CinemaTalk: A Conversation with Professor Guo-Juin Hong on Taiwan Cinema, 1949 and Documentaries

By Michael Chenkin

Guo-Juin Hong is Andrew W. Mellon Associate Professor of Chinese Cultural Studies at Duke University. Hong has published articles on such topics as early Shanghai cinema, new Taiwan cinema, documentary film, and queer visual culture. His essay on colonial modernity in 1930s Shanghai was the winner of the 2009 Katherine Kovacs Essay Award, Honorable Mention, and his dissertation received the 2005 Dissertation of the Year Award, Honorable Mention, both by the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. Hong teaches courses on film theory and historiography, Chinese-language cinemas, melodrama, documentary, and visual culture.

Earlier this year Guo published Taiwan Cinema: A Contested Nation on Screen (Palgrave Macmillan). The book is described as “A groundbreaking study of Taiwan cinema, this is the first English language book that covers its entire history. Hong revises how Taiwan cinema is taught and studied by taking into account not only the auteurs of New Taiwan Cinema, but also the history of popular genre films before the 1980s. This work will be essential reading for students and scholars of Taiwan and Chinese-language cinemas and of great value to those interested in the larger context of East Asian cultural history as well as film and visual studies in general.”

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dGF: Could you tell me a little about your present interests in Chinese language cinema. What are you concentrating on right now, and what do you have planned for the future?

GJH: My book came out in February of this year and it is the first and only full-length book in English language on Taiwan cinema that covers its entire history. In that book, I looked at the question of national cinema as the core problematic because of the unique status of Taiwan. After 400 years of colonial history, Taiwan seemed to straddle between the status of nation and non-nation. Questions of national cinema seem outdated because of all the discussion of the transnational and the global. However, I find that to be over-simplistic. Even though national cinema is a very problematic category, it is still deployed at all times for other minor cinemas in relation to Hollywood. I go through the history of Taiwan cinema and I locate different critical historical moments to test the questions of nation in cinema which is think is still a very productive historio-graphical exercise.

Now that it is done, I hope that it has opened up doors for people to continue paying attention to not only Chinese language cinemas in general, but also Taiwan cinema specifically because especially in English language study, Taiwan cinema before 1982 has always been neglected. It was a situation that didn’t get at least partially corrected until a year ago when I guest edited a special issue for the Journal of Chinese Cinemas, focusing on what we call the “missing years” between 1960 and 1980. Those years were obviously important to the history of Taiwan cinema but also I think it is an important part of the larger cultural history of East Asia. This is the work I have been concentrating on the last few years.

dGF: What about your newest projects?

GJH: Now that the book is out and completed, I actually have several projects going on. My newest project centers around the year 1949, the year at the end of the civil war between the Chinese Nationalists and the Communists. The result of the defeat of the war was, of course, the Nationalist government with Chiang Kai Shek fled – or temporarily relocated, as they called it – to Taiwan bringing with him some two million soldiers and civilians. That was also a really pivotal year for Mainland China as well. The Communist party took over and began to liberate and revolutionize China and really continued in certain kinds of massive historical transformations that of course, we can say started in 1911, when Dr. Sun Yat Sen overthrew the dynasty and established the republic.

But in focusing on 1949, this project does not aim to do any kind of revisionist historical research. Basically, I’m not really interested in doing work about the historical facts about that year about the massive migration and massive reshuffling of China, Taiwan, and broadly speaking, East Asia as well. But, I want to look at different kinds of cultural representations in more recent years looking back at 1949. People who are more familiar with that history would know that starting in the late 1980s, when Taiwan actually lifted the martial law, the cross-strait relationship began undergoing tremendous changes. On both sides, people have begun to really look at the year 1949 and try to imagine or re-imagine possible future cross-strait relationships.

For example, very significantly, over the last two years, several very important writers in Taiwan published either a biography of a father who migrated to Taiwan or an autobiography about their own experience of crossing the straits. There are lots of narrative films and lots of documentary films. This project for me is particularly exciting and momentous because my father also came to Taiwan from China in 1949. I have been really collecting lots of materials and historical items such as biographies and autobiographies. I’m hoping in the next two years to finish this book project.

dGF: Is this looking at the year 1949 from a solely Taiwanese perspective?

