Manfei (Taiwan, 2017)
Compared to the rebellious, anxious tone and radical narratives of Mainland China’s younger generation documentarians, Taiwanese filmmakers have inherited the constant filmic style tradition of their predecessors: delicate, poetic and slow, but heart-broken. The New Wave of Taiwan domestic cinema endows a concrete rule to them – engraving memorable people and mourning their past via romanticized expression and humanistic perspectives. In other words, these kinds of documentaries have invisible powers, which influence people emotionally.
According to Chinese culture, discussions regarding the dialectical relationship between life and death are series and grave. Philosophically, there is an ancestry of the attitude to life and death rooted in people’s soul, the value of one’s life isn’t completely decided by one’s own volition, but is also tied to the social-historical background within a certain time period: “Life and death are both positive altering of human life, because after the man died, his values of life will be ennobled.” Due to the culture, some Mainland independent documentary filmmakers usually concentrate on how to gravely depict depressing stories and seriously portray to the “significant death” of their protagonists, as seen in Zhao Liang’s Behemoth (2015), which visualizes the death of a third-tier city and coal workers, and Wang Bing’s Mrs. Fang (2017). More importantly, filmmakers are more expected to consider the social and moral effects of their works. However, some Taiwanese directors avoid creating agonizing atmosphere of cinema deliberately. No matter how great it is, life and death should be taken out from broad background, which is one’s own lifecycle. Making documentary is only an artistic method to poeticize death and a nostalgic homage. Death can be aesthetic.
Hwai-eng Chen’s documentary, Manfei, which can also be analyzed as ‘slow cinema’, uses its two-hour length to demonstrate the magnificent 51-year life of angelical dancer and performer, Lo Man-fei, whose life faith journey was unbreakably intertwined with dancing, choreography, educating young performers and the paradise of her creation, Could Gate, a well-known avant-garde modern dance group in Taiwan. Chen retains his past style – thee narrative structure is conventional and linear, the story is loosely organized with Man-fei’s life journey inter-cut with her previous recorded rehearsal, performance and interviews with nearest people. Chen used to be a cinematographer of some domestic art-house films, notably Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness (1989) and Good Men, Good Women (1995), and his self-directed Island Etude (2007). Simple audio-visual languages create a poetic and nostalgic atmosphere.
Apart from the yellowish image tone (in order to echo old video materials) and the presence of scenery (in order to keep rhythm slow) in this documentary, many other filmic techniques are avoided. Quite a number of referential conversations support a reconstruction of Man-fei from some relatively objective perspective of “the other”. In the first half, interviews are shot in close-up and long take. Man-fei’s old friend sit behind the camera, where the conversations were held are the places Man-fei used to rehearsal and work, such as her old office in TNUA and the former venue of Cloud Gate. The camera creates people a series of illusions that interviewees and these memorable places are one; the younger generation is helping Man-fei to achieve her unfinished dream and rebuild her faith. More important, her ideas to education, dance and interpersonal relationship are inherited. Here, actually, remembrance to Man-fei is the “signifier”, a superficial “romanza”. However, in the second half of this documentary, after Man-fei is diagnosed with cancer, the overall emotional tone tends to be slower, but more sensitive. The proportion of “memory” exceeds the “introduction”. More and more flashbacks and moving scenery shot are adapted. There are several impressive shots depict a lonely dancer dance in the ruins, light and shadow in the images are variable and powerful. This alludes that the comparison between characters and space become more contrasting, the flat emotion erupts rapidly.
Man-fei’s whole life is reconstructed and romanticized yet she is not molded into an educational “role model”, but into a fairy-like woman. No wonder that this documentary gives life back to Man-fei again, as an artist who had made many contributions, she is still an individual. Chen did not exaggerate her “great things”, but focuses on how she lives with cancer, toughens her will, and prolongs her value of life. Although this documentary has some weakness in portraying its subject, it presents a good paradigm for Taiwan’s current non-fiction filmmakers.