Taiwan is one of the few countries that managed to suppress the spread of COVID-19 very early on, drawing from the traumatic experience of the early 2000s SARS epidemic that severely plagued the island. After a few months spent trying to schedule home editions of various film festivals and dealing with FOMO, the prospect of participating in an offline event such as the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival was intoxicating to me. The government is still very cautious about large public gatherings and restricts all inbound travels, but this attitude allowed the festival, in its 57th edition, to be held exclusively in the physical format. Though the awarded filmmakers did not have the chance to show their bookshelves in the background while giving thank you speech from their home office, the festival was not as pandemic-free as I imagined it would be.
As I boarded an almost empty plane from Amsterdam to Taipei, I couldn’t recall how it felt to be safe and at ease in a public space. The flight felt like a voyage to another dimension, to the world as it was before 2020. I admit that visiting family was partly an excuse to be able to attend Golden Horse and quarantine upon arrival was a perfectly acceptable price to pay to be able to sit in a cinema full of people, to share the space and the atmosphere of the event. Soon I found out I was not alone in my two-week isolation, which surprisingly became a part of the festival experience. Among the few filmmakers who decided to undergo quarantine there was Hirokazu Kore-eda, who came to Taipei to personally give Hou Hsiao-hsien the Lifetime Achievement Award. In his introductory speech, Kore-eda called himself one of Hou’s sons and expressed regret that some of his other children could not come to Taipei to honour him. As I had been reading Jia Zhangke’s essays, I thought that he might be one that Kore-eda was referring to. Even without the pandemic, Jia’s attendance at the Golden Horse would be difficult. Last year the Chinese government ordered a boycott of the festival, forbidding Mainland and Hong Kong filmmakers to participate. The ban continued this year but the lack of Mainland titles in the program made space for Southeast Asian Chinese-language films, often in co-production with Taiwan via the Golden Horse Film Promotion Project.
One such film was the Malaysian Nanwu (The Story of Southern Islet) which won the FIPRESCI prize and brought the award for Best New Director to Chong Keat-aun. Except for the works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Southeast Asian folklore has not fully entered the international film festival audience’s collective consciousness (if such a thing exists) yet, remaining in the regional or national mainstream and occasionally landing in the programs of specialised film festivals. The Story of Southern Islet explores folk culture without turning it into an item of national identity. On the contrary, by focusing on the story of a Chinese woman who reaches out to Malay shamans to help save her husband’s life, Chong stays close to the realities of everyday Malaysian life, where different ethnic groups live beside each other, even though they are not necessarily willing to interact. Chong grew up in Kedah state in Northern Malaysia near the border with Thailand. During the Q&A he shared with the audience his memories of watching Hong Kong films as well as the works of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang with Thai voiceover, since he could receive the signal from several of Thailand’s television channels. This idea of shared a heritage stretching from Southern China through Taiwan and across Southeast Asian countries is seen in the film from the Chinese perspective. The film tells the story of the mysterious character of a nameless young woman, who seems to be the spirit of a Chinese princess who several centuries ago was sent overseas to marry the ruler of one of Malaya’s states. After she died, her story morphed into a legend, and her identity was re-appropriated according to local needs, turning the Chinese princess into a mountain deity. Uncovering forgotten histories of transnational connections is something filmmakers love to do and indeed this urge might be the perfect antidote for the nationalist and isolationist tendencies amplified by the outbreak of the pandemic.
Chong and producer Tan Ban-sern also undertook quarantine in Taiwan to attend the world premiere of their film and the Golden Horse award ceremony. After the screening I was present at, instead of Q&A, a couple of festival volunteers recorded short videos of audience members who wanted to share their thoughts or just say hello to the filmmakers still locked in their hotel rooms. I imagine watching the clips must have felt like finding archival footage from a distant past, in which people were still able to gather en masse in celebration, not only in protest.
These recordings, the audience choice award voting ballots and the message boards1 were for me the only traces of a feeling of community at the festival. There were no festival bags, strange merchandise, or press passes for the film screenings, only for the awards ceremony. Without these usual branded festival markers it was impossible to strike a conversation with a stranger on the streets and start talking about the films we had seen, as one might normally do during a festival. Surprisingly, I found myself feeling closer to the two people who carried the same International Film Festival Rotterdam 2020 backpack I did than to the person sitting next to me at a screening. However, I felt I could not talk to these IFFR veterans either, because it would reveal the slight desperation in the attempt to connect. There are festivals and festival experiences.
My best memory from the 2020 Golden Horse would be recording the short message for the director of Yi shi yi shi de (Sometime, Sometime), Jacky Yeap, who was still in quarantine. In my regrettably toneless Mandarin, I tried to briefly express my thoughts in words without letting the film critic in me take over. Sometime, Sometime revolves around a mother-son relationship shown through a series of everyday errands such as grocery shopping, dinners and walks around the neighbourhood. Teenage Zi Kien is an aspiring filmmaker, who has just finished high school and is looking for a summer job before he enters university. He lives with his mother, Ah Lin, who is a sales clerk at a department store. One day she suddenly brings a man to the family dinner and soon Zi Kien realises that he might have to now make space for the third person in their daily routine, however difficult it is. Sometime, Sometime shows a glimpse of the process of becoming an adult by starting to see grown-ups as fellow human beings, rather than guardians. Tackling the notion of masculinity is one of the trials along the way. There are several hilarious scenes in which the father figures try to share their wisdom with Zi Kien, which he then chooses to repeat once, but confronted by the female classmate about how ridiculous he sounds he eventually gives up. The film is bookended of scenes of the back of the head of Zi Kien as he waits for an elevator in his apartment building. The two moments echo Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (A One and a Two), in which the photos of the back of one’s head were supposed to reveal the fragments of reality that the person is not aware of and unable to perceive. In his debut film, Yeap combines humour with self-reflection and meditation on human relationships. The 28 year-old filmmaker also plays the main role alongside Tan Chui Mui, acclaimed Malaysian director and producer, who is Yeap’s mentor as well as employer in real life. There is a real DIY spirit and sense of cinephilia behind Sometime, Sometime, also reflected in the incorporation of Zi Kien’s amateur film into the narrative. It blurs the boundary between fiction and reality, revealing much about the main character but also about the self-aware filmmaker himself.
Fiction and reality merge even more closely in Hulan san xiao (Bluffing, 2005) and this year’s Tongxue mainasi (Classmates Minus). Both directed by Huang Hsin-yao, they can be viewed as complementary as well as stand-alone works, but while watched in a double bill they reveal the process of storytelling, turning real life events into cinema. The earlier film is a home video style documentary in which Huang archives the lives of his close school friends who are in their early 30s as they deal with the challenges of adulthood. The camera accompanies their discussions which revolve around apartment buying, office conflicts, wedding plans, paying up high-rate loans or trying to evade it by attempting suicide in a sauna. All sorts of strange stories are narrated at the regular hangout spot until a tragic accident ends the everyday provincial town utopia. The real-life situations in Bluffing are the point of departure for Classmates Minus, which incorporates more and more fictional elements as the story progresses, where Huang’s alter ego runs for election for a position in provincial government. Working as a documentary filmmaker for most of his career, Huang was very self-conscious about the success of his first fiction film, Dafo pulasi (The Great Buddha +, 2017), and the influence of market demands on creative work. In his follow up film, he once again manages to probe at the core of Taiwanese reality through the depiction of the election campaign. Now, whenever I walk through Taipei and see countless highly photoshopped election posters featuring the young, the beautiful, and the rich, I cannot help but to see it through the lens of Classmates Minus. The film opened this year’s Golden Horse and became an overnight box office success after its theatrical release, bringing attention to the fact that local audiences no longer view domestic independent films as low quality or incomprehensible art, but are in fact eager to see Taiwanese reality on screen.
Classmates Minus and Bluffing also document Huang’s life-long cinephilia and dream to make films. Another film in the Golden Horse program, Man Lim-chung’s Hou hou paak din jing (Keep Rolling), explores these topics to the fullest in a portrait of revered Hong Kong film director, Ann Hui, who this year was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Venice Film Festival. The documentary consists of a series of interviews with industry professionals, film scholars, co-workers and family. The potential mundanity of such a format is countered by the inclusion of Hui herself, chatting about her life experiences, attitude towards filmmaking and continuous work. Keep Rolling becomes a reflection on the way the Hong Kong film industry has changed in the last five decades, from the studio system of the late 1960s through the rise of the New Wave up until the influx of Chinese investment. The camera accompanies the 70 year-old filmmaker on a strenuous tour on the Mainland when she was promoting her 2017 film, Ming yue ji shi you (Our Time Will Come). For most of the film Hui is full of energy and wit, however, having dedicated her whole life to filmmaking, she sometimes asks herself how long she can continue working and what the future might bring. Keep Rolling is not just another solemn tribute, but an intimate look at the continuous pursuit of filmmaking by one already so established.