The Founding of the Republic (2009, dir. Han Sanping)

GJH: No. It would also entail looking at how people in China look at the period. So many Chinese are interested in Taiwan now and I actually think it’s a much more substantive interest. There is now the craze for Mainlanders to come to Taiwan. You can also begin to see in China, last year China had their biggest production ever, The Founding of the Republic. It began in a very official kind of way to revisit that period. In some sense, I think a more complex and nuanced understanding of that particular year can be understood in a more comparative way.

dGF: What was the inspiration for this project?

GJH: I think it grew out of the idea of “crossing,” both thematically and cinematically. If you look at some of the older films, the event of crossing the strait from China to Taiwan is obviously very significant. We can sort of see, to use a French theorist term, almost a traumatic image. This type of representation is a recurring trope. In the part I have begun working on, I look at some of those films and see how they cinematically represent that particular cultural memory.

dGF: In addition to the idea of “crossing,” is the concept of home, the longing for one’s ancestral homeland going to be explored? This is often a common theme explored in Chinese literary productions.

GJH: Yes. What I was going to say before was that in addition to crossing is the idea of return. Even before return there is the question of roots and up-rooted-ness. The idea of being forced into this kind of massive migration to a strange exotic tropical island with the hope of returning, but that would not be possible for some forty years. This was a kind of massive, shall we say long-term transition from a certain kind of rooted-ness to a certain kind of up-rooted-ness and then when does the question of return become possible? How will these previous forty years be resolved?

So definitely the several themes, I guess if we use some temporal spatial terms, will be the idea of crossing most immediately related to that particular historical moment, but also because of the cultural representations, how do we keep returning to that moment of crossing brings other issues: transition, rooted-ness, and up-rooted-ness, especially the questions of home, the lost home and the reestablishing of the home. Of course now, for the last two decades, it’s possible to return. Especially if you look at those autobiographies that I mentioned, whenever they talk about how they made it to Taiwan, it’s absolutely spectacular. But then once they are in Taiwan, things become very murky. So in some ways, literally speaking, these forms of biography and autobiography are also performing certain kinds of repetition of that particular remembering of the traumatic moment.

Of course, if we look at it comparatively from how cultural representation in China may engage with the act of crossing, we bring in a couple of different kinds of dynamics. It’s actually the betrayal or departing of a little brother or family. It becomes the theme of returning to the motherland. That type of analysis will bring forth very different kinds of dynamics. I think it’s very productive and useful to think about the present and the future by looking really closely and carefully at the past and how that past can be understood, reinvented, and revised. That’s why I find this project to be very exciting.

dGF: Are you currently working on anything in the realm of Chinese language documentary film?

GJH: I’m definitely interested in that. Like I said, this is the beginning of a new project and I’m slightly more familiar in texts from Taiwan. Hopefully when I’m on sabbatical next year I’ll be able to branch out and look more closely at documentary in Mainland China.

dGF: In terms of documentary in Taiwan, what have you seen as the most reoccurring and dominant themes?

GJH: I think documentary in Taiwan, as we know it, pretty much started in the 1980’s, in really close connection to the processes of democratization and the democratic movement. So it started very much activist, either political or social. It was always about justice, democracy, modernization, and rights. It started before the martial law was lifted. It had that really strong root, broadly speaking, in activism, and so it’s very counter-hegemony.

It has also evolved into something very different from mainland documentary. Because it is concerned about rights of minorities and about freedom, a lot of the great Taiwan documentaries often take a very much personal or individual perspective. In a very general way, compared with a lot of the work we see coming out of Taiwan, Chinese documentary is still concerned with the masses and the collective. What we see in Taiwan, for example, there are some incredibly powerful and beautiful personal documentaries. On the other hand, because of that tendency of being more in tune with the individual psychology of desire, we see in other documentaries for example about indigenous people, even about the anti-nuclear movement, they will have a very strong emphasis on the people, not necessarily as a group per-se but also a very strong sense of the individual.

