the period of late capitalism, the existential angst of everyday citizens is aggravated not by an identifiable class of people, but by faceless corporations.
In an early scene of Edward Yang’s 1984 film Qing mei zhu ma (Taipei Story), for example, the protagonist, Su-Chen (Tsai Chin), and a male co-worker, wander through the architectural firm where they both work. The man gazes out of an office-building window, commenting to Su-Chen:
Look at these buildings. It’s getting harder and harder for me to distinguish which ones I designed, and which ones I did not. They all look the same; as if it doesn’t make much difference whether I exist or not. (6)
The Taipei that Yang’s camera shows is a city filled with glass revolving doors, crowded streets, cars, buses, and nondescript skyscrapers that are erected overnight. The floor-to-ceiling windows that are meant to frame Taipei’s vast skyline function instead as large, eerie reminders that human progress is often tied to stifling homogeneity.
In the style of an Antonioni film, the background edges into the foreground as human subjects become increasingly extraneous to the modern world. In the context of Taiwan New Cinema, Frederic Jameson describes a similar phenomenon as a cinematic spatiality that establishes an “insistent relationship…between the individual space and the city as a whole.” (7)
Because the skyline of Taipei is constantly under construction, it is no wonder that many Taiwanese directors such as Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang have been fixated on documenting disappearance within the city. These filmmakers do not celebrate disposability. Rather, they seem to regard Taipei’s never-ending “destruction and reconstruction” cycle with faint sadness. (8) Tsai Ming-liang in particular is preoccupied with the buildings and structures that no longer exist in Taipei, such as the Fu Ho Theatre (9) and the Taipei Train Station Skywalk. In Tsai’s 2001 film Ni na bian ji dian (What Time is it There?) the skywalk is the protagonist’s place of livelihood. The central character Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng) sells his watches on the skywalk. When this landmark is destroyed, therefore, Hsiao-kang loses his only source of income. The precarious and ephemeral nature of the skywalk is emphasized by Tsai camera work. Construction cranes threaten to take over at any moment and jackhammers drown out communication and dialogue between the protagonists. Tsai’s protagonists (10) are, therefore, relatively powerless in the face of urban environments that transform in the blink of an eye.
In the context of Chen’s film, the relationship between individual spaces and Taipei as a whole is no longer symptomatic of the postmodern existential angst that plagued Yang’s or Tsai’s protagonists. The protagonists of Chen’s film are, in many ways, bound by the spaces that they inhabit. But instead of lamenting the confinement of his characters, Chen revels in the fact that Kai cannot say “au revoir” to Taipei. Suddenly, the local is prized and the mundane romanticized. One might imagine a Tsai Ming-liang film by the same name, but with an entirely different, more negative reading of spatiality. In the context of Chen’s film, however, Taipei is beautiful, alive, and vibrant. There is not even a glimmer of hopelessness to be found. Even the bad guys turn out to be soft-hearted good guys in the end. Perhaps Chen romanticizes Taipei because he has, in a sense, fallen in love with the city. But even if we were to read nothing more into this film, we cannot ignore the overall shift in tone—away from death and towards life—that a film such as Au Revoir Taipei represents.
Chen has said that he was originally inspired to make movies by the films of the French New Wave, and these influences do manifest themselves in a number of ways in Au Revoir Taipei. In many ways, the films’ pacing is fashioned after Agnes Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7, 1962), a French New Wave film that takes place in real time over the course of two hours on the streets of Paris.
In Chen’s film, on the other hand, the majority of the action takes place over the course of one night on the streets of Taipei. As in Jean-Luc Godard’ A bout de soufflé (Breathless, 1959), the romance between Kai and Susie is stalled because of shoot-outs, close calls with the police, and chase scenes involving mobsters. Like Patricia (Jean Seberg), the female protagonist in Breathless, Susie is carefree, independent and quirky.
But Chen does not cite the French New Wave for purely nostalgic reasons. His use of language highlights the critical tone inherent to the film. The opening scene of Au Revoir Taipei, in fact, problematizes the notion of France and the French language as romantic ideals. The very first shot of the film is an establishing shot of Taipei’s skyline at night. The lilting, jazz-infused soundtrack (which includes vocals by Amber Kuo) accompanies this initial shot of Taipei’s skyscrapers, which glow pleasantly and colourfully against the night sky. The sequence of shots that follows confirms our initial impression of Taipei as a city bustling with life and warmth: dancers practice their routine in the park, and the night markets are overflowing with both locals and tourists. Although the streets are crowded, everyone shares the limited space in a sort of organized cheerful chaos. The camera lingers on buses, trains, cars, motorcycles, and walking bodies as if to demonstrate the endless modes of conveyance and open possibilities that the city has to offer. The citizens of Taipei are not trapped or confined by the spaces they inhabit; on the contrary, they move about freely at all hours of the night. The city thrives with life. The food looks delicious.
