Tuesday, April 19, 2011

'Innovative, Unique and Powerful'- Michael S. Berry on Taiwan's cinema (Culture.tw)

“One of the great luxuries of my profession is that I have an incredible amount of freedom when it comes to determining my research and writing projects,” says Michael S. Berry, associate professor of Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB). “So if I were to give you a 'wish list' of what I would like to be working on, it would probably be very close – if not identical – to what I’m actually doing at any given moment.”

Berry, a jury member at the 2010 Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival, has written extensively about Taiwanese and Chinese cinema. He has also translated key works of Taiwanese literature into English, such as Chang Ta-chun's (張大春) Wild Kids (Columbia University Press, 2000). He is nearly finished translating Remains of Life, an award-winning novel by Wu He (舞鶴). 

“I think one of the primary characteristics of Taiwan cinema that draws me in is simply the incredible array of unique and powerful cinematic voices that have emerged from Taiwan over the past several decades, people like Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝賢), Edward Yang (楊德昌), Tsai Ming-liang (蔡明亮), Chang Tso-chi (張作驥), Cheng Wen-tang (鄭文堂), Chung Mong-hong (鍾孟宏) and so many others,” says Berry.

Berry – whose wife Suk-Young Kim is also a UCSB academic, specializing in Russian literature and North Korean theater and film – is currently wrapping up a book project on Hou. According to Berry, Hou and the others, “offer a rich series of perspectives on Taiwan’s history and society, while, at the same time, using their films to provide much broader and more profound statements about the human condition.” 

“Many of these filmmakers have also been innovators in terms of what they have brought to the art of filmmaking, such as Hou’s aesthetic reinvention of the artform through his combined use of techniques such as the long-shot, long-take, and employment of non-professional actors,” says Berry.

“Any work of art is of course also tied to the social, historical and the economic circumstances from which it originally emerged and, to that end, Taiwan cinema is also a reflection of Taiwan’s dynamic journey in the modern era. From the Japanese colonial period to the island’s integration into the Republic of China in 1945, up to the incredible economic and democratic reforms witnessed over the past decades has provided the landscape for cinematic reflection.”

“At the same time, Taiwan cinema also serves as a fascinating counterpoint for other Chinese-language cinemas emerging from Hong Kong and mainland China,” adds Berry, who
studied Mandarin in Nanjing and Taipei before receiving a doctorate in East Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University.

Berry got the idea for his forthcoming Chinese-language book, Memories of Shadows and Light: In Dialogue with the Cinematic World of Hou Hsiao-hsien (光影記憶:對談侯孝賢的電影世界), several years ago. “The project’s origin actually goes back to my book Speaking in Images: Interviews with Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers,” he recalls. 

Speaking in Images (Columbia University Press, 2005) – published in Taiwan in 2007 by Rye Field (麥田) under the title 光影言語:當代華語片導演訪談錄 – contains dialogues with 20 leading figures in the film industries of Taiwan, mainland China, and Hong Kong. For the book, Berry interviewed Hou alongside his longtime screenwriter, Chu Tien-wen (朱天文).  

“That turned out to be one of the standout interviews,” he recalls. “Not long after, I began playing with the idea of doing a second book with just a single director, which would allow me to really dig much more deeply into the filmmaker’s complete body of work, influences, formative experiences, reflections on the industry, and a wide array of other topics.”

Hou was Berry's first choice for the project. “I believe I first mentioned the idea to him sometime around 2007. He eventually agreed and we finally found a month [for interviewing] in 2009.”  

“I went into the project with more than 50 pages of questions and we recorded over 20 hours of interview material,” recalls Berry. All of the interviews were conducted in Mandarin. “The book represents the single most comprehensive document of Hou’s reflections on his life and work. From childhood reminiscences to his experience shooting automobile commercials, the book attempts to delve deeply into all aspects of Hou’s creative activities, with extensive sections devoted to each of his films.” 

The core of the book, a dialog with Hou, is supplemented by interviews with Chu (best known in the English-speaking world for her novel Notes of a Desolate Man) and actor Jack Kao (高捷) another of Hou’s most frequent collaborators. Berry believes these will provide alternative perspectives on Hou’s creative process and the nature of his collaborative process. 

“The book will also feature a very personal essay by mainland Chinese film director Jia Zhangke (賈樟柯) reminiscing on his own relationship with Hou and his films,” he adds. 

Memories of Shadows and Light will be published in the second half of 2011 by INK. 

Asked what he thinks of the recent box-office triumphs like Monga and Night Market Hero, Berry replies: “Overall, the success of these films brings promise to the local Taiwan film industry, which for many years – particularly during the 1990s – faced great challenges. This has been a slow process with films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Double Vision (2002) contributing to the gradual reinvigoration of the local film market in Taiwan over the past decade.”  

“While some might argue that films like these might point to a 'dumbing down' of the industry, the simple reality is such that film directors like Hou and Tsai Ming-liang are essentially art-house film directors who’s work, in large part, is not meant to have widespread commercial appeal. This shouldn’t be surprising since art-house cinema throughout the world usually only appeals to a very niche market.”  

“Perhaps there are certain misguided expectations in Taiwan because many art-house film directors achieved commercial success. However, as Chu Tien-wen once hinted at in an interview, this initial success was more of an anomaly and art-house films like those produced by the leading voices of the New Taiwan Cinema should not be expected to be breakout commercial hits. Clearly, the types of films that mainstream audiences want to see are more commercial fare like Cape No. 7 and Monga.” 

Nevertheless, Berry thinks the recent success of local commercial cinema can also boost contemporary Taiwan art-house cinema. “Different Taiwan films are often promoted side-by-side as examples of local filmmaking. It isn't uncommon to see a commercially successful genre film – like the gangster film Monga – displayed side-by-side with a more experimental film like Hou Chi-jan’s (侯季然) One Day in stores,” he points out. 

“What has happened is that the success of a few films has created an appetite for contemporary Taiwan cinema, opening a window of opportunity for a wider interest in different cinematic genres and styles coming from Taiwan. Equally important, the box-office success of these films helps crush deeply entrenched stereotypes and misconceptions about the industry that Taiwan cinema is somehow synonymous with art-house film. Once funding sources start returning and the industry’s infrastructure gets rebuilt, the entire filmmaking community, including art-house cinema, will reap the benefits.”

The website where this article first appeared has been closed down, so I've posted the entire piece here.

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