Also, because documentary in Taiwan is mainly supported by the public television stations, it provides filmmakers with the ability to have their documentaries made and also have a venue to show it. A lot of documentary filmmakers are engaged with this system. Something I’m really looking forward to finding out more when I go back to Taiwan next year is how the privatization of public television in Taiwan will influence documentary filmmaking. I have also been working on another book project, another comparative project on the new documentary movement both in Taiwan and Mainland China since the 1980’s. So, documentary is one of my ongoing interests and I’m going to keep working on it.

dGF: Now in terms of documentary film in Taiwan, compared to the Mainland, what level, if any level of censorship exists? Is there a similar underground independent cinema culture in Taiwan as there is in China?

GJH: In Taiwan, because it grew out of political activism the idea of censorship, especially nowadays, is almost unthinkable. That doesn’t mean that you can basically do anything. Like I said, the mechanism or the institution of the public television stations does not, of course, have explicit guidelines of censorship.

Nevertheless, it, shall we say, informs the kind of work that would come out. For example, if you’re doing indigenous issues, disaster, and humanitarian work, then you are more likely to be funded. You can say that there is not that sort of black and white political censorship, but in the case of Taiwan, documentary straddles the gap between political sensitivity and the market.

The very idea of the situation in China, an underground culture, really does not exist in Taiwan, but in Taiwan in order to have your documentary made you need to apply and apply yourself to a different kind of mechanism. Thus, I don’t think that censorship would be the right word to describe the constraints. Though, it’s also not market because we all know that documentary doesn’t really have the same kind of commercial market like narrative films.

dGF: In terms of documentary films in Mainland China, there is almost an imbrication of documentary style and narrative film. We see films like Before the Flood and we see them directly influence and even serve as the inspiration for work by Jia Zhangke like Still Life and even Dong. There is almost a fusion of documentary-narrative style. Have you witnessed that evolution in Taiwanese cinema?

GJH: To begin, we can see that as a mode of representation, documentary emphasizes reality. So, its relationship to realism is inevitable. One can argue that Jia Zhangke’s films borrow from documentary or certain kinds of neo-realist aesthetics. How do we separate that? I do see your point in that the idea of the visual and aural apparatus and its engagement with “reality” vis-a vis “fiction” is a murky distinction. That’s why I think it’s very important to think about documentary only as a mode of representation, not as a certain kind of fact or statement. To see the stylistic influence on each other, between narrative and documentary film, is a very insightful way to engage.

More specifically about the development of documentary film styles, I actually think that because especially nowadays it’s so easy, not necessarily to see every film made in China, but it’s at least very much more available to see and get exposed to various types of documentary styles. We can now see many different types of hybrid genres in not only commercial cinema but also documentary. For example, there is a very popular documentary in Taiwan released in 2006 called Jump Boy. It was extremely popular and well received. I believe the director himself said that he made the documentary because his real interest was to make narrative film. He wanted to gain some attention so that he could make a narrative film. I believe his first narrative film just came out. That actually explains quite well why his film actually looks like a narrative film. In some sense, he was showcasing that he could use a documentary mode as the subject but to tell as story as if it were a narrative film. We see that in other cases as well.

On the other end of the spectrum, can we say the films of Jia Zhangke are really so undecidedly fiction or documentary or is it aesthetically both? I think the question really is because of the availability of technology and all sorts of exposures and accesses we need to pay a lot more attention to the individual filmmakers’ intentions, especially in terms of documentary because it does allow a little bit more individual freedom.

dGF: I wanted to explore your familiarity with queer Chinese cinema, in particular the films of Cui Zi’en like Enter the Clowns and Queer China, Comrade China. Have you done any research on any of these films?

GJH: No, not in terms of Mainland China. I did work on some part of the queer movement in relationship to documentary in Taiwan. In Taiwan, documentary was so intimately related to the political movement about rights and freedom. Queer documentary started in the 1990’s. The queer movement in Taiwan’s biggest enemy was not the government but rather it was the media. There were issues with privacy. In the 1990s, there were some famous cases in Taiwan where TV news would sneak into gay bars and then aired unauthorized footage effectively outing people. There was a period where documentary and gay activists had a very tense relationship with media. It takes a lot of courage and different kinds of courage to be so publicly out in Taiwan. In the 1990’s, that was very much the case.

The question that is the core of any kind of queer movement is about visibility. In Taiwan, it was very interesting, in some works, to see the negotiation between visibility and invisibility. This informed a lot of interesting work that I looked at in an article that will hopefully soon be published.

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