Taiwanese New Waves in New York

Wu Nien-jen, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, Chen Kuo-fu, and Chan Hung-chih

Directed by Edward Yang and starring Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taipei Story (1985) is the ideal film to open New Waves: Rediscovering Taiwanese Cinema of the 1980s, the series running from Friday through November 24 at New York’s Film Forum. While programmer Haden Guest has included “lesser-known, yet vital works” by less familiar names, a little over half of the films in the series were directed or codirected by one of these two primary figures of the Taiwanese New Wave.

Both filmmakers were born in mainland China in 1947 before their families relocated to Taiwan when they were barely toddlers. “Hou’s a country boy, and Yang’s a city slicker,” writes Emerson Goo for Film Comment. “For Hou, home lies in the mountains or by the rural seaside, and the city is a gleaming trap, where dreams are nurtured from afar but vanquished upon arrival. Though Yang expressed pangs of urban despair in his films, he was not so pessimistic about life in the capital. For him, the city held hidden and fascinating potentials, chances to reinvent oneself in a pressure chamber where people excitedly whiz about like molecules.”

Hou’s “tranquil style favored a contemplative mood and muted emotion,” wrote David Bordwell in 1998. Yang’s “elliptical editing technique, reminiscent of Resnais, fractured time and space, while his compositions had a painterly starkness . . . Whereas Hou tended toward nuance and quiet drama, Yang was unafraid of shocking, inexplicable bursts of bloodshed.”

Yang studied electrical engineering in Florida and worked in the high-tech industry in Seattle before returning to Taiwan in 1980. Within a year, he was writing and directing a two-and-a-half-hour episode for a television series produced by Sylvia Chang. Around this time, Hou, who had studied at the National Taiwan University of Arts, was working on a few romantic comedies that bore little resemblance to the more aesthetically austere features he would become known for. Both Yang and Hou then made short films for omnibus features that reformulated their respective stylistic and thematic approaches and, in retrospect, are now seen as having launched a new movement.

By the late 1970s, audiences in Taiwan were tiring of the swordplay and melodrama that defined their national cinema. They were either watching movies on VHS at home or buying tickets for the thrilling new genre fare imported from Hong Kong. Taiwan’s Central Motion Picture Company invited fresh voices to showcase their talents in two feature-length collections of shorts. “Though neither the long takes nor the unconventional narrative structures that would become the new wave’s stylistic innovations are present” in In Our Time (1982), notes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky in the Chicago Reader, “it’s remarkable how well-developed the movement’s major themes were at the outset: rural life, loneliness, and childhood are all explored in the first two episodes, directed by Tao Te-chen and a then-unknown Edward Yang, while Ko Yi-cheng and Chang Yi’s broadly comic third and fourth episodes tackle urban life and the perils of young adulthood.”

In Our Time is “a chronicle of a generational coming of age,” writes Sean Gilman in the Notebook. The successive stories focus on a boy in the 1950s, an adolescent girl in the 1960s, a college student in the 1970s, and a married couple in the then-present, the 1980s. “This structure helps the film hang together remarkably well for a portmanteau project, and it works perfectly as a defining opening statement by a new generation of filmmakers,” writes Gilman.

Chang Yi went on to write and direct several features, including one in the Film Forum series, Kuei-mei, a Woman (1985), that, as Mike Hale noted in the New York Times in 2011, hinges on an “unabashed four-handkerchief, women’s-picture plot. Among the challenges surmounted by Kuei-Mei, a spinster from the mainland pressured into a bad marriage, are a gambling and philandering husband, an ungrateful stepdaughter, an evil boss and a typhoon.”

The Sandwich Man (1982) comprises short films directed by Hou, Wan Jen, and Zhuang Xiang Zeng, all of them adaptations of stories by Huang Chunming written by producer Wu Nien-jen. “Each thirty-minute segment illustrates both the traditional Taiwanese family’s economic dependence on the male worker and the daily perils that lay before him,” wrote Andrew Chan in 2008, when Reverse Shot conducted its Hou symposium. “The films may vary in tone, but they seem to emanate from the same voice, suggesting the unified community that briefly existed in the first years of the new wave. Making generous use of the Taiwanese language, which was historically suppressed by both the Japanese and the [then-ruling] Kuomintang [party], the film positions itself, at the most fundamental level, as protest cinema, extending Taiwanese literature’s taboo articulation of national selfhood.”

