A Beginner’s Guide to New Taiwanese Cinema

Image courtesy of Janus Films.

(NOTE: A version of this article was published here.)

In many respects, Taiwan, or the Republic of China, is a country that doesn’t carry much weight. While not insignificant, for instance, its total GDP is much smaller than the GDPs of many of its East Asian neighbors. And diplomatically, Taiwan has grown increasingly isolated on the international stage. Whereas Taiwan had official diplomatic relations with almost 70 states back in the late 1960s, only 17 states currently still recognize the Taiwanese government as the legitimate representative of the Chinese people.

Contrary to what its political and economic impotence might suggest, however, there is one area in which Taiwan has played a hugely important role: cinema. During the 1980s and 1990s, Taiwanese directors like Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-liang, and Ang Lee made films that repeatedly won awards, acclaim, and recognition at international festivals. (As Oscar nerds know, Lee also went on to win the Academy Award for Best Director – twice!) In surveys, moreover, critics continue to rank the works of these directors as some of the finest ever made.

This article will offer a primer on these Taiwanese films, which collectively constitute what critics have variously called the “New Taiwanese Cinema,” the “Taiwan New Cinema,” or the “Taiwanese New Wave.” After describing the history of the movement, this article will also explain and illustrate some of the movement’s defining thematic and stylistic features. It will conclude with some suggestions for where to start with these films.

(A note on terminology: phrases like “New Taiwanese Cinema” and the “Taiwanese New Wave” can refer to several different things. Some use them to refer to only the films of directors like Hou and Yang, while others use them to specifically reference the films that Hou and Yang made in the years before the publication of the Taiwan Cinema Manifesto [more on that below]. This article will use the term “New Taiwanese Cinema,” and it defines it as encompassing all the films that Hou, Yang, Tsai, and other like-minded directors made throughout the 1980s and 1990s.)

Image courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

“Pre-New” Taiwanese Cinema

In the years preceding the New Taiwanese movement, mainstream Taiwanese cinema was defined by commercially oriented filmmaking. To begin with, the Hong Kong film industry viewed Taiwan as both an important market and a good place to produce films. In the 1960s and 1970s, King Hu, a notable wuxia director, made several of his best-known works (e.g. Dragon Inn) in Taiwan, and Bruce Lee’s films were always hits at the Taiwanese box office.

Hong Kong’s influence aside, Taiwan’s cinematic landscape was dominated by the Central Motion Picture Corporation (CMPC), a state-sponsored studio. Among many other things, the CMPC was well known for bankrolling so-called “Chiung Yao movies” – namely, melodramas based on the novels of the eponymous Taiwanese author – and “healthy realist” films, which offered sentimentalized depictions of poverty and interpersonal conflict. Frequently, moreover, the CMPC also produced patriotic films that glorified the Taiwanese government, like The Kinmen Bombs and The Sunset in Geneva.

In many ways, these films were heavily shaped by their historical context. Specifically, during the decades in which they were made, Taiwan was an authoritarian, one-party state in which the ruling party, the Kuomintang (KMT), presided over a strict system of censorship. In the early 1980s, this system of censorship was relaxed somewhat. But before then, its presence – plus the climate of fear that it helped foster – ensured that CMPC films always “played it safe” in terms of aesthetics and subject matter.

The Taiwan Cinema Manifesto

A sign that things were changing in Taiwanese cinema came in early 1987, when 54 Taiwanese filmmakers (Hou and Yang among them) signed a filmmaking manifesto that was published in two major Chinese-language periodicals. Although this “Taiwan Cinema Manifesto” appeared several years after directors like Hou and Yang started making films, it nevertheless provides a good representation of the aesthetic, political, and economic concerns of New Taiwanese filmmakers.

In the manifesto, the 54 New Taiwanese filmmakers expressed three major concerns. First, they criticized the Taiwanese government for its policies towards filmmaking, claiming that it was more interested in promoting “political propaganda” and “commercial filmmaking” than “cultural activities.” Second, the 54 signers also criticized the mass media for its refusal to treat cinema as an important part of artistic culture. And third, they also attacked Taiwanese film critics, asserting that said critics tended to “support the idea that Taiwanese films should emulate those of Hong Kong and Hollywood.”

It’s tempting to group the Taiwan Cinema Manifesto with other new wave manifestos, like the New American Cinema Manifesto and the Oberhausen Manifesto. Yet while these various manifestos definitely have similarities – a dislike of “mainstream” filmmaking, as well as a rejection of the profit motive – the Taiwan Cinema Manifesto also embodies uniquely Taiwanese concerns. Specifically, its concerns about Hong Kong and propaganda speak to the particular sociopolitical conditions that characterized Taiwan during the ’70s and ’80s.

