In Defence of Wang Tung’s Nativist Trilogy: The Black Sheep of the Taiwanese New Cinema [DCCFF 2017]
For most fans of the Taiwanese new cinema, the only trilogies that probably matter are those from Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang. There is however a series by Wang Tung coined “the nativist trilogy” that doesn’t quite get the same level attention. Although Wang is considered part of the Taiwanese new cinema (early 1980s-1990s), he is often done so in a back-handed way, Commonly regarded as the ‘mediocre’ loose end where his association was more about timing than a credible contribution. This piece will hopefully give ‘old man Wang’ more of a fair shake and highlight aspects of his “Nativist Trilogy” that have been unfairly overlooked.
Wang was the most experienced member of the new cinema, having worked in the film industry since the health realism era of the 1960s. He was a bit of a ‘jack of all trades’, working in several areas of production, specifically art direction. Wang’s reputation was so prominent that Shohei Imamura used him as an art direction adviser during the making of Zegen in 1987.
Considering that Wang is commonly ignored for his new cinema contributions, his film A Flower in the Rainy Night (1983) was one of the movement’s first success stories and famously went on to out perform key films like In Our Time (1982) and The Sandwich Man (1983) at the box office. As such, it’s important to note that when I say Wang’s work was ignored, I mean by critics and new cinema champions of the time. In fact, Wang’s films have mostly been quite popular amongst general Taiwanese audiences.
The “nativist trilogy” began with The Strawman (1987). Set on a farm during the 1940s when the Japanese occupation was nearing its end and observes two brothers who live together with their crowded families. The narrative is broken into two key events. The first is when a rich family moves into their home as a safe space, this was to avoid the dangers of city-life during the war. As a result the poorer families are pushed aside and left with even less than they already had. In the second, we witness an unexploded bomb land on the farm and the various mishaps they encounter attempting to figure out what to do with it.
His next film was Banana Paradise (1989) wherein Wang diverts his attention to mainland characters fleeing to Taiwan with the KMT (National Revolutionary Army) in the late 1940s. Despite believing Taiwan is the ‘land of milk and honey’, the protagonists are subject to various forms of paranoid persecution. The film does not channel its censure towards Taiwan however, but the harsh rule of military leader Chaing Kai-Shek. Specifically the aftermath of the White Terror incident of 1947, a subject Hou addressed in A City of Sadness in the same year.
The last film in this series is The Hill of No Return (1992). Set during the 1920s in the small gold mining town of Chiu-Fen, where two brothers find themselves lodging with a windowed prostitute after feeling a landowner. Their intention was to jump onboard the gold rush of the time, but as seen in Banana Paradise, the fruitful utopia is merely an illusion. As with all of the films in this trilogy, there is no cohesive story. They are made up of various episodes flowing together seamlessly, balancing comedy and drama with both finesse and sensitivity.
The initial issue many had with Wang came from the fact he was from a privileged background, but still felt compelled to make films about poor rural communities. This caused a backlash as the new cinema was known for authenticity and the personal voices of the local talent. Wang originally coming from the mainland didn’t help with this stigma, either. Hou was also born in China, but was excused due to his humble rural upbringing. Like Wang, Edward Yang had a comfortable childhood, but also avoided such criticisms as he typically only made films about characters from similar backgrounds. Unfortunately, it seemed too many influential people felt Wang was representing things he could never properly relate to.
It is important to remember, though, that each film from Wang’s “nativist trilogy” depicts an important era of Taiwanese history where the presence of different colonisers caused unique political and cultural repercussions. Having a director so often dismissed because of his foreign and well-heeled background be so critical of Taiwan’s overseas oppressors isn’t even subtly ironic.
I do realise that my opinion will always be obscured with the distorted lens of western voyeurism. Taiwanese history and culture is something I will never relate to, so arguing about Wang’s representation of them is a debate I’ll avoid out of respect. However my point is valid – politics are the primary reason why Wang’s work was never properly appreciated, not necessarily artistic inferiority.
I may be countered on this point by those who feel Wang’s work lacks the auteur sensibilities of other new cinema filmmakers, whether it’s Hou’s unique poetic distance or Yang’s aesthetic dissection of urban isolation and anomie leaving Wang’s work looking rather run of the mill in comparison. There is even the lack of beautifully long takes we see in the films of Chang Yi, Wan Ren, or Kun-hou Chen, a characteristic we have almost come to expect from this era.
All valid points, but this could so easily result in us missing the emotive and historical value of Wang’s work. His films may be technically conventional, but his strong characters and emphasis on small moments do compensate on some level.
This is evident in The Strawman, where the poor children are peaking into their own house, salivating as rich guests eat a modest banquet. Eager to get his hands on some leftovers the younger boy watches anxiously, hoping the guests will leave one side of the fish behind. “Rich people never eat both sides of the fish” is uttered, only raising the children’s hopes even more. When the fish is eventually flipped over and the bottom half is devoured, the small boy cries loudly in dismay. Wang’s well-observed work is often made up of such deceptively trivial moments that almost always outshine the central stories.
Another common critique is Wang’s frequent use of comedy, which apparently prevented him from being considered a “serious” contributor of the era. But it is possible that the formal approach of other new cinema directors have influenced a criterion too narrow to properly appreciate Wang’s work?
The humour takes nothing away from his beautifully observed and loveable characters. They are never depicted in a patronising way, only with warmth and charisma. You never really feel pity for them, just anger and frustration that the people you care about so much have been subject to such injustice. The comedic elements are also fairly subtle compared to what you’d usually expect in a drama comedy. The poignant and sombre moments clearly outweigh the humour. Wang has a good enough instinct knowing when something should be tackled seriously for his hasty dismissal to be unwarranted.
Much like his contemporary Chang Yi, Wang’s nativist films are commercially inclined, but are restrained enough to avoid the implications of melodrama. They are emotional, but never guilty of being sappy. The dramatic distance may not be as modernist as other figures of the movement, but enough to make his trilogy a worthy contribution to this incredibly important period of cinema.
‘Riding the Waves’ — A DC Chinese Film Festival Retrospective of the New Wave Chinese Cinema of the 80’s and 90’s runs from September 21-24.