Film Forum will screen four of Yang’s features, including his first, That Day, on the Beach (1983). Two friends played by Sylvia Chang and Terry Wu meet for the first time in thirteen years, and as they catch up, Yang constructs an intricate network of flashbacks. “The precocity of Yang’s command of the medium and his gifts of psychological observation are already on display,” wrote Leo Chanjen Chen in the New Left Review in 2001.

Cowriter Hou and Yang’s future wife, pop singer Tsai Chin, play a couple who can’t seem to get their lives on track in Taipei Story. “Though Yang was already approaching his forties when he made Taipei Story,” wrote Andrew Chan in 2017, “the film registers as the muffled howl of an angry young man resigned neither to the reassurances of tradition nor to the enticements of modernity—a howl that would become full-throated with his next film, the ferociously postmodern The Terrorizers (1986).”

Writing for the Village Voice in 2016, Michael Atkinson called The Terrorizers an “urban weave of unease, duplicity, lostness, and poisoned serendipity. Yang himself called it a ‘puzzle,’ but don’t search for a tidy endgame; the story strands are glimpsed in inconclusive bites, and confounding connections arise suggesting another film altogether, or at least other off-screen stories, that we’re not privy to. In every case, these maddened Taipei residents are battling the sense of being caged—perhaps by the city itself.”

A Brighter Summer Day (1991) is “the War and Peace of Taiwanese juvenile-delinquent movies,” wrote Ben Ratliff in 2020. Set in the early 1960s, the film stars fifteen-year-old Chang Chen as a kid from a comfortably well-off family who falls in with a rowdy band. “Like a Taiwanese Rebel Without a Cause made with the gravity and epic sweep of The Godfather, the film, which has more than a hundred speaking parts, is above all a vision, in terms of both place and time,” wrote Godfrey Cheshire in 2016.

Yang, who passed away in 2007 a few months before he would have turned sixty, appears briefly in A Summer at Grandpa’s (1984), one of three features by Hou in the series. Life at a house in the country is seen through the eyes of a young brother and sister. “Shot in a summer palette of greens and blues, and everywhere evoking the gentleness of nostalgic pastoralism,” wrote Leo Goldsmith in that Reverse Shot symposium, “Hou’s film subtly demonstrates how the violence, desire, and strife of living, thinly veiled by the conventions of adult society, are nonetheless impressed on the protagonists.”

Reviewing A Time to Live, a Time to Die (1985), a two-decade-spanning portrait of a family from the mainland adjusting to life in their new country, Eric Hynes noted that Hou is “a director whose considerations of film language are so foundational—placement, movement, duration—as to be imperceptible, and so organic to the larger narrative as to seem nonexistent . . . Yet as the film accumulates scenes and details, family tragedies and petty crimes of youth, Hou’s way of depicting memory and self proves to be the only honest approach. Close-ups might be the quickest path to empathy, but here they wouldn’t be true—neither would a quicker pace, as it’s the yawning gap of time and the dull, deepening sense of loss that slowly hits home.”

Andrew Tracy’s contribution to the symposium was a reflection on the bittersweet love story Dust in the Wind (1986). “Like Antonioni and Ozu,” he wrote, “Hou is one of the great architectural filmmakers, uniquely attuned to how natural and manufactured landscapes . . . provide the frames through which we view our human subjects. The distance, physical and emotional, which Hou intuitively seeks in these earlier films is a means of placing his characters and the small niches of experience they embody within the immensity that surrounds them, which neither dwarfs nor becomes subservient to their microscopic dramas.”

Film Forum will present debut features by two filmmakers many see as belonging to the Second New Wave. Ang Lee’s Pushing Hands (1991) is a comedic drama about an elderly Tai Chi master who has arrived in New York from Beijing to live with his family. “Presaging Lee’s future success with heartwarming yet bittersweet endings, the finale is worthy of Capra,” wrote Ted Shen in the Chicago Reader in 1995.

Writing for Film Comment in 2015, Jonathan Romney noted that Tsai Ming-liang’s Rebels of the Neon God (1992) features “many of what would become his trademarks: the water, the fraught family dynamics, the slow pacing, the strange mixture of moodiness and slow-burn comedy sometimes verging on farce, and of course, the presence of Tsai’s regular lead, the airily melancholic Lee Kang-sheng. But Rebels is also very different from what would follow: it’s punchier and grittier, with roots in the realist TV dramas that Tsai had made after moving to Taipei from his native Malaysia.”

Tsai and Lee recently toured the States and spoke to audiences about their yearslong working relationship. As for Hou, we can only hope that, as reported earlier this year, he will finally be able to realize Shulan River, an adaptation of the novel by Hsieh Hai-meng starring Shu Qi and Chang Chen.

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