The Two “Waves” of New Taiwanese Cinema

Coincidentally or not, it wasn’t long after the Taiwan Cinema Manifesto’s publication that Taiwanese filmmakers started winning major international recognition. In 1989, for instance, Hou’s A City of Sadness won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and four years later, his film The Puppetmaster also won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Similarly, Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day won several awards at international film festivals upon its release in 1991.

Generally speaking, historians divide the “New Taiwanese Cinema” movement into two chronologically distinct phases. Emerging during the 1980s, the first phase is sometimes called the “First Taiwanese New Wave,” and it encompassed the films of directors like Hou and Yang. Meanwhile, the second phase, which is creatively referred to as the “Second New Wave,” kicked off in the 1990s, and it is typically understood to include directors like Tsai and Lee.

Image courtesy of Artificial Eye.

Defining Features

While each New Taiwanese director has a unique worldview and style, their films still have a fair number of things in common. Here’s a look at some of these similarities:

Taboo Subject Matter 

The best-known New Taiwanese films are defined by their willingness to discuss sensitive topics in Taiwanese history. For instance, A City of Sadness is about the February 28 Incident, a three-month period in 1947 during which Taiwanese authorities arrested and killed thousands of real and suspected dissidents. Similarly, A Brighter Summer Day depicts the White Terror, the 38-year period (1949-1987) during which Taiwanese people lived under martial law.

In keeping with the Taiwan Cinema Manifesto’s concerns about “political propaganda,” moreover, these taboo-breaking films often also offer implicit critiques of authority. Shots in these films are filled with concrete, apparently impressive reminders of the ruling KMT’s existence, like official portraits of longtime president Chiang Kai-shek (A Brighter Summer Day) and solemn KMT radio broadcasts (A City of Sadness). In each case, however, the narrative context makes these objects’ presence seem somewhat ironic, suggesting that their stateliness belies the harsh, gruesome reality of daily life under the KMT.

Urban Settings

In many New Taiwanese films, particularly those of Tsai and Yang, shots often showcase urban environments. In Tsai’s Rebels of the Neon God and Vive L’Amour, for instance, there are many long shots in which the characters are simply shown wandering or driving through parts of downtown Taipei. Similarly, Yang’s Taipei Story and Terrorizers both feature characters who work and talk against backdrops of skyscrapers, rows of new housing developments, and empty office buildings.

This focus on urban environments isn’t coincidental. In the 1980s, the KMT lifted restrictions on trade and foreign investment, a decision that accelerated the pace of globalization – and, by extension, urbanization as well – in Taiwan. Some have argued that by foregrounding urban environments in their films, New Taiwanese directors were trying to grapple with the effects of this accelerated urbanization, particularly its impact on understandings of the relationship between people and space.

Undramatic Narratives

As you might have garnered already, New Taiwanese films aren’t exactly action-packed. If you weren’t in a charitable mood, for instance, you could say that films like Rebels of the Neon God and Vive L’Amour are really just about a bunch of people who look sad, wander around impersonal city landscapes, and feel that life is pointless.

Granted, not all New Taiwanese films have such low-key narratives. But even New Taiwanese films with narrative material take pains not to melodramatize it. For example, A Brighter Summer Day is ostensibly based on a true story about a teenage boy who brazenly murdered his girlfriend on a public street. But while a Hollywood film would have turned this incident into the subject of a suspenseful thriller, A Brighter Summer Day treats it as a mere afterthought. The film only gets around to showing the murder after spending almost four hours depicting the daily life of teenagers, and as a result, the murder feels decidedly anti-climactic.

One can think of New Taiwanese films’ lack of narrative as one way in which they sought to distinguish themselves from their Hollywood and Hong Kong counterparts. More generally, this lack of narrative also speaks to the underlying intentions of New Taiwanese filmmakers. They weren’t so much interested in telling stories as they were in evoking, analyzing, and critiquing an atmosphere and way of life.

Image courtesy of Sinomovie.

Austere Appearance

Stylistically speaking, New Taiwanese films tend to have what you could call an austere appearance. Instead of featuring frequent cuts, scenes are often shot as long takes. Generally speaking, moreover, camera movements are used economically: in some of Hou’s films (e.g. The Puppetmaster), in fact, the camera remains completely still during a majority of the scenes. Lastly, when it comes to their score, New Taiwanese films use non-diegetic music in a much more selective manner than mainstream films.

As with these films’ lack of narrative, this austere style counters the aesthetic of commercial films from Hollywood or Hong Kong, which even now tend to feature fast editing, omnipresent background music, and fairly mobile cameras. More significantly, however, New Taiwanese films’ aesthetic also offers psychological insight into their characters. Similarly to Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, in other words, the style of New Taiwanese films speaks to feelings of helplessness and purposelessness, suggesting that greater political and economic trends have left the characters in a sort of spiritual crisis.

Rigid Mise-en-scène

In keeping with the austerity of their cinematography and use of music, New Taiwanese films typically also feature geometric mise-en-scène. To put it another way, many New Taiwanese films have scenes that are set in the interiors of traditional Japanese-style homes (e.g. A City of Sadness, The Puppetmaster, Growing Up, A Brighter Summer Day) or the interiors of modern apartments (e.g. Taipei Story, Terrorizers, Vive L’Amour). In either case, the interiors tend to be characterized by rectangular wall panels, parallel lines, and clearly defined divisions between one room and the next.

Among many other things, you could say that this emphasis on rectilinear interiors serves two purposes. First, the presence of Japanese-style homes is another way in which New Taiwanese films grapple with Taiwanese history – specifically, the 50 years that Taiwan spent as a Japanese colony. Furthermore, in many New Taiwanese films, the rectilinear interiors also speak to repressed discontent, symbolizing a stifling bourgeois system of values that leaves characters feeling both frustrated and alienated. 

Dislike of Character Close-ups

Finally, New Taiwanese films usually don’t include many close-ups of characters’ faces. Rather, these films prefer to shoot their characters in such a way that we also see what environment the characters are located in, whether it’s an apartment, an office building, or a city street. This proves particularly true in Hou’s films: in works like A Time to Live and a Time to Die, The Puppetmaster, and Good Men, Good Women, the characters are often dwarfed by whatever landscape or interior they’re located in.

In keeping with their anti-climactic narratives, New Taiwanese films avoid close-ups partially as a way of eschewing “drama,” seeing as detailed shots of characters’ faces inherently heighten or emphasize whatever emotions the characters are feeling. Additionally, by making the characters seem unimportant and tiny, the use of non-close-up shots suggests a certain insignificance on the characters’ part, as though they were deindividualized cogs in a vast and indifferent society.

Image courtesy of Strand Releasing.

Where to Start

If you’re completely unfamiliar with New Taiwanese Cinema, the best place to start would be Chen Kunhou’s Growing Up, which is currently available on Amazon Prime. One of the earliest works in the movement, the film features a lot of the techniques (e.g. long takes) and thematic preoccupations (e.g. alienation) that would go on to characterize the movement as a whole. But the film’s traditional narrative structure makes it a lot more approachable than later, better-known New Taiwanese works.

Once you’ve seen Growing Up, the next film you ought to tackle is Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day. In many ways a more “mature” version of Growing Up, A Brighter Summer Day is probably the single best film to come out of the New Taiwanese movement, combining a universal depiction of teenage anxiety with a searing portrayal of modern Taiwanese history. Fortunately for us digital-age viewers, the film is available to stream on several platforms, including YouTube, Amazon Prime, and Google Play.

After A Brighter Summer Day, there are many directions in which you could go. You could watch more of Yang’s films: many of his works are hard to find, but his Terrorizers and Yi Yi can both be streamed online. If you have access to a good library of DVDs, you should definitely also check out Hou’s films, particularly A City of Sadness; The Puppetmaster; Good Men, Good Women; and Goodbye South, Goodbye.

However you go about watching New Taiwanese films, you’d be well advised to start with something other than Tsai Ming-liang’s films. Important and meaningful as they are, Tsai’s works are not easy to watch, partially because they usually don’t have much in the way of narrative. (Some of them, like The River, are also quite grisly, graphically dealing with topics like incest and sexual frustration.) Put simply, you have to have a fair amount of intellectual and emotional stamina to be able to watch Tsai’s films.

Further Reading

If you’re interested in learning more about Taiwanese cinema, here are some books you can read on the subject. Note that some of the entries on this list are geared towards academics:

Anderson, John. Edward Yang. Contemporary Film Directors. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2005.

Berry, Chris and Fei Lu, editors. Island on the Edge: Taiwan New Cinema and After. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2005.

Roy, Denny. Taiwan: A Political History. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003.

Tweedie, James. The Age of New Waves: Art Cinema and the Staging of Globalization. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Yeh, Emilie Yueh-Yu and Darrell William Davis. Taiwan Film Directors: A Treasure Island. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Yip, June. Envisioning Taiwan: Fiction, Cinema, and the Nation in the Cultural Imaginary. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.