At the end of Friday night’s screening of director Chen Mei-Juin’s new film The Gangster’s Daughter, the packed house at the Billy Wilder theater in Los Angeles burst into a rare sort of applause that was borne not only of appreciation for the picture they’d just seen, but also from a sense of astonishment, like they’d just been let in on a powerful secret.
That secret, now being revealed to the world at the first Taiwanese Film Biennial at UCLA, is that Taiwan is a powerful player in global cinema, starring a new generation of talent and creative voices that are as extraordinary as any currently working anywhere in the world.
At least it was a secret to me, until now. And given my decades-long affiliation with the country, and my keen and abiding appreciation for its culture, if it’s been an epiphany for me then Taiwan’s newest wave in cinema is sure to be a revelation to most film lovers.
In the past I’ve lived and worked in Taiwan, and I’ve recently served as an advisor to Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture and its local arm, the Taiwan Academy in Los Angeles, so I ought to have known better. I’ve long been familiar with the artists and films of the “New Taiwanese Cinema,” the superb, highly personal 1980s and ’90s works of such filmmakers as Hou Hsiao-hsien (The Assassin, The Puppetmaster) and Edward Yang (Yi Yi). And from his first film I’ve been an ardent fan of Taiwan’s thrice Academy Award-nominated director Ang Lee (The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman, and the 2001 Best Foreign Language Film winner Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). But apparently I lost touch with current developments, and needed to learn anew what a movie-making powerhouse Taiwan still is.
A prime example of that strength is the aforementioned The Gangster’s Daughter, a gorgeously rendered Taiwan-set story about the reunion of a spirited young tomboy (played by 19-year-old actress Ally Chiu) with the gangster father (Jack Kao) whom she’s never really known. The first fictional feature from USC-educated documentary filmmaker Chen, The Gangster’s Daughter is a deftly crafted work that is at once slyly comedic, heart-warming, and gut-wrenchingly tragic. She gets top-notch work from her crew, and equally exceptional performances from her actors, especially the wonderful gangster-film veteran Kao, and the luminous and skillful young Chiu, who is clearly a major new star in the making.
Taiwan’s cinema is almost entirely independent; although several big-budget foreign films have shot there in recent years including Martin Scorsese’s Silence, Luc Besson’s Lucy, and Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, the productions that originate locally are nearly all financed and produced outside of any traditional studio system. The Taiwanese government and its Ministry of Culture have provided increasing levels of support to local films and international co-productions, with filming grants, location and infrastructure support, and highly competitive tax rebates and other incentive schemes.
The Taiwan Academy in Los Angeles, under its Director Bill Chang and Deputy Director Ivy Tseng and their staff, is responsible for promoting the best of Taiwan’s achievements in film, literature and culture. Together with the UCLA Film & Television Archive they have curated and mounted a series of more than a dozen new and classic Taiwanese films called What Time Is It There? Tawiwanese Film Biennial, which will screen from October 20th through mid-November. I’ll be speaking in a panel discussion tomorrow, Sunday October 22nd, along with Gangster’s Daughter director Chen, UCLA professor Robert Chi, and producer Jane Yu, to be moderated by the UCLA Archive’s Paul Malcolm. The event starts at 2:oo pm at the Hammer Museum’s Billy Wilder theater, and it’s free to the public, so come join us if you’d like to be let in on the secret.