And you thought the Oscars were political. Based in Taiwan, the Golden Horse awards have reflected the tumultuous life of a country seeking to assert itself through 38 years of martial law, the violent suppression of its indigenous languages and culture, and a subsequent embrace of democracy that’s been troubled at best.
Through it all, the never-ending question of Taiwanese identity has woven its way through the country’s cinema, whether it’s obliquely floated in the Kuomintang-funded and -approved “healthy realism” of films like 1963’s Oyster Girl or it explicitly informs new-wave classics such as 1985’s A Time to Live, a Time to Die.
“All of a sudden I saw myself in the theatre. I saw real life,” says one of the young interviewees in The Moment, recalling the impact of director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s semi-autobiographical film.
Opening this year’s Vancouver Taiwanese Film Festival at the Vancity Theatre on Friday (June 10), The Moment probably couldn’t provide a better historical overview of the nation’s cinema or a more moving testimony to the medium’s emotional power.
Commissioned in 2013 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Golden Horse awards—pointedly launched on Chiang Kai-shek’s birthday in 1962—The Moment manages to honour all sides in a nation beset, like any occupied territory, by inner conflict. Old soldiers weep for the country’s future while reminiscing about a 1976 military propaganda exercise called The Victory; a woman describes finding comfort in melodramas like 1977’s Cloud of Romance, and “wondering why life was so hard for me”; Hou Hsiao-hsien himself speaks of the “anger” that motivated his groundbreaking 1989 hit A City of Sadness, calling the KMT “bastards. Simple as that.”
All of this is juxtaposed by director Yang Li-chou with the social and political events that rocked Taiwan: all the student movements, earthquakes, epidemics, and global shifts in power that had a greater or lesser impact on a film industry overwhelmed by the juggernaut of Hong Kong cinema in the ’80s and ’90s. Government subsidies brought about masterpieces like Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day in 1991, but homegrown product floundered financially until the romantic comedy Cape No. 7 broke box-office records and swept the Golden Horses in 2008. The Moment shows jubilant expat Ang Lee presenting one of its six awards, and we’re reminded that Lee had to turn to China, Hong Kong, and Hollywood in order to finance Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, itself a loving remodelling of the great ’60s and ’70s Taiwanese martial-arts films Dragon Inn and A Touch of Zen. Such is the kaleidoscopic history we see presented in The Moment, wittily assembled with an abundance of clips and topped with a joyous endnote that puts aside politics to remind us that cinema is a kind of magic that speaks directly to the heart.
Here are a couple of other picks from the three-day festival.
Welcome to the Happy Days
As “super-lazy frump” Fang-Ju, Ko Chia-yen saves Welcome to the Happy Days from its occasional lapses in restraint (largely due to the constant mugging of “American” Andrew Chau). Otherwise, its kandy-koloured commitment to broad humour and relentless chirpiness will supply the VTFF with its populist edge.
(June 10 and 11)
Genre fans will want to catch this one, if only for its splendidly realized take on industrial corpse disposal. A hit man finds himself haunted by his victims and enlists a sexy medium to help with the problem. Director Lee Chung opens matters with the cool-as-fuck attitude of Hong Kong’s gangster heyday before exploding in all directions—comedy, horror, romance—like a frangible bullet to the head.
The Vancouver Taiwanese Film Festival runs at the Vancity Theatre from Friday to Sunday (June 10 to 12).