Yuan weiyang (Unfulfilled Dreams) explores a similar topic, also employing the “talking-heads” style in narrating the story, but the outcome is different. Directed by Chu T’ien-wen, Taiwanese writer and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s long-time collaborator, the documentary focuses on her father, Chu Hsi-xining, a famous writer and an intellectual who fought in the Nationalist army during the civil war in China and retreated to Taiwan alongside Chiang Kai-shek after the Communist victory in the Mainland. Chu begins by narrating the story of both of her parents, focusing also on her mother, Liu Musha, who was a Taiwanese translator of Japanese literary works and a writer. However, soon Chu focuses fully on her father, treating the figure of her mother in an anecdotal manner, recalling that she used to interrupt her husband’s creative process to ask how to write one of the more complicated Chinese characters. Chu addresses only her father’s unfulfilled dream and it is only in the end credits that she lists the numerous works translated by her mother. Is translation not a creative work worth celebrating? As a Taiwanese woman marrying a man from the Mainland, what was Liu’s own unfulfilled dream? The film turns into an eulogy for Chu Hsi-xining and the film premiere was attended by many famous Taiwan literary figures such as Chang Ta-chun. Still, Unfulfilled Dream also becomes a celebration of Chu T’ien-wen’s contribution to cinema, after years of writing screenplays for Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films. The moment I will remember the most from the premiere night is the scene I accidentally witnessed in the bathroom. An American woman kept saying to Chu T’ien-wen that she knows all her works and how the writer is Taiwan’s national treasure. Cinema proved to be Taiwan’s major soft power and it turns out I am one of the examples of its effectiveness, since the main reason why I first came to Taipei was Edward Yang’s Duli shidai (A Confucian Confusion, 1994).2
Produced for the occasion of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the tribute video showed Hou, Chu T’ien-wen, actress Shu Qi and actor Chang Chen discussing Hou’s next project, Shulan he (Shulan River), an adaptation of Hsieh Hai-meng’s book about Taipei’s waterways. For the last decade, Hou has been devoting his time to mentor the younger generation of filmmakers and serve as an executive producer of some of their films. In 2009 he founded Golden Horse Film Academy and some of its alumni, such as Midi Z, Qiu Sheng and Hu Bo have already left their mark on global art cinema. After 57 years, the Golden Horse Film Festival continues to be a haven of Chinese-language cinemas and the lack of Mainland titles have opened a window on Southeast Asian productions that are full of unique stories that celebrate hybrid identities and transnational cultural heritage. As utopian as it sounds in the times of the pandemic when the mobility is severely restrained, the idea lives on in the cinema in which we can always try to find refuge.
Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival
5-22 November, 2020
Festival website: https://www.goldenhorse.org.tw/?r=en
- Returning tickets was possible up to three days before a screening, so almost all of the messages pasted on message boards by festival-goers were announcements of tickets available to be passed on or re-sold. However, sometimes there were short notes commenting on the film or other miscellaneous ads promoting film websites or social media accounts. On the bulletin board there was information on schedule changes such as additional or cancelled screenings. Surprisingly, these announcements were not posted anywhere online, leaving the Golden Horse social media accounts focused solely on premiere screenings with guests in attendance, going to the extreme on the evening of the award ceremony during which posts from the red carpet and the stage were published literally each minute. It reveals the strange duality of the event, leaving the festival in the shadow of the awards. ↩
- Even though I eventually fell in love with most of Yang’s films, this often-overlooked work initially electrified my imagination because of its title. When I finally got the chance to see it I felt such a powerful connection to the motionless cinematography that grasped so many stories within a single frame, and presented characters often haunted by their own middle class identity, from which they can’t break free. ↩