Archiving Time (Taiwan, 2019) [SDAFF 2020]

Produced by the Taiwan Film Institute (TFI) and helmed by director-cinematographer Lu Yuan-chi, Archiving Time is an engaging documentary look into TFI’s mission and around-the-clock activities of film preservation and restoration. Given that TFI itself is behind the production, Archiving Time’s overarching point is understandably (and unsurprisingly) the historical significance and value of its efforts, with many TFI personnel expressing awareness of their role in “cultural preservation” in working with cinematic “cultural relics” throughout the film. In the process, it also makes clear the time-sensitive nature of such cultural preservation in the first place. As one staff member states alarmingly and with a sense of sadness all at once: films are, simply put, dying in their film cans, even as they are housed in temperature-controlled vaults. And as another staff member explains, regardless of the thematic and/or visual quality of any given film that arrives at TFI, it holds a piece of cultural history in its own unique way and therefore always already deserving of preservation and restoration. But with so many films, such time-consuming processes needed to save them (not to mention the necessary funding), and limited time, at the very least, the English-translated title is all too apt. Yet making Archiving Time more than just simply a documentary about a film institute and the self-evident significance and urgency of its work is that in detailing different stages in such work, the film also showcases the wonderfully tactile — and even olfactory — nature of dealing with celluloid film and in the the clinical care and handling needed for such work to begin.

The film’s opening sequence of TFI’s Allen Chung and Wang Wei (both from the Collections department) visiting a personal film archive in Nantou, with a film projectionist demonstrating his fifty-plus years of experience in going through the collection — even projecting a film for edification — immediately establishes the historical and tactile. Even when the film moves to New Taipei City, where TFI offices and facilities are located, a montage of hands and fingers moving film cans or pressing upon the tape in film splicing leads to the film’s title while nicely continuing the thread of tactility. Following the introduction of the title, the two-person team of senior staff member Chung (with over twenty years of experience) and newer member Wang (with two years’ worth of experience thus far) visiting another personal film archive presents how the olfactory is also involved with celluloid film. Early in this visit, one film can’s contents becomes the object of conversation and above all smelling, with Chung and Wang putting their noses to the film can and film itself to make note of the stage of “vinegar syndrome” that it is experiencing.

Subsequently, the film moves more generally from personal archives of reels in rotting cans to TFI’s offices and laboratories where such films find a home and where film scanning, digital scanning, vault storage, and overall film preservation and restoration efforts take place, in all of its complex stages. In this regard, there is nothing out of the ordinary about the rest of the film, as Lu and his camera visit, observe, and/or converse with a range of visual and audio specialists as well as administrative members that each play an important role in the painstaking operation of preserving and restoring a film. Close-ups of hands (bare and gloved) carefully at work thus abound: spooling film reels, manually or at the editing bay; cutting or taping film strips, un/loading film cans; threading a film into a projector. And painstaking is no exaggeration whatsoever: one specialist shares, roughly speaking, that it takes her a month to digitally clean about ten minutes’ worth of footage. Though this piece of information is uttered during the last third of the runtime, it makes even more breath-taking the sequences of clips from restored projects sprinkled throughout the film.

Alongside elements of the tactile (and occasionally olfactory), the restored clips from, for example, Love and Duty (1931), The Husband’s Secret (1960), Our Neighbours (1963), and Cloud of Romance (1977) — which features a very young Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia — constitute the film’s highlights and reinforce the cultural history that they literally embody. It goes without saying that films, as cultural and historical artifacts, encompass acts of remembering and the role of images in shaping how and what is remembered. A most powerful linking of film, remembering, and memory (both personal and collective) is exemplified with the “National Anthem” reel borrowed from TFI for a forty-year school reunion. Playing the “National Anthem” before a film was mandatory during the Martial Law era (1949-1987), which inevitably cultivated a shared experience and memory precisely through visual images. For the reunion’s attendees, for a moment, the past is re-experienced through the reel.

Yet to really drive home TFI’s purpose and diligence, not to mention the mingling of the cultural, historical, visual, and experiential, the film culminates with a focus on King Hu’s Raining in the Mountain (1979) and parts of the process of its restoration. In this way, the film slyly employs a kind of Direct cinema “crisis structure” of conflict, suspense, and resolution. With the race-against-time context of film preservation and restoration representing the conflict, any project is bound to give way to a (when) will-they-or-won’t-they “suspense” as far as its completion is concerned. Honing in on Raining in the Mountain provides the film with a nifty and rewarding resolution, a tangible product born from all of the literal handiwork performed, as it was TFI’s first film restoration completed independently in 2018.

Archiving Time was shown as part of the San Diego Asian Film Festival which ran from October 23-31.