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.
The only thing I knew before sitting down to watch Stan Lai”s The Peach Blossom Land (Anlian Taohua Yuan, 1992) was that Christopher Doyle was the film”s cinematographer, Brigitte Lin had a starring role and that Stan Lai, the film”s writer/director, had an equally impressive stage career. Beyond that I was clueless as to what to expect from Lai”s debut as a filmmaker. Although the film is a transposition of Lai”s most famous stage play for the screen, it would be an egregious mistake to assume that The Peach Blossom Land is merely a filmed stage play.
Begun as a series of sketches by Performance Workshop, a renowned Taiwanese theater troupe, Secret Love for the Peach Blossom Spring premiered in Taipei in 1986 with such critical fanfare that, in 2007, it was chosen as one of the top ten Chinese plays of the century. Taking the simple premise of two stage productions attempting to rehearse in the same theater space, Lai”s film takes the inherent comedy of the situation and imbues it with an equal part of nostalgic melancholy to create a very wry commentary about the displaced Chinese residents in Taiwan who still long to return back home.
The play was written in the mid-1980s and premiered a year before the end of martial law in 1987, a time when Taiwan”s political relationship with mainland China improved to the point that tourism to and from these countries was possible for the average citizen. Questions of identity were on the minds of not just politicians, but also writers, filmmakers, and artists. The mashing up of two plays, the melodramatic Secret Love and the fabulist The Peach Blossom Land, was a genius move by Lai since melodrama and mythology share many of the same characteristics: both employ exaggerated plots and characters, their enjoyment depends on at least a basic understating of social and cultural customs/history, and both genres are rooted in a longing for an idealized past.
Secret Love has at its center the story of Yun Zhifan (Brigitte Lin) and Jiang Bingliu (Chin Shih-Chieh) two college students who are separated first by a World War and then the political strife brewing between Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-Shek. Both independently find themselves making the sojourn to Taiwan in the 1950s to escape the repressive Communist government, but it takes another 30 years before they are reunited again. In stark contrast, the production for The Peach Blossom Land is a baroque absurdist comedy about the cuckolded fisherman Old Tao (Lee Li-Chun) who upon getting lost in a storm washes up in the eponymously named Peach Blossom Land, an Edenic paradise, and lives there for several years with a married couple, played by Ismene Ting Nai-Zang and Gu Bao-Ming, who look exactly like the wife and scheming landlord he left behind. Though he loves his new life nostalgia brings him back to his old hometown but upon his arrival he online casino is mistaken for a ghost and the family he left behind cannot accept his return nor can they believe his stories about the land of Peach Blossoms.
These two differing tales share the common theme best exemplified by a quote from American author Thomas Wolfe:
You can”t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, … back home to a young man”s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time-back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.
The two male protagonists in Secret Love and The Peach Blossom Land are torn away from their respective homes, Jiang Bingliu by the winds of political change and Old Tao by the literal winds of a storm, and though they find themselves in a foreign land they refuse the opportunity to build a new life there. Bingliu on his deathbed clings onto the past and even though his college love Yun Zhifan has obviously moved on, having married and had kids just as Bingliu had done, he clings onto the memory of their last night together. The repetition of this one night is repeated over and over again throughout Lai”s film, the narrative reason being the actors are rehearsing the scene in an attempt to please the director, but thematically it can be read as a comment on the displaced Chinese who are stuck in their own memory-loops hoping that they can make sense of the traumatic events in Chinese history which they had no part in, but were still greatly effected by.
Old Tao”s story, though more rooted in comedy, repeats this same sentiment but Lai adds a twist in his illustrating the inhabitants of the Peach Blossom Land, which obviously represents Taiwan, being completely ignorant of their past and what lies outside their borders. Tao”s anxiety and reason for leaving then is his attempt at engaging the world, but because he has been absent for so long he is thought of as a ghost. Just as Taiwan, whose presence on the world stage was always that of a colony, first by the Dutch, then the Chinese, followed by the Japanese and finally being controlled by the Kuomintang regime. With no formal identity, Taiwan really was like a mythological place, spoken about but always in relation to whatever country was governing it.
Beyond the complicated issues the film raises, the film”s aesthetic look is another topic for discussion. Unlike his work with Wong Kar-Wai, Christopher Doyle”s camerawork is far more reserved in The Peach Blossom Land. Keeping his camera stationary for most of the film”s runtime, save for a few tracking shots towards the end of the film, Doyle”s invisible camerawork captures the actors and the stagehands as they attempt to function in such a limited space. Though the realistic stage design of Secret Love clashes with the bright gaudy colors of The Peach Blossom Land“s sets they do eventually form a beautiful mess, dialogue, props, and characters blend together till you really can”t decipher where one production ends and another one is attempting to start. An apt metaphor for Taiwan itself which, although finally an independent state, could not divorce itself from the influence of its past colonizers.