Poetic Voices: A Trip Through the Taiwanese Avant-garde of the 1960s [Aperture 2019]

Presented as part the 2019 Aperture: Asia and Pacific Film Festival, “Poetic Voices: A Trip Through the Taiwanese Avant-garde of the 1960s” is a collection of four short films that were recently researched and restored by a partnership consisting of the people involved in the making of the original films, the Taiwan International Documentary Film Festival curatorial team and the Digital Restoration Department of the Taiwan Film Institute. These films are all fragments of a wider body of experimental works created by artists who were influenced by Western avant-garde movements and eager to make adventurous films of their own whilst living under the control of an authoritarian government. What each of the films do is catch a snapshot of the country and its people during the “Taiwan Miracle”, a period of rapid industrialisation that made the country an economic giant in Asia, just behind Japan. Each film has a unique feel and touches on different aspects of Taiwanese culture and society thus bringing a lost world back to life.

The first film, The Mountain (1966), directed by Richard Yao-Chi Chen, is the only film with sound and the film in the best condition after being restored from 16mm film. The director follows three art college students as they travel from Formosa to Five Finger Mountain. The journey is broken up by interviews with the students where they give their views on the Vietnam War and politics at home where political affiliation affects job and education prospects. More obliquely commented on is the shared history between China and Taiwan as it turns out that two of the students are immigrants from Shangtung. More important to these three is art and their ideas of it as they give their views and we find these are three dreamers perturbed by the strictures given by society. The pop song ‘California Dreamin’ plays during their journey as they go through small villages and up a mist-wreathed mountain to a temple in the rain and we encounter a basic lifestyle, complete chickens in the courtyard and enjoy being back in nature.

A Morning in Taipei (1964), directed by Pai Ching-jui, was restored from 35mm film and presents scenes from the city as it wakes up. People sweep their stoops, go to school, markets and clock into factories, operate telephone exchanges and drive public transport. There is a deliberate theatrical air to everything as each scene layers into each other to show interlocking lives working in synchronicity to make the city run. This title plays something like the 1942 propaganda film Listen to Britain, in as much as it presents a patchwork of scenes of ordinary life as experienced on all levels of society. These visions have moments where there is a sense of spontaneity to give the footage a cinema verite style. The relentlessly positive imagery is propagandistic with scenes of marching bands and soldiers suggesting unity in purpose, the repeated motifs pointing to technology being a bridge to the future. One could imagine some nationalistic song extolling the virtues of progress playing but some of the most interesting scene feature the influences of various immigrant groups, from Japanese morning exercise routines with group callisthenics, shots inside churches and mosques and practice for Chinese opera plays.

Modern Poetry Exhibition (1966), directed by Chang Chao-tang, was restored from 8mm film and, of the four films, this is the one that feels the most spontaneous and lively as we see random scenes of students enjoying spending time together as evinced by the smiles and relaxed postures. There is a moment when the footage is reversed so people walk and jump backwards which adds to the aura of playfulness. Often times the people on screen will speak directly to the camera and the person holding it and one wonders what they are saying but without any audio one will have to guess. The film stock for this one is grainy and features scratches and blemishes, material and appearance creating a sense of nostalgia.

Life Continued (1966), directed by Chuang Ling, was restored from 16mm film and proves to be more dreamlike of the selection. It follows a day in the life of an unnamed woman. Her elderly parents practice Tai Chi while she does chores around the house before going to work at a fertility clinic and to the market. Scenes take place in an unnamed city with low-rise buildings and in fields. It’s beautiful and languid and relaxing, ultimately becoming dreamlike as we slip into and out of the woman’s life.

The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there, as the saying goes, and it applies to this film as we see a world that has been replaced with the hyper-modern Taiwan of today. Each film presents a rich historical record of a nascent nation’s new confidence in its own identity whilst also tracing the colonial history and fractious politics that the country is founded upon.

With only one of the four films featuring sound and dialogue, there is an air of mystery to some of the imagery as sequences go by with little explanation. Nature abhors a vacuum and, having watched the screeners at home, a desire to hear and understand fills this gap which made me want to be at the festival where the films would benefit from an accompanying music soundtrack and introductions to the shorts programme by film academics, which is what Aperture provides. This shows how film festivals are important. Regardless, what is seen is enigmatic and fascinating as Taiwan is brought to life in a variety of different styles.

“Poetic Voices: A Trip Through the Taiwanese Avant-garde of the 1960s” is showing as part of the Aperture: Asia & Pacific Film Festival & UK Tour 2019.