Retrospective of Taiwanese documentary cinema at the Jihlava International Doc Film Fest

Since the discovery of Le Moulin two or so years ago, non-fiction cinema in contemporary Taiwan has been one of my main cinematic obsessions and a research interest that drove me to explore the flourishing documentary scene of the island. This year edition of the  Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival (October 24-29) is currently holding a retrospective on Taiwanese documentary from 1937 to 2014 titled Transparent Landscape: Taiwan, a program that presents 25 Taiwanese documentaries from the period, according to the festival “the historically most comprehensive showcase of Taiwanese documentary cinema ever”.  I won’t be able to attend it, but, it goes without saying, it’s an event I’m highly interested in and I hope a catalogue will be published, here the press release:

The section will include some of the most important works of Taiwanese independent filmmakers. Allowing a glimpse into Taiwan’s complicated historical-political development, these films offer significant insights into different periods of recent Taiwanese history.
The earliest Taiwanese documentaries are the 8mm ”home videos“, shot by photographer DENG Nan-guang in the 1930s. They realistically portray scenes of daily life under Japanese occupation, such as life and work along the Tamsui river and family outings. The recently restored short The Mountain by Richard Yao-chi CHEN (1967) will be presented outside of Taiwan for the first time. Other representative works from the1960s, are the films by renowned director BAI Jing-rui and photographer ZHUANG Ling. In this decade, only government-commissioned propaganda films could be produced, but with their creative ingenuity, those filmmakers still managed to convey the lives and thoughts of ordinary people.
The Green Team, the most important non-mainstream media in the period prior to and after the lifting of martial law in Taiwan (1987), will also be represented by two important productions. The Green Team documented many social movements and protests that took place on Taiwan’s road to democracy in the 80s, and their images eventually became weapons against the authoritarian state. There are obvious connections with the situation in Czech society in the late 80s before the collapse of the Soviet regime.
Apart from its focus on history, Transparent Landscape: Taiwan also pays tribute to the experimental spirit of Ji.hlava IDFF. By showcasing aesthetically experimental, creative films, traditional expectations on documentaries are challenged. The selection includes several masterpieces, such as works by internationally renowned artist CHEN Chieh-jen, photographer CHANG Chien-chi, the first Taiwanese to become a member of Magnum Photos, and YUAN Goang-ming, the pioneer of video art in Taiwan.
This comprehensive retrospective also includes early documentaries by the leading figures of Taiwanese cinema, such as CHUNG Mong-hong, WU Mi-sen, HUANG Ting-fu and others. Beginning from the 90s, they used experimental vocabulary to explore the boundaries of documentary filmmaking. Even today, their films are regarded as avant-garde filmmaking, no matter if they deal with aesthetic conceptions or with human problems.

You can find the complete program here, and more information about documentary in Taiwan on the TaiwanDoc page.

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Letter #69 (Lin Hsin-i, 2016) 

I’ve written at length, here and elsewhere, about 3 Islands, an experimental documentary by Taiwanese female filmmaker and artist Lin Hsin-i, one of my favorite nonfiction movies of last year. Yesterday I had the chance to watch another of her works, Letter #69, a short film (19 min) that was screened at this year Visions du Réel and in 2016 at the Women Make Waves Film Festival where it received the Excellence Award.

Here is the synopsis from Visions du Réel:

In the White Terror period in Taiwan, Shui-Huan SHI was imprisoned for hiding her brother, and was soon executed later. In the prison, she wrote 69 letters for her family. Simulating the life in the prison, this film silently criticizes the history. The “photographic film image” in the video, Letter #69, is an old photographic film from an abandoned old Taiwanese theater. After cleaning the film, Shi Shui-Huan’s letters were printed on it to construct a stop motion. The reproduction of old film serves as a response to the esoteric, dark history of Shi Shui-Huan and her brother Shi Zhi-Cheng in their last escape where they hid in the ceiling. It is also a response to the historical violence of Taiwan that cannot be cleared and is difficult to look back at.

In 1954 Shi Sui Huan was imprisoned for hiding her brother who was resisting the regime of Chiang Kai-shek. During the period spent in prison, she will eventually be executed, she wrote letters to her family and her last one, the letter number 69, was left blank.
The blankness of the last letter is the canvas from which the director starts her investigation into the so called White Terror, a period of purges when political dissidents who were protesting or resisting against the Kuomintang-led Republic of China government, were persecuted, incarcerated and killed. While the period started in 1947 and ended in 1987 when the martial law was officially lifted, I think the director is referring here to a more specific time and place, the first years of the White Terror and a corner of the Liuzhangli Cemetery in Taipei where Shi Sui Huan and other 201 people are buried. Most of them were leftist thinkers or activists but also, like Shi Sui herself, people who just protected their relatives. The graves were forgotten and basically untouched in fear of repercussions till the end of the martial law, when slowly the country started to breath again, a “rebirth” that is well reflected in cinema (the so called Taiwanese new wave of Hou Hsiao-hsien,  Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-liang, etc.)

