Edited by Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh, Darrell William Davis, and Wenchi Li
Reviewed by Ming-Yeh T. Rawnsley
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright June, 2023)
It has always been a rewarding experience to read works by Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh and Darrell William Davis. In their Taiwan Film Directors: A Treasure Island (2007), Yeh and Davis took an auteur approach and provided readers with a careful study of several Taiwan-based filmmakers, including Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Edward Yang, Ang Lee, and Tsai Ming-liang. That volume explored Taiwan film directors’ particular styles of image composition and editing patterns, as well as how, from a larger perspective, their artistic trajectories and career developments were related to Taiwan’s social, political, and cultural history. One year later in East Asian Screen Industries (2008), Davis and Yeh adopted an industry-focused approach and articulated new benchmarks set by Japanese, South Korean, and the three Chinese-language cinemas—Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the People’s Republic of China. Their examination of structural features and strategies employed by these five film industries between the 1990s and the 2000s illuminated an emerging trend of “increasing decentralisation, deregulation and regional cooperation” (p. 3). This framework has contributed enormously to our understanding of East Asian screen cultures and talents within the global flow of communications.
In their new volume, 32 New Takes on Taiwan Cinema, published in December 2022, Yeh and Davis team up with co-editor Wenchi Lin and take a conventional approach from the discipline of film studies—that is, a meticulous examination of individual films. As the editors state, their aim is to reveal a wide spectrum of Taiwanese cinematic output in addition to updating the existing literature. Their stated criteria of selection include (1) films that represent different historical settings, genres, auteurs, and formats in the post-war era; (2) films that are less studied in the English language literature; (3) prioritizing films produced in the twenty-first century; (4) films that are readily available for viewing with bilingual subtitles and suitable audio-visual quality; and (5) films that the contributors themselves prefer (p. 2). Based on the above considerations, Yeh, Davis, and Lin offer readers thirty-two original interpretations of films released between 1963 and 2017, arranged chronologically, which together demonstrate a fresh and expansive perspective on Taiwan cinema.
Since the appearance of Taiwan New Cinema (TNC) in the 1980s, directors of TNC’s so-called “first and second waves” have attracted the attention of scholars of world cinema, curators of international film festivals, and cinephiles all over the world. While the works of TNC are of tremendous value, much of Taiwan cinema’s great variety of genres, filmmakers, and narratives remains to be discovered. Some recent scholarship in the discipline of Taiwan cinema studies has begun to undertake the task of broadening the field beyond TNC and its auteurs through the inclusion of not only contemporary filmmakers and works, but also the forgotten past of Taiwan cinema (e.g. Berry/Lu 2005; Hong 2011; Lee 2012; Mon 2016; Chiu/Rawnsley/Rawnsley 2017; Chang 2019; Berry/Rawnsley 2020; Pickowicz/Zhang 2020; and Lim 2022).
32 New Takes on Taiwan Cinema echoes the above scholarly efforts and further enriches the field by delivering detailed analyses of less well-known films and opening up multiple possibilities for future interpretations and other modes of film studies scholarship. In addition to following a chronological order, the book also groups the chosen films into seven clusters, so as to highlight shared characteristics and interconnections. These clusters are: (1) Taiwanese-language cinema (three films) vs. Mandarin cinema (three films); (2) films dealing with war and national allegory (six films); (3) gangster genre and Taiwanese noir (four films); (4) road movies (three films); (5) relatively unfamiliar masterpieces by auteurs (three films); (6) films tackling LGBTQ issues (three films); and (7) films about making homes in Taiwan and making Taiwan home (seven films) (p. 4). Although the boundaries between clusters are not always clear cut and each film may easily be placed in more than one cluster, the importance of this clustering is to foreground Taiwan’s previously unacknowledged rich and diverse cinematic heritage.
At over 500 pages comprised of thirty-three chapters and more, 32 New Takes on Taiwan Cinema does not lend itself to detailed summary and the chapters themselves employ a rich diversity of methodological approaches and rhetorical styles. To this reviewer, one of the most significant contributions of the volume is the overall research question posed by Yeh, Davis, and Lin—namely, what may “national cinema” mean in Taiwan under different historical, cultural, and political contexts? For example, should privately-produced Taiwanese dialect films (台語片) qualify as Taiwan national cinema in the 1950s and the 1960s, since, at that time, the overwhelming majority of the population spoke the Taiwanese dialect? By contrast, the Kuomintang (KMT) government during the same decades officially endorsed films featuring the Mandarin dialect, which the KMT had prescribed as the “national language” (國語); thus, Mandarin dialect films by default became Taiwan’s literal “national cinema” under the mantle of “national language films” (國語片), facilitating the ruling government’s nation building project. Another contender would be war epics, which tell stories of national survival and are surely also national cinema, but Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 through the end of the Second World War, further complicating the “national” aspect of Taiwan-made war films. Adding to the national cinema mix are TNC works that ponder the island’s past and present through powerful national allegories; however, the arthouse tendency of most TNC films often led to failure at the local box-office. While these TNC films arguably have a claim to the title of “national cinema,” might it not be more fitting to categorize as national cinema much more popular commercial productions, such as Qiong Yao’s wenyi 文藝 (the fine arts, literally “literature and art”) melodramas or locally produced martial arts/gangster genres, all of which unquestionably cultivated Taiwanese citizen’s mass viewing experiences? Road movies, as well, explore Taiwan both geographically and emotionally and might be said to constitute a unique type of national cinema. Similarly, owing to the values they embody, the argument could be made for including under the cluster “national cinema” LGBTQ issue films and films about home in/as Taiwan, considering that Taiwan, though unable to represent itself as a nation, ranks #8 on the World Democracy Index of most democratic countries (compiled by the UK-based Economist Intelligence Unit), and presents itself on the global stage as a geopolitical leader in free elections, freedom of speech, multiculturalism, multilingualism, and gender equality. In other words, a considerable degree of Taiwanese “national identity,” so to speak, gravitates around citizens’ shared upholding of such values.
Attempts to answer any of these questions may lead to the discovery of surprising inways and insights into our understanding of Taiwan cinema, and will also inject intellectual energy into debates on key film studies concepts such as national cinema. 32 New Takes on Taiwan Cinema marks an exciting advancement in the (English-language) scholarship on Taiwan cinema, presenting informative background information, thematic groupings, historical contextualizations, and accessible film interpretations that will be of interest to scholars, students, and general readers.
Ming-yeh T. Rawnsley
Centre of Taiwan Studies, SOAS
 For instance, Davis and Yeh’s method helps scholars in the field to situate developments in the industry such as East Asian television series becoming more readily accessible on international streaming services (e.g., Netflix and Amazon Prime); their approach also assists us in contextualizing such phenomena as how and why a Malaysian-born actress like Michelle Yeoh might launch a film career in Hong Kong, gain international recognition via a Hollywood-produced James Bond film (Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997), earn a leading role in Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), then become the first Asian woman to win the coveted best actress award at the 2023 Academy Awards.
Berry, Chris and Fei-I Lu, eds. 2005. Island on the Edge: Taiwan New Cinema and After, Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong Press.
Berry, Chris and Ming-yeh T. Rawnsley, eds. 2020. “Special Issue on Taiwanese-language Films (taiyupian).” Journal of Chinese Cinemas 14, no. 2: 69–155.
Chang, Ivy I-chu. 2019. Taiwan Cinema, Memory, and Modernity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Chiu, Kuei-fen, Ming-yeh T. Rawnsley, and Gary D. Rawnsley, eds. 2017. Taiwan Cinema: International Reception and Social Change. London: Routledge.
Davis, Darrell William and Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh. 2008. East Asian Screen Industries, London: British Film Institute.
Hong, Guo-Juin. 2011. Taiwan Cinema: A Contested Nation on Screen. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Lee, Daw-Ming. 2012. Historical Dictionary of Taiwan Cinema. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Lim, Song Hwee. 2022. Taiwan Cinema as Soft Power: Authorship, Transnationality, Historiography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mon, Ya-Feng. 2016. Film Production and Consumption in Contemporary Taiwan: Cinema as a Sensory Circuit, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Pickowicz, Paul G. and Yingjin Zhang, eds. 2020. Locating Taiwan Cinema in the Twenty-First Century. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press.
Yeh, Emilie Yueh-yu and Darrell William Davis. 2007. Taiwan Film Directors: A Treasure Island. New York: Columbia University Press.