As he sadly watches Faye wordlessly depart for Paris in a taxi, Kai’s voiceover (in imperfect French) begins:
Bonjour, Faye. Vous êtes bonne? Paris est-ce bon?.Sans vous Taipei est très triste. Très très triste…je pense toujours à toi, imaginer nous sur les rues de Paris…danshi, wo meitian dou lianxi xihuan ke yi you ji hui gen ni shuo fayu. Na…jiu ni you kong da dianhua gei wo hao le. Jian jian! (11)
This sudden shift from French to Mandarin coincides with the shift from the voiceover monologue, set against the background of Taipei, to Kai speaking into the phone in his room. French is a part of Kai’s daydreams whereas Mandarin is a part of his everyday existence. The language shift is also somewhat analogous to the structure of the film as a whole. When the film begins, Kai imagines himself and Faye on the streets of Paris—this is what he associates with the ultimate romantic dream. Taipei, on the other hand, is a neutral space for Kai, a city that only exists as a point of departure. But the camera tells a different story, distinguishing the visual from the audio. Though Kai, in his voiceover, states that he imagines himself in Paris, the camera, meanwhile, shows him riding his motorcycle on the streets of Taipei. The shift back to Mandarin, therefore, is synonymous with a shift back to the “real time” of the film. Taipei represents cinematic “real time” just as Cléo’s Paris represents real time in the context of Varda’s film. Of course, unlike Varda’s Paris, there is nothing particularly depressing about Chen’s Taipei.
Despite Chen’s (or anyone else’s) claims that Au Revoir Taipei is nothing more than a cute romantic comedy set in Taipei, I would argue that the film carries an important, underlying message. The tagline from the trailer seems to sum it up the best: “If Paris is the city of love, what is Taipei the city of?” Unlike Tsai, Chen is not interested in Paris as a cinematic setting. The French language is used only as a plot device to begin the love story between Kai and Susie. Chen establishes Taipei as the “new city of romance,” while he uses Paris as a foil or red herring. The title—Au Revoir Taipei—is intentionally misleading, since Kai never leaves. Yet the plot’s sense of urgency derives from the very fact that Kai is always on the verge of leaving—“mingtian zaoshang”—a “tomorrow morning” that never comes.
Although Chen’s message could be interpreted as reactionary and, in many ways, anti-French, I would argue that Chen’s self-proclaimed identity as an Asian-American filmmaker problematizes such a simple interpretation. His status as a displaced American filmmaker in Taipei endows him, somewhat paradoxically, with a sense of freedom that he did not have while filming in Los Angeles. Like his contemporary Tsai Ming-liang, Chen is a cinephile. He mixes an impressive variety of intertextual cinematic references into his films with carefree precision, citing retro and contemporary filmmakers with equal dexterity. Au Revoir Taipei functions not only as an ode to the French New Wave, but moreover as a comment on Tsai’s What Time is it There? Kai’s character is, in many ways, a very sane version of What Time’s Hsiao-kang. While Hsiao-kang expresses his urges and desires in an immediate and physical way, Kai’s physicality—though awkward—is imbued with life. The title “Au Revoir Taipei”, therefore, is not a “goodbye to Taiwan” but, more aptly, a reactive “goodbye” to prevailing cinematic representations of Taipei as sickly and haunted.
I will return, finally to Jameson, who compares Taiwanese cinema to a recipe composed of equal parts empty space and equal parts modernity. He writes: “the urban seems propitious to [this form of cinema], infinitely assembling the empty spaces of such meetings or missed encounters; while the modern (or the romantic) seems to supply the other vital ingredient; namely, the sense of authorial function or of the omniscient social witness.” (12) Jameson’s description allows for the possibility of both missed encounters and fortunate chance meetings within the context of modern cinematic representation. Rather than pronouncing the death of “death” in Taiwanese filmmaking, therefore, I propose that Chen’s film creates an alternative, double-edged, ultimately paradoxical space in which disappearance and renewal can exist simultaneously.
- Wenchi, Lin, “Taipei at the Turn of the Century in Taiwan Cinema,” Taiwan Cinema/Le cinéma taiwanais, in Corrado Neri and Kirstie Gormley (eds.), Asian Connection Series. Lyon: Asiexpo Edition, 2009, p. 227.
- See the accompanying DVD in Neri and Gormley (2009).
- See “Worldly Desires: An Interview with Arvin Chen,” Asia Pacific Arts (3/30/2007), [http://www.asiaarts.ucla.edu/article.asp?parentid=66657]. Accessed 28 November 2010.
- Chapter 2 from his book: The Geo-Political Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System, Bloomington: Indiana University Press: 1992, p. 154.
- Jameson (1992), p. 154.
- The actual Mandarin (pinyin) is as follows: “Ni kan zhe xie fangzi. Wo yue lai yue fen bu chu tamen le shi wo she ji, bu shi wo she ji. Kan qi lai dou yi yang you wo, mei you wo, hao xiang yue lai yue bu zhong yao.” My thanks to Fontaine Lien for help with the transcription.
- Jameson (1992), p. 153
- In Hong Kong, this destructive cycle, and subsequent sadness is magnified, and has been popularized into mainstream culture, as exemplified by the animated McDull series (the central protagonist is one part angst ridden existentialist, one part cute cartoon pig).
- Tsai documents the final days of the Fu Ho Theatre in his 2003 film Goodbye Dragon Inn.
- Many of Tsai’s characters and actors, Lee Kang-sheng especially, appear and re-appear throughout his oeuvre.
- (French) Hello Faye. You are good? Paris is good? Without you Taipei is sad. Very, very sad. I always think of you and imagine us on the streets of Paris…(Mandarin) Anyway, everyday I try to learn so that I can speak French with you. Call me as soon as you can. Bye!
- Jameson (1992), p. 114.