The phrase "Made in Taiwan" could take on a new meaning this weekend when the UW Cinematheque presents "Films from the Island: A Retrospective of Taiwanese Cinema." Of the five films being shown, four were recently donated to the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Chicago. But it's the sheer bulk of the office's donation ' over 120 films covering the last 30 years ' that suddenly makes the UW a player in Taiwanese cinema, particularly the so-called New Taiwanese Cinema. Until recently, Taiwan's cinematic past was virtually unknown to Western scholars and critics. Then Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang broke into the international film-festival circuit, suggesting that art films were flourishing on this island nation during the 1980s. The new collection, a circulating library that was designed for viewing in the United States, should both confirm that notion and fill in the large blanks next to Hou and Yang's names.
"It's very exciting, because these are directors I'm not familiar with," David Bordwell told me over the phone recently. Bordwell, in addition to being a well-known film scholar and teacher, is the director of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, and he sees the Taiwanese collection as a fulfillment of its mission. "We like to provide a deeper, broader context," he says. "And since very few of these films are available on video, we've become the go-to place for Taiwanese cinema. Other archives have some of the films. We're the only ones who have the totality."
Bordwell, who happens to be working on a book involving Hou, will immediately benefit from this infusion of context, but for graduate student Jim Udden, who's doing his Ph.D. thesis on Hou as well, it must be like having history at your fingertips. From the huge cache of films, most of them still uncatalogued, Udden has culled the four that are screening this weekend. "They're typical of the New Taiwanese Cinema," he says, "and together they show the remarkable changes that were occurring in the 1980s, in both the Taiwanese film industry and the country as a whole."
Occupied by one foreign power or another for hundreds of years, then kicked off the international stage when the U.S. opened diplomatic relations with China, Taiwan found itself betwixt and between in the '80s ' between the West and the East, the First World and the Third, the future and the past. And Taiwanese cinema, thanks to financial assistance from the government, started to reflect those changes. "You got this personal cinema that was trying to catch the Taiwanese mood," Bordwell says. "More naturalistic, more autobiographical, more interesting."
This weekend's mini-retro, which screens for free at 4070 UW Vilas Hall, includes four films from the '80s and Ang Lee's 1994 comedy Eat Drink Man Woman, which paved the way for Sense and Sensibility and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Lee, who's about to unleash The Hulk on a defenseless global market, is considered part of New Taiwanese Cinema's second wave. But it's Hou, Yang and their contemporaries who set things in motion, and here's your chance to see how they did it. If you're reading this early enough on Thursday, March 6, you may still have a chance to catch the 3:30 p.m. screening of Runaway, "a gritty, Kurosawa-like study of a bandit who kidnaps a young woman and then decides to reform." On Friday, March 7, two films ' Ah Fei (7:30 p.m.) and Reunion (9:30 p.m.) ' trace the postwar period in Taiwanese history. And on Saturday, March 8, there's Eat Drink Man Woman (7:30 p.m.) and The Matrimony (9:30 p.m.), in which two young lovers in '50s Taiwan defy both their parents and society.