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In Search of New Genres and Directions for Asian Cinema

November 10, 2009 | By

One cannot but admire Hou Hsiao-hsien generosity to put himself on the firing line both as a fighter and a symbolic presence to lead the Taiwanese film industry out of its current stagnation.

In the past few years, Hou Hsiao-hsien has reluctantly but resolutely taken a more active role in helping to boost Taiwan’s film industry. He set up a website, SinoMovie, to provide information on Taiwanese cinema. He created and taught in a film program to train young filmmakers. He started an annual festival to encourage people to pick up their DV camcorder and shoot. He gave up his own film project for 2002 to devote his time exclusively to the promotion of Taiwanese cinema. When Hou can easily go on to make his own films the way he likes, one cannot but admire his generosity to put himself on the firing line both as a fighter and a symbolic presence to lead the Taiwanese film industry out of its current stagnation, if not demise.

This text, with Hou’s permission, has been edited together from his various verbal contributions and comments made at a seminar at Taipei Home on 18 December 2002. Hou’s urgent concern in finding new directions for Taiwan’s film industry is vividly captured here. How can Taiwanese cinema become more genre oriented to open up its Asian-Pacific market without losing its “local colour”? Most of his remarks focus on this difficult but inevitable issue. He does not talk about abstract theories, only the most practical aspects of trans-national cooperation, the need for creative producers, and a sound industrial structure to sustain the writers and directors.

                                                                                             – Lin Wenchi

9-a (Somewhere over the dreamland)I have seen so many films, Taiwanese films and Asian films, that I could not but notice a trend, a direction. I feel it’s of tremendous importance to the future of Taiwan and the whole Asian-Pacific area. I know that Korea is doing very well by following this trend closely, while actively seeking new directions and possibilities. I would like to share some of my experiences from inside this trend. Among the films I saw, I feel Cheng Wen-tang’s Somewhere Over the Dreamland (2002) is a relatively “heavy” film. What is this heaviness? It’s less an issue of emotions than form. On the other hand, there are films like Amelie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001) from France and My Sassy Girl (Kwak Jae-young, 2001) from Korea: their form is relatively “light”. A significant issue should be brought up here, which concerns the mindset of the young generation as well as the change of rhythm and form in the contemporary world. It has nothing to do with the content, for the content remains the same.

Of course, society is changing all the time. We sense this change when we feel the pressure of the world or the transformation of forms and a shift in approaches. In the past we might have experienced the coming of a new epoch with its revolutions and suppressions, all the familiar things under an authoritarian regime. You would harbour a revolutionary sentiment or embrace socialism. But now it’s completely changed. Now, in this age, which is absolutely modern and individualistic, there is this so-called “unbearable lightness of being”. But essentially it’s still very heavy. This lightness of an individual’s love and feelings, however, has to deal with a world that’s as hard as a rock. The new genre of contemporary cinema is basically an attempt to find a form to deal with this heavy burden on the individual’s love and feelings, or simply the burden on his existence. Isn’t our existence an endless marching along under suppression? That’s what I call the burden of existence.

Therefore, films like Amelie, Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998) and My Sassy Girl are on the other side of the spectrum of weight. On this side we can also add films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (Guy Ritchie, 1998) which deal with the same issue with an even more humorous attitude, as well as cinematic glamour (which requires a powerful film industry). They are examples of a kind of film that Taiwan does not have. I mention them because I think Amelie is realistic in the style of Japanese manga comics with its use of verbal sign languages like a form used on paper. Amelie resorts to various ways of dealing with her problems, to break through her old self. They are all “light” ways, not heavy ones. Even though we live in a real world and are fully aware that no problem can be solved this way, the film still suggests to its audience a motivation. They find it acceptable and moving. That’s modernity to me. It’s the atmosphere and rhythm of modernity and modern society which produces films like Amelie.

9-b(Amelie)

Can we sense what is the most needed film rhythm in the Taiwanese and Asian-Pacific areas? Take My Sassy Girl for example. It sold some 5 million tickets in Korea and also did very well here in Taiwan and in Hong Kong. On the other hand, another Korean film, Friend (Kwak Kyung-taek, 2001), sold some eight million tickets in Korea but was not equally successful in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The issue here is a film’s local elements.

Peter Chan Ho-Sun has made the good suggestion that about ten or twenty per cent of an Asian national cinema should try to incorporate trans-national elements. This is exactly my point also: a cinema cannot be merely local within the Chinese-speaking region. It has to be Asian-Pacific. We have all suffered from economic regression. The best film markets now are Korea and Thailand. If they can become more international or Asian-Pacific – their film industries will last even longer. Why? You simply cannot stay in your local space and shoot and shoot without any box office. Then your local audience gradually loses interest and leaves. It happened in Taiwan and Hong Kong was subsequently brought down, for it relied heavily on Taiwanese investment. It began with Chow Yun-Fat and then Stephen Chiau and Andy Lau. Whenever they had a hit, Taiwan would send in money for similar films to be made as quickly as possible. This frenzy led Hong Kong to repeat the same films in great quantity for ready money. About five or six years ago, not many Taiwanese wanted to see Hong Kong movies. Why? Because they all seemed to be the same film, with their predictable stories.

As long as many films from different countries on different subjects are poured into Korea and Thailand, and there are also local films that are doing well, then this kind of cooperation will benefit both sides. With more films doing well in other countries, the local audience would be able to see a greater variety of films. And Korean and Thai directors would have more inspiration from all these films. Since every director is facing different situations, he has to find his own way to break through the local restrictions, both in terms of filmmaking and culture, and find the fine balance between film genre and personal vision.

9-c(Fallen Angels)Wong Kar-wai is a good example here. His Fallen Angels (1996) is a “hired killer” genre film. But he has his own unique approach. Of course there can be conflicts between genre and auteurism, i.e., making the films the way you like. Take my own Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996) as another example. I made that film about gangsters, gang societies and social outcasts because I was very familiar with them. But it’s not exactly a genre film. Just like Wong’s example shows, what you are doing is searching for new directions. Of course you have to start from your own position, your uniqueness. But you need to have a good picture of the situation of the whole Asian-Pacific region.

Let me follow up on the point made by Jeong on the positive role a government can play in the film industry. You can see clearly that Shiri (Kang Je-gyu, 1999) was the turning point for the Korean film industry. Prior to that the country was in financial crisis. Since 1996 the Korean government has been actively promoting film. With that kind of eagerness and those conditions, an atmosphere was created. Taiwan is doing much better this year than the year before. If we can expand this atmosphere via the mass media and all possible channels, and the government helps too, we may attract an even broader audience. Then one film will come out to ignite the bomb and mark the turning point. More opportunities will then be available as more money is invested in film. The film industry of Taiwan lacks a sound industrial structure for the distribution and use of investment, and the sharing of profit. You need this structure so that the profits go to the writers and directors. I hate to tell you how the profit was shared in the past. You got what they felt like giving you and there was simply no way for you to argue with that. It has always been like that. Therefore it’s very important that we create an atmosphere to bring about this turning point and set up a good profit-sharing mechanism.

We can now approach the issue from another direction after the success of the Japanese film Ring (Hideo Nakata, 1988). Just like Shiri was the ignition point of Korean cinema, Ring started the Asian frenzy for making ghost movies. The crucial element of their success lies in the use of local elements. The films are firmly rooted in local culture. Peter Chan Ho-Sun’s Going Home in Three (2002) also has its strong local element, that is, the way it uses traditional medical herbs to preserve a human corpse and revive it. You may be surprised to find that the Japanese audience has no problem accepting a story like this. In fact, they know a lot about traditional Chinese medicine and medicinal herbs..

In Search of New Genres and Directions for Asian Cinema Do we have no local elements of our own in Taiwan? There are many. A director may have certain good ideas or visions, but it takes a good producer with acute sensitivity to turn it into a hit. How does a producer achieve this? He does it by placing it on the right track. Let’s take Wu Mi-sen’s film Fluffy Rhapsody (2000) for example. It can be turned into a ghost story, you know. Whether you want it to be scary or not is an adjustment of direction. I don’t think there are any fixed rules. Everyone is different. A producer has his own perspective. If he understands his director well and vice versa, there will be good cooperation. We watch all kinds of films, Hollywood and European films, and we may try different things. But local elements are the indispensable foundation on which each should try to find his ignition point.

A good film industry should have two areas: mainstream and alternative. The alternative sector should always be experimental and independent However, how do you locate your unique quality and position and reach out to a wider territory from there? Every director is different in this respect. Some can only stay on the alternative side. Some never figure out that they belong to the mainstream and stand on the wrong side from the start. To be sure you are making the right choices you can’t simply rely on yourself. You need to be well informed and have long-term working relationships with good producers and executive producers.

In Search of New Genres and Directions for Asian Cinema
My City of Sadness (1989), a unique film for it has a very local subject, not only got a big award but was also extremely popular in Taiwan. There was no way it could sell outside Taiwan, due to its complicated historical background, so that was about the best it could do. Did I consider the international market then? Frankly speaking, no. I still had many subjects I could film and I always chose what I thought was best at that time. When I made Flowers of Shanghai (1998) I didn’t even give it any consideration. I simply made it. I was happily surprised to see it so well received in France. But my films are still about this land and how I feel towards it. I am not saying you should not cross over national boundaries. To me it’s only a technical matter, nothing difficult at all. You have to find the right way to approach the right subject for yourself. No one can do that for you. You do not need to make films that we think are proper, or feel compelled to make certain kinds of films because they have been praised or recognised. Never let yourself be tied up by these thoughts. Be creative and unpredictable for every film you make. That’s best. This is all I want to say.

Note

The original article is edited marginally and republished here without sacrificing any central thoughts and after seeking permission from the editor and the author. It was accessed on June15, 2009 from the website: www.rouge.com.au/1/hou.html

(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)

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Hou Hsiao-hsien is a famous Taiwanese film maker and winner of major international awards.
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