Maggie-Lee-Artistic-director-CinemAsia-2018

Taiwan’s Cinema of Empathy or Why are Taiwanese So “Nice”?

Visitors to Taiwan often rave about the amazing cuisine, the vibrant arts, bookshop and cafe culture. Such a harmonious blend of tradition and contemporary sophistication in everyday life! But what they really marvel at, is how nice the locals are, whether it’s the gentle tone of their voices, the warm hospitality at shops and eateries, or passersby who always have time to help strangers find their way.

On Happiness Road

Taiwanese may be warm and generous to a fault, but it’s not because they’ve always led cushy lives as First World citizens. On the contrary, they have learned the importance of empathy and multiculturalism from their turbulent history of colonization, White Terror, Martial Law, and eventually economic miracle and democratization. These momentous changes form the rich historical fabric of our Opening Film, the awardwinning animation On Happiness Road. The coming-of-age of the heroine Chi, is a mirror of Taiwan’s own. From a wide-eyed girl to married woman whose American Dream turned sour, Chi’s search for happiness begins with reconciliation with her family and ends with the acceptance of her cultural roots.

Evolution of aboriginal arts and culture

Taiwan’s growth into a dynamic and diverse society is reflected in the evolution of aboriginal arts and culture into the mainstream. There’s a TV channel solely dedicated to aboriginals and films about aboriginal children are a beloved family-friendly genre. Laha Mebow is part of a movement of directors like Umin Boya (KANO) and Lekal Sumi (Panay), to portray a positive image of their fellow indigenous peoples in audience-friendly films. With a cast of mostly aboriginal descent, her second film Hang in There, Kids is a delightful, ecological evocation of life in a Sqoyaw reserve.

Although it takes time to undo centuries of oppression of indigenous peoples and discrimination of their ancestral values, the film nonetheless finds a smart and cheeky way of educating audiences in cultural duality. In a hilarious scene, three rambunctious boys visit a zoo on a school trip to Taipei. While the Han Chinese guide preach the preservation of endangered animals, the boys offer him tips on how to make deer stew — hunting being an honorable and sustainable way of life on the reserve.

A musical journey

Empathy is also the key to making international connections, a mindset that guides Laha Mebow during the search for ethnic identity in her latest film, Ça Fait Si Longtemps. A documentary recording the musical journey to former French colony New Caledonia, acclaimed aboriginal singer-composer-actor Sumin Rupi and “fingerstyle” guitarist Baobu Badulu meet and jam with indigenous reggae musicians. Some believed that centuries ago, ancestors of New Caledonians might have crossed the Pacific Ocean and settled in Taiwan. As they visit different tribes and compare their language and social rituals to their own, it is both a discovery of roots and musical crossover that stimulate their creativity after they return home. Sumin and Baobu continue the illustrious line of indigenous music talents like A-Mei (Kullilay Amit), Ara Kimbo, Sammi Kao, Sharon Kao, Esther Huang (both star in Hang in There, Kids) who made waves in Taiwan’s pop and folk scene.

Tolerance

A society’s advancement is not strictly measured by GDP, but also by tolerance. Taiwan sets an example in Asia for being the first in its march towards legalizing same-sex marriage. Dear Ex is based on a real life incident that became the catalyst for the movement. In this riotous dramedy, the widow of a professor must learn to get along with his gay lover when her teenage son moves in with him, to escape her nagging. It’s a side-splitting collision of personalities, habits and emotions, but they find common ground through the vital link of the offspring of their loved one. That Dear Ex won Audience Award at Taipei Film Festival this June indicates public support for the LGBTIQ movement.

Sympathy and understanding are also sentiments that Xiao Mei wishes to elicit from the audience. In this stylish and structurally daring mystery, a missing girl’s whereabouts and her drug problem are pieced together by different people she crossed paths with: her landlord, her ex-boyfriend, her brother, her boss, the businessman she got into a car accident with. Director Maren Hwang and producer-D.P. Chung Mong-hung assert that are many angles to look at something, so one should avoid being judgemental.

Cultural sensitivity

It is generally known that Taiwanese are very welcoming to tourists, but what are they like as foreign guests? Cultural sensitivity and international cooperation are celebrated in Omotenashi, which pits Taiwanese business pragmatism against the Japanese concept of hospitality. The Japanese service code of anticipating a guest’s needs and serving from the heart is ultimately a spirit that applies beyond the service industry to being accomodating and considerate to everyone. A Japanese-Taiwan co-production directed by American-raised Jay Chern, this film points the way to how Taiwanese filmmakers can make use of their affability and openness to participate in more overseas projects.

Maggie Lee

Artistic Director
CinemAsia Film Festival