The absence of written words in the last letter embodies the impossibility of directly connecting with the tragic period and its remnants, yet the blankness also represents the white noise resulting from the accumulation of all the phantasmic memories that in one way or another, while denied for so many years, are still alive and present. Sowing together all these fragments of scattered memories in an heterogeneous piece of cinematic patchwork, Lin Hsin-i’s short movie is an attempt to discover and create images and sounds of a lost and tragic period. The letters of Shi Sui Huan are juxtaposed with the narration in the present (done by family members of the victims), and images of ruins are overlapped with performative actions that recreate some of the gestures that the prisoner might have done.
Not only Letter #69 brings to the surface an obliviated past and directs its gaze towards a crucial spot in Taiwanese history, but the filmmaking style that made 3 Islands so powerful and fascinating for me is here in full display again. Aesthetically Letter #69 is a fragmented and kaleidoscopic work that blends the beauty and clearness of the digital image with the grain and the roughness of overused celluloid film ー an old strip of film where the director printed the woman’s letters ー sound manipulation and voice distortion with reenactment, and read and written passages from letters with the constant sound of a running film projector.

I might be partial because my cinematic taste tends definitely towards hybrid documentaries, but 3 Islands and now this Letter #69 are so fascinating and challenging that make Lin Hsin-i one of the most interesting filmmakers working in experimental nonfiction today.

Some thoughts on 3 Islands (Lin Hsin-I, 2015)


I finally had the time to rewatch 3 Islands, an experimental documentary directed in 2015 by Lin Hsin-I, a work I enjoyed on my first viewing a month or so ago, but one that, because of its complexity and all the historical references, I really wanted to watch it again before trying to write down a “proper” review.
The movie is a blending of experimental cinema and non-fiction, a “genre” that has recently become more and more the main field of my interest*, but at the same time an exploration of the historical resonances that tragically bind together three different territories, Okinawa, Taiwan, and the Jeju island in South Korea.
3 Islands is a complex and multilayered work punctuated by literary quotes (Marguerite Duras, Kenzaburō Ōe and T.S. Eliot among others**), archival footage, contemporary art, beautiful digital shots of jungle and ruins, fictional memories and a minimalist and eerie music to wrap up everything.


The movie’s very first image is a close up of an old strip of celluloid in what appears to be a destroyed building, later on we’ll discover is probably an abandoned theater in Tainan, Taiwan. The shots of the strip and those of the hands that pull it, are superimposed with quotes from Marguerite Duras and those from a Taiwanese artist, takling personal and historical memory, the differences in language(s) and the impossibility to convey a truth of any sort through them. It is thus clear from the very beginning that what interests the director is also, if not mainly, an exploration of the aesthetic limits of non-fiction and those of representation more in general.
In the following scenes, written messages of a young kamikaze who died in the battle of Okinawa are intertwined with images of mural art in Taiwan and connected with footage of kamikaze attacks on American ships. Moments of battles as experienced during II World War by Zhang Zheng Guan, presumably a Taiwanese pilot who fought the Pacific War with the Japanese Imperial Army, are narrated (in Japanese) over a split screen, one side showing the places where the carnage and horrors of war took place as they are today, the other showing the act of filming and photographing the very same spots. The gimmick of the split screen has here its raison d’être because, as written above, the film gives equal importance to the facts, stories and histories narrated in it, but also to the problem of representation itself, without, and this is one of Lin Hsin-I big achievements, becoming just an empty and self-absorbing aesthetic show-off. Archival war images and scenes from the Taiwanese jungle are then linked to those of the protests in Okinawa against the American base in Futenma, and everything is connected by the memories narrated, one of the more dense and horrifying passages of this account is when it describes scenes of mutilated and headless body still moving, and other where men are walking and singing with their hands on the belly holding their own intestines and livers.


In the central part of the movie Lin Hsin-I  moves her focus on the island of Jeiju, a very small territory located between Japan and South Korea, also a place of geopolitical importance due to its proximity to Chinese waters. Again we are presented with images from today and photos and archival footage from the colonial past of the area, and more importantly from the Jeju uprising in 1948, a revolt where people were raped, tortured and brutally murdered by the Korean government’s militia. Talking or writing about the massacre was taboo for more than 50 years and was only in 2005 that an official apology from the South Korean president was issued.
As often happen to me when I watch works that are also about Japan, the least interesting parts are those that take place, or are about, the archipelago, not because they’re less compelling or thought-provoking, but more because they usually look like a déjà-vu to me. The same happened with 3 Islands and its final part about Ichimura Misako, a woman who decided to live like a homeless at Yoyoji Park in Tokyo, to whom the director felt deeply connected.
That being said, 3 Islands remains nonetheless one of the best work of non-fiction cinema I’ve had the chance to see this year, a multitude of images and words colliding and clashing together to create a polyphonic narrative.
From the aesthetic point of view, the work feels perhaps more akin to installation art than a movie, but because of this quality it works as a unique intellectual and visual experience: fragmentation, peripherality and the centrifugal complexity of its images, give 3 Islands a very peculiar rhythm and style, allowing the film to be challenging and compelling in every single minute of its duration.

3 Islands’ documentary images try to shift from literary writings to the actual fixing of body-scene. Adopting literatures as well as the personal research and practices of artists as scripts, parallel with reversible movements of the flesh, the work recounts the unknown history and the symptomatic interpretations of the 3 islands of East Asia—Taiwan, Okinawa, and Jeju Island.


* And apparently in Taiwanese documentary as well “The 15 nominees for the Taiwanese Competition at this year’s Taiwan International Documentary Festival (TIDF) signal a reversal from the previous social issue-driven, journalistic documentaries, with many entries crossing over into the domain of contemporary art. More here)

** Not really a quote, but there’s a very brief moment towards the end of the film when the director herself pronounces the words “Ogawa Shinsuke”. An homage to one of her inspirations?