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Should Taiwanese Cinema Be Considered Southeast Asian? A Brief Exploration of the Links and Implications Behind the Question

1 July 2020

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Should Taiwanese Cinema Be Considered Southeast Asian? A Brