Taiwan experimental-documentary scene, whatever meaning you want to attach to the term, is one of the most intriguing and vibrant in contemporary cinema, particularly when the themes tackled are going deep into colonialism, identity and the complex history of the island. I’ve written on the subject here, here and here, and a longer and deeper analysis is coming soon.
In MATA-The island’s Gaze, directed by Cheng Li-Ming, the focus of attention is the gaze of Scottish photographer John Thomson, who visited Taiwan in 1871 , and his relationship with some members of the Siraya tribe – one of the several that inhabited Taiwan before the arrival of the Dutch and the Han – originally settled in the southern part of the island, near Tainan. Here the synopsis:
Scottish photographer John Thomson’s trip to Taiwan in 1871 is an important historical event. In this film we selected a hunter photo to re-interpret that event and visit the Siraya tribe to find an Elder, who talks and sings well, bringing us back to the past through his plucking of strings.
Then we saw the vigorous hunters holding their breath, staying very still in front of that weird machine for a long time, with a boy and a dog squatted at their feet. The director grabbed the view of this moment and invites the audience to watch with curious eyes.
On both sides of the river of time, he repeatedly speculates and watches the past, the future, and the influence of images on this island.
In its elliptical form, the work is centered around the concept of gaze, the mechanical gaze of the camera of the outsider/colonizer on the one hand, and that of the two Siraya people captured in a photo by the Scottish himself on the other. As the director himself explains “I created a pair of characters out of a photo with a boy and a dog squatted at the corner, through their curious stare at the vigorous tribal hunters and their encounter with the ‘image hunter’, witnessing a duel of old and new world”.
Words of a descendant of the Siraya and his reflections on language and the importance of words in creating history and reality are intertwined with an imaginative reconstruction of the encounter between the photographer and the two hunters. Here again the director’s own words:
This film is a sequel to “Looking for Siraya”, and this time starts with a photo of hunters holding shotguns to continue the act of taking back our souls. The stereo camera that John Thomson carried happened to inspire me creating a stereo composition. Through dramatic imitation of John Thomson’s journey as well as recording of Siraya who stays beautifully in primary image in photos yet actually is fading at present, we try to imagine how our Formosa’s “Mata(s)” treat this “mechanical eye” that intruded into the island.
You can watch MATA-The island’s Gaze on Vimeo: