In celebration of the Centennial of the Republic of China, the Walter Reade Theater hosts a rare panorama of the ever-surprising Taiwanese Cinema – from the intimate looks at daily life in the early 1960s, to the breathtaking new wave of filmmakers that arose in the 1980s (such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang), and on to the fresh turning point marked by recent Taiwanese hits.
Song Cunshou”s Mu Qin San Shi Sui (Story of Mother, 1972) unapologetically embraces all the conventions of the family melodrama. Though you might laugh at all the contrivances in the story, its unironic approach to the neverending conflict between parents and children makes it worthy of any discerning cinephile”s attention. Although the most popular export of Asian cinema during Story of Mother“s release was the wuxia, exemplified by King Hu”s Xai Nu (A Touch of Zen, 1969), or the kung fu films of action superstar Bruce Lee the melodrama is a genre which has never lost its homegrown staying power in Taiwan.
Diving right into the action, the film opens with a young boy on his bike, chasing after a woman riding in a pedicab and then going inside a nondescript house. We follow the boy as he sneaks through the bushes and gasp along with him as he discovers the woman in bed, post-coitus, with a man. That boy will grow up to be Qingmao (Chin Han), an overachieving student with serious mother issues. And that woman, Qingmao”s mother, will suffer through an endless cycle of abusive men, feckless sons, and judgmental mothers. As one can tell from my terse plot description, Song Cunshou”s film doesn”t reinvent the wheel in regards to the family melodrama. But like a good Douglas Sirk weepy from the 1950s, the film might initially make you snicker at the bigger than life situations being played on the screen, but all of the cheesy dialogue, Freudian symbolism, and rack focus shots all add up to something. In short, style is substance.
To get a better understanding of why Story of Mother is such an important film within the larger picture of Taiwanese cinema, you have to look at the events occurring around the time of its production and release. By the end of the 1960s, the country”s rapid steps towards modernization had resulted in a commitment to providing a solid education system, opening its domestic markets to foreign competition, and investing in homegrown industries. These hard won victories in turn allowed Taiwan”s burgeoning film industry to create a national cinema. The first steps of which required the move away from the sermonizing of the “healthy realism” pictures of the 1950s and early 1960s, exemplified by Li Xing”s Our Neighbors (Jietou Xiangwei, 1963, review here), to more commercially viable genres, specifically the kung-fu/wuxia pictures, which were a popular sell to foreign film distributors.
Within this very cosmopolitan milieu stood Song Cunshou, an integral figure in Taiwanese cinema whose reputation rests on a series of controversial melodramas that he directed in the 1970s. From what little information there is available in English, Song Cunshou is mostly famous for giving Chinese cinematic icon Brigitte Lin her first breakthrough role in his racy 1972 feature Outside the Window (Chuang Wai) which depicts the very taboo relationship between a high school student and her teacher. Responding to the political and best online casino economic changes occurring within Taiwan at the time, Song”s melodramas are devoid of the blind optimism typical of films in the “healthy realism” vein and although they employ emotionally cloying dramatic techniques, his films are a precursor to the Taiwanese New Wave in the way that they embraced realism, sympathetically portrayed everyday life, and addressed never-before challenged beliefs and traditions.
As the film”s title clearly states, the central crux of the narrative lies with Qingmao”s mother, played by Lee Seung. She initially comes off as a caricature: a selfish she-devil who abandons her sick husband and small children to be with her portly lover (Kon Tak-Mun). However, we soon learn in the second act that her character is not as cut and dry. Lee”s performance upturns age-old Confucian tradition and eschews simplistic madonna-whore categorizing through her portrayal of a headstrong woman with very real passions and desires. Thus, although it may seem at first like Song”s film is espousing antiquated notions of femininity, one female character going so far as to state that “once a woman becomes a mother she can no longer be called a woman anymore”, Story of Mother is really more of a subversive jab at Taiwanese tradition and social custom.
Qingmao may have been the epitome of filial piety and obedience to Taiwanese audiences back then, but he is also guilty of cruelty, arrogance, and hypocrisy. Although he condemns his mother for abandoning her family, Qingmao does the exact same thing to his siblings as soon as his father dies, leaving his small hometown to live in cosmopolitan Taipei with his aunt and uncle. As a young man, his mood swings leave his family and girlfriend constantly flabbergasted at his hot-and-cold behavior and not to mention his borderline misogynistic belief that all women are like his “licentious” mother. The latter reveals more about his own narrow-minded thinking than it does about his own mother”s failings. Thus, although we may start off condemning the mother in the title, by the final reel we find the “villain” of Song”s film really to be the filial son who we ironically sympathized with at the beginning of the picture.
Although Story of Mother can be seen as an attack on antiquated traditional beliefs, it is also wary of the modernization rapidly occurring in Taiwan then and now. The quaintness of Qingmao”s hometown with its bicycle traffic and friendly pedicab drivers stands in contrast with the aggressive metallic behemoths of Taipei”s cars, buses, and trains which clog the soundtrack. Beyond that, Song utilizes a clever little film in-joke by using Italian composer Ennio Morricone”s score from Sergio Leone”s Once Upon a Time in the West (C”era una volta il West, 1968), a picture which not only had a female lead with a sexually promiscuous past, but also utilized the locomotive as a symbol of modernity.
Like many real-life family dramas, the conflict between Qingmao and his mother is never resolved. Old wounds may have scabbed over, but they will leave everlasting emotional scars for all those caught in the middle of the conflict. Though it is difficult to assess a director solely after viewing only one out at least 23 films that he”s directed, Story of Mother is integral to the overall discussion of Taiwanese cinema because it stands at the crossroads of Taiwan”s own history. Chiang Kai-shek would die a couple of years after the films release, martial law would end in less than 15 years after that, and the little island on the Pacific would go from being a Chinese territory and former Japanese colony to its own state. Having outgrown many of its antiquated ideals, Taiwan was still in search of a new system to fit its new modern look that its sons and mothers had inherited.