Back in college, I took a few film classes, but none of them ever mentioned Taiwan. So, I recently decided to look for something that could help me better understand the symbolism and imagery that is unique to Taiwanese films. Luckily, I stumbled upon a wonderful interview with Guo-Juin Hong, a professor of Chinese Cultural Studies at Duke University. He is the author of Taiwan Cinema: A Contested Nation on Screen, the first English language book to attempt to cover the entire history of Taiwanese cinema. I knew I just had to read it.
Throughout the book, Professor Hong acts like an anthropologist digging into several films that he believes to be representative of certain key periods of Taiwan’s film history. He breaks down the cinematography, storytelling, images, themes, settings, and various other intentional choices to explain how and why each of his chosen films exemplifies qualities that are unique to a Taiwanese narrative. To be sure, Professor Hong’s goals with this book are ambitious.
Overall, I’d recommend this book for any serious film student looking to expand their knowledge of Taiwan-specific genres and styles. I also think it would be a great addition to any course on Taiwanese cinema (or Sino- or world cinema for that matter). But make sure you have access to some of the films before you start reading.
What’s the point of the book?
The book’s central question is “What is Taiwan’s national cinema?” Professor Hong argues, among other things, to answer this question you have to think about how the idea of Taiwan as a “nation” has been shaped historically, socially through discourse, and through cinema. Then he goes on to present a slice of the complexity that is Taiwan’s history—and the various influences from China, Japan, and the rest of the world.
What makes this book unique?
There aren’t a lot of books that focus exclusively on Taiwanese film. When they do, as Professor Hong points out early in the book, they often center on Taiwanese iconic filmmakers, treating them as a stand in for Taiwan itself. It was also unexpected (but helpful) to learn about the role early propaganda films played in shaping Taiwan’s national cinema.
What does this book do well?
Professor Hong does a good job dissecting each film. He very clearly lays out the archetypes and devices (plots, characters, music choice, camera angles, themes). He situates each film within Taiwan’s historical context to explain two things: how cinema has shaped Taiwan’s identity as a nation and how Taiwan’s evolving identity shaped its cinema.
The book is well-sourced with a very intriguing bibliography. (Nerd alert?) As a “first” book of its kind, it does a great job suggesting questions for future work on the subject. But most importantly, Professor Hong comes off as extremely balanced in summarizing Taiwan’s complicated “national history.”
What makes this book difficult?
Taiwan Cinema was written to be accessible to an audience that has little to no real exposure to the subject matter. Professor Hong assures you that you don’t have to be an aspiring Taiwan historian to understand the films. He also supplies the necessary context along the way, as well as detailed descriptions of the films.
Unfortunately, no matter how elaborate the descriptions are, there are moments when not being familiar with the film makes it harder to follow the point Professor Hong is trying to make. Back in August, I saw several Taiwanese films during the Taiwan film fest here in Chicago. When Professor Hong described familiar films, I could easily connect the imagery, recall the scenes and camera transitions, and appreciate his commentary. Needless to say, I really wanted to see the other films. But sadly, a lot of films mentioned are not easily available online, through stores, or locally.
The ideal audience for this book is any serious student of cinema (whether you are a college film major, an academic, or a film geek). It’s not meant to be a casual read, but a critical one. The language can be fairly technical and focus on minutia like title typography or the use of color. Although these details help his point, they are definitely not for everyone.
What did I learn?
Of course, I was grateful that Taiwan Cinema helped me create a “Must See Taiwanese Film” list. But the book had a lot more value than that for me. I feel like I have a more refined and complicated understanding of tensions and plot devices in both film and television—“high” and “low” types of entertainment, because I can see certain relationships that never occurred to me before.
I learned some interesting history/trivia. For example, I never knew the “Golden Horse” film awards were named to convey a political message about the Chinese nation in Taiwan. I had also never thought much about the overused rich-city-boy-meets-poor-
I’m really glad I read the book. And I’d certainly recommend it. But, I’m obviously going to have to find a way to watch more of the films to cement my understanding.