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10 best films of the Taiwanese New Wave

It’s a new world and there are a lot of stories we can tell each other.” – Edward Yang

Cinema was first introduced to Taiwan in 1901 under Japanese rule and has undoubtedly evolved through the years, from the colonial propaganda which the Japanese empire circulated in the early 20th century to the romantic melodramas or the kung-fu action films of the 1960s. However, the brightest period in the history of Taiwanese cinema still remains the ’80s and the ’90s when avant-garde filmmakers tried to speak truth to power by creating masterpieces which delivered social realism through the beauty and poignancy of the cinematic medium.

These works are collectively referred to as New Taiwanese Cinema and broken down into two distinct periods, the First Wave (1982 – 1990) and the Second New Wave which started in 1990 and continued until 2010. New Taiwanese Cinema is a chronicle of the socio-political, economic and even spiritual transformations that the rapidly changing country was undergoing, thanks to the dizzying effects of modernity.

One of the pioneers of the Taiwanese New Wave, Edward Yang, moved to the US to study electrical engineering at the University of Florida but his fascination with cinema prompted him to study film at the University of Southern California. He recalled, “I had given up and said, ‘I am not built for becoming a film-maker,’ until one night when I was driving downtown in Seattle and saw this sign outside a cinema saying ‘German New Wave: Aguirre, the Wrath of God‘ (Werner Herzog – 1972). I went in and that turned me around.”

While speaking about the movement in a 2001 interview, he added: “In the beginning, it was a collective effort. Our generation was taking over and there was a new, more energetic kind of film-making. But after we made a name for ourselves we had different directions to go in, and in the last 10 years it has been pretty much individual efforts.”

We take a look at some of the best works from this iconic movement in the history of cinema as a tribute to the achievements of the Taiwanese New Wave. In order to be more inclusive and to avoid cluttering the list with multiple works by the Edward Yang or Hou Hsiao-Hsien, we have decided to select one representative film by each filmmaker.

10 best films of the Taiwanese New Wave:

10. In Our Time (Edward Yang, Chang Yi, Ko I-Chen, Tao Te-chen – 1982)

Often considered to be the film that marked the beginning of the Taiwanese New Wave, this experimental anthology work is a collection of four vignettes, set in four different decades (from the ’50s to the ’80s), which feature the characters at different stages in their life. Although the first two parts of this ambitious project are relatively more impressing, In Our Time has tremendous symbolic value because it proved that the rejuvenation of the stagnant Taiwanese cinema was possible.

Made by young and talented newcomers who had approached cinema from various perspectives when they studied abroad, In Our Time broke away from the stifling conventions of the established filmmakers of that time. It is also notable for announcing the artistic inventions of one of the greatest Taiwanese filmmakers as well as world cinema: Edward Yang.

9. Tropical Fish (Chen Yu-Hsun – 1995)

A New Taiwanese cinema classic (yes, I understand it’s an oxymoron), this beautiful comedy-drama follows the misadventures of a daydreaming teenager/school failure who gets himself kidnapped because of his own curiosity. The film is astonishingly witty and even indulges in meta-commentary about the unrealistic priorities of society, featuring news reports which do not express concerns about the safety of the kidnapped child but whether he will be able to return in time to appear for his national exams.

Director Chen said, “Unlike the kind of taciturn life featured in New Taiwan Cinema, I see the hyper, passionate nature in Taiwanese people; so I told myself to shoot a film filled with dialogues and passionate characters.”

8. Strawman (Wang Tung – 1987)

Wang Tung is often excluded from the New Taiwanese cinema movement because he had worked in the film industry since the “health realism” period of the ’60s, employing relatively conventional filmmaking techniques in his works. Although he was dismissed by the critics for not being revolutionary enough, his films were commercial successes and well-received by Taiwanese audiences.

Despite all the criticisms levied against him, his Nativist Trilogy stands out as an important body of work from that period and has contributed to the New Taiwanese cinema movement in its own ways, placing pre-modernist comedic elements in opposition to poignant melancholy. Strawman is the first part of his Nativist Trilogy (which includes Banana Paradise and The Hill of No Return) and it chronicles the last days of Japanese rule in a Taiwanese village in a semi-comical style, signifying a literal as well as an allegorical shift in history.

7. The Peach Blossom Land (Stan Lai – 1992)

Set in 1949, the film is based on Stan Lai’s own stage play and is a brilliant attempt at trying to connect cinema to the theatre. It features two acting troupes who have booked the same rehearsal space, initially looking down on each other’s productions but ultimately realising that both the plays have a lot in common. In order to accentuate the visual narrative, the director even hired the creative team from Wong Kar-wai’s 1990 film Days of Being Wild: cameraman Christopher Doyle and designer William Chang.

In an interview last year, Stan Lai said: “I was at Michigan this year, and we showed the film version of [The Peach Blossom Land]. It’s from 1992 and should be a real oldie, but it just feels very new. We came across something that lasts and in its uniqueness. If you want to be more unique, or try to out-unique it, by deconstructing it, I guess you will get less mileage than if you approached it with the proper sense.”

6. Kuei-Mei, A Woman (Chang Yi – 1985)

A powerful melodrama from a talented and original director, this 1985 film is a striking portrait of a Taiwanese woman’s life from the age of 28 until her death at 54. It is the story of her never-ending struggle as she does everything she can to keep herself and her family fed and clothed.

National allegory is weaved into the narrative which follows Kuei-Mei, a poor girl from the mainland who relocates to Taiwan after the revolution and enters into a marriage of convenience with an alcoholic widower. His children reject her but she perseveres through the hardship and guides the family to stability. The film won the Golden Horse Award for Best Feature Film in 1985.

5. Growing Up (Kun-hou Chen – 1983)

Based on a screenplay which was the first collaboration between Hou Hsiao-hsien and Chu T’ien-wen, this 1983 drama is set in the northern coastal town of Tamsui and tells the story of a precocious boy who navigates the perils of a teenage life. The film is narrated by the boy’s female neighbour and depicts how he handles his mother’s new marriage and tries to indulge in juvenile romance himself.

Growing Up was the first film which attracted critical and public attention to the New Taiwanese cinema movement, much more than In Our Time. It showed how new filmmakers were interpreting cinema using different narrative and visual techniques and how Taiwan itself had changed so much.

4. A Borrowed Life (Wu Nien-jen – 1994)

The directorial debut of Wu Nien-jen, A Borrowed Life is an epic family drama set in a provincial mining-town in the 1950s. It explores the inter-generational transitions (like Edward Yang’s Yi Yi) and the fluidity of national identities through the central father-son relationship in the film. Martin Scorsese listed A Borrowed Life among his 10 favourite films from the ’90s.

“When I was writing the screenplay, I focused a lot on expressing my own feelings and thoughts, so that it was more like a collection of notes rather than a film script,” the filmmaker said. “I asked Hou Hsiao-Hsien if he was interested in directing. I knew that Hsiao-Hsien probably would not want to do it, as he was already engaged in other projects.

He added, “Instead he suggested that I make it myself. So I suddenly thought of becoming a director. If it had not been for this, I probably never would have thought of becoming a director—all I ever wanted to be was a good screenwriter.”

3. Rebels of the Neon God (Tsai Ming-liang – 1992)

One of the most stunning cinematic renditions of the malaise of youth and nihilism, Rebels of the Neon God is an irreverent masterpiece which deconstructs the fragility of old religions in the dystopian urban jungle that is the modern city. It follows a cabdriver’s son who drops out of the mindless monotony of prep school and tracks down the criminals who vandalised his father’s car. Tsai Ming-liang’s 1992 film is his beautiful thesis on the loneliness and fragmentation that modernity has brought about.

Tsai Ming-liang reflected, “In 1991 I filmed a miniseries on youth convicts. That’s when I found Lee Kang-sheng in the streets. His family, with its very classic Taiwanese structure—a father from the Mainland, married to a local Taiwanese mother—and their quintessentially Taiwanese house were all very attractive to me.

“Plus, his delinquency, his air of mystery, ennui, brooding silence, and slowness…the manner in which he smoked, all made me think of my strict father, who hardly spoke any words to me during my entire upbringing. After I finished filming Rebels of the Neon God, my father passed away. How I wished he could have seen a film I directed. How I wished I could understand him, be close to him, and even hug him.”

2. A Time to Live and A Time to Die (Hou Hsiao-Hsien – 1985)

Inspired by the director’s own childhood, A Time to Live and A Time to Die is the second part of Hou’s coming-of-age trilogy, preceded by A Summer at Grandpa’s (1984) and followed by Dust in the Wind (1986). The film follows a young boy’s family who travel from Mainland China to Taiwan, launching yet another inter-generational investigation of individual and collective identities. The boy quickly adapts to his new home and grows further apart from his family who have held onto their traditions.

This 1985 coming-of-age drama was Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s first major international success and also his first collaboration with cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin who would go on to work with him on many of his other masterpieces. The film received the Golden Horse Award for Best Original Script.

The acclaimed filmmaker explained, “What film captures is the world of humans, the human condition, and to capture the changes in their emotion, their conflicts and the obstacles they face. How you understand it depends on your own perspective. What motivated me to make films was how I saw these obstacles.”

He added, “You might begin by watching others and then reflecting on your similarities and you can eventually really see yourself as an outsider. Your expression will then be unique. You can observe the things that happen around you with your own perspective which is not like anyone else’s.”

1. A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang – 1991)

Based on a real incident that happened in 1961 when Yang was still in school, A Brighter Summer Day is the blinding apotheosis of the New Taiwanese cinema movement. This four-hour epic simultaneously condenses and expands new historicism with its examination of the country’s violent past, a time when young teenagers looked for personal subjectivity in street gangs and crime.

Edward Yang’s magnum opus focuses on the 14-year-old Xiao S’ir and his family who emigrated from the mainland in order to seek out better opportunities. However, the policies of the ruling government do not facilitate any growth and push the young boy into a life of juvenile delinquency and ultimately murder.

Screenwriter Hung Hung recalled, “Even before The Terrorizers, Edward was already interested in making A Brighter Summer Day, and in many ways the two films have important thematic parallels—particularly this idea of a society killing its own people.

The Terrorizers was about a contemporary moment in the 1980s, and you could say A Brighter Summer Day goes back and imagines how these ‘terrorizers’ grew up. Edward wanted to understand how this social instability and fear took hold, and how these people came to be who they were.”