“Flowers of Taipei: Taiwan New Cinema” – 2015 SDAFF Review

It’s impossible to imagine what our cinematic landscape would be without Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Jia Zhang-ke, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, or Hirokazu Kore-eda. These filmmakers are critical darlings and successful commercial directors who have opened cineastes’ eyes to the transformative and transcendental power of film. And yet, as first-time documentarian Hsieh Chin-lin eloquently states in her documentary “Flowers of Taipei: Taiwan New Cinema” (光陰的故事-台灣新電影, 2014), the root genesis of each of these disparate auteurs is one country and one very essential film movement.

Under the haze of politic unrest and cultural upheaval, Taiwan was a powder keg waiting to explode during the ‘70s. As the country elevated itself economically, the Taiwanese middle class began to push for a national identity that separated itself from the looming shadow of China. Within this firmament a group of primarily young men would coalesce as a collective to birth the Taiwanese New Wave. As a film movement, it lasted only a few years and commercially the films produced would be considered a financial failure in any era. However, as all the talking heads in the documentary lovingly state, the films and filmmakers that belonged to that collective were somehow able to capture on celluloid a truth that translated universally, though Taiwanese in origin.

With financial backing from the Taipei City Government’s Department of Cultural Affairs it should be no surprise to anyone that “Flowers of Taipei” is a tribute to the Taiwanese filmmakers you love or never heard about. Hsieh does spend an inordinate amount of time discussing Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s careers, but she doesn’t snub the other less well-known auteurs that were working and collaborating with Yang and Hou during that time. The documentary devotes several minutes to presenting film clips from a variety of pictures, and the clips she showed did a good job enticing the viewer to search for these movies. Add to that, Hsieh traveled all over Asia, Europe, and even South America to interview a variety of directors, artists, curators, and festival directors.

That variety contributes to several weak points in this documentary.  Ai Weiwei must have been a great get for Hsieh, but his contribution felt more like a retread of what everyone before him had been saying already. A discussion by two Chinese filmmakers on the importance of Taiwan New Cinema in comparison to China’s Fifth Generation filmmakers was a bit heavy-handed, boring, and pretentious. Also, the film had a shortage of interviews with the Taiwanese directors and their collaborators during that era. Hou appears for a few minutes at the end and Tadanobu Asano spends a few minutes sharing a story about the filming of Hou’s “Café Lumiere” (2003), but that’s it. Shu Qi, Chang Chen, and Doze Niu are all famous, still active in the film industry, and were integral to defining Taiwanese cinema yet they only appear in this documentary in film clips.

For enthusiasts of Asian cinema, “Flowers of Taipei: Taiwan New Cinema” will be a retread of familiar faces, films, and historical discussions. However, for the neophyte it is a valuable 104-minute primer recounting the history and influence of the burgeoning Taiwanese New Wave during the early- to mid-‘80s. Hsieh’s documentary is a cinematic love letter of that bygone era.

“Flowers of Taipei: Taiwan New Cinema” screens on Sun., Nov. 8, at 2:10 p.m. as part of the 2015 San Diego Asian Film Festival.  For ticket information, go to festival.sdaff.org.