Flowers of Taipei: New Taiwanese Cinema (Taiwan 2014)

The directors associated with Taiwan New Cinema in the 1980s. (from left) Wu Nian-Chen, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, Chen Guo-Fu and Chang Hung-Chih

Taiwan New Cinema (sometimes abbreviated to TNC) is arguably one of the most rarefied of film movements, especially if you are in the UK where some of the important films have been very hard to see until quite recently. But although in strict terms represented by only a small group of films made between 1982 and 1986, the filmmakers concerned have since had a seemingly disproportionate influence on other filmmakers, especially elsewhere in East Asia. I’m not going to explain the whole background here. It is already very well-presented on the ‘Cinema of the World website‘.

I’m trying to remember when I first became aware of Taiwan New Cinema. Possibly it was an early screening of an Edward Yang film at the NFT in London but it may have been a brief season of films shown on Channel 4 in the UK when the channel was still cutting edge in terms of global cinema. I remember two Hou Hsiao-hsien films, A Summer at Grandpa’s (1984) and City of Sadness (1989). They may have been introduced by Tony Rayns, one of the few British experts on East Asian cinema at that time – certainly he fronted some of the Fifth Generation Chinese films on C4. Rayns does figure as one of the film personnel interviewed in this documentary film, Flowers of Taipei directed by Chinlin Hsieh and currently streaming on MUBI.

A still from Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Dust in the Wind (1986)

The film generally follows the familiar documentary conventions of a ‘talking heads plus film clips’ structure, but quite a few of the ‘witness statements’ are shot in interesting locations around the world. We meet filmmakers of all kinds as well as critics, programmers and festival organisers and some other non-film artists. Some speak directly to camera and others within short sequences in which they are ‘observed’ in conversations about TNC films. The film opens with an evocative montage of archive footage and a presentation by Lin Hwai-Min, founder of the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in Taipei explaining the historical background. This then leads to a railway journey taking us through Thailand and a statement by the auteur director Apichatpong Weerasethakul explaining how he first saw Taiwanese films as a student in Chicago and how the films, especially those by Hou Hsiao-hsien, resonated with memories of his own youth and how he was encouraged to return to Thailand to make films.

Olivier Assayas and the film critic Jean-Michel Frodon discuss the TNC films in Paris

Chinlin Hsieh is herself now based in Paris and that provides the next stop where we meet Pierre Rissient (consultant to Cannes Film Festival), the French filmmaker Olivier Assayas and others who are critics or festival organisers talking about what appealed to them about the emergence of TNC. We then meet Tony Rayns in Rotterdam, another important global film festival city, followed by a discussion in a pavement café in Buenos Aries involving the Argentinian filmmaker Martin Rejtman. He makes an interesting point in suggesting that because he was too young to have experienced the French New Wave in the 1960s, TNC was the ‘new wave’ for his generation. The interviews that come next in Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China feature a galaxy of directors such as Kore-eda Hirokazu, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Jia Zhangke and Hou Hsiao-hsien himself plus the actor Tadanobu Asano and many others. You can see a full list on the ‘Cinema of the World’ website referenced above.

Among all the interviews/conversations Hsieh includes clips from various films by the TNC directors, including several made since the 1980s. As the interviewees suggest, these films were often beautifully composed and they do convey something of the youthful vitality of the filmmakers in the 1980s and a real ‘feel’ for the country. But they also add to the mystery of the film for anyone who is coming to a screening without having seen many or indeed any of the films before.I recognised clips from two Hou Hsiao-hsien films, Millennium Mambo from 2001 and Café Lumière (2003) which is set mainly in Tokyo – Tadanobu Asano discusses his role in that film while sitting in the real bookshop where his character worked. There are also striking images from Edward Yang’s The Terrorizers (1986) and clips from many other films, some of which are clearly signalled in the text. But the question does remain as to exactly what Chinlin Hsieh hopes to achieve with her film.

Kore-eda Hirokazu talks about TNC in the hotel (ryokan) used by Ozu and his writing partner Noda Kogo working on the script for Tokyo Story

I think that if you know some of the historical background and you have seen at least two or three of the films (preferably including something from the 1980s) you will have a good time and find the film useful and informative, especially in terms of the influences that TNC has had on other filmmakers in East Asia. I learned many things from the documentary and it helped to explain the links between some filmmakers. I hadn’t known or perhaps hadn’t thought about Kore-eda Hirokazu’s family links to Taiwan for instance and I was prompted to think more about the ‘modernity’ of TNC compared to the Fifth Generation films in the PRC. Both sets of films emerged in the early 1980s and both ‘arrived’, at least in the UK, around roughly the same time. Why then did the Fifth Generation films ‘take off’ and the TNC films struggle for distribution? Partly, I think it is to do with the general profile of the two countries. In the 1980s I think I was much more supportive of the PRC and dismissive of Taiwan. Since then I’ve changed my mind. To some extent, I’ve gradually reversed that view and the development of TNC and the ‘democratisation’ of Taiwan has been an important part of my shift.

As a film in its own right Flowers of Taipei is definitely worth watching. It has a great deal to offer but please try to read up on the background and try to see some of the TNC films. The only sad aspect of the film, watching it in 2022, is that there are relatively few women featured as filmmakers in a documentary made by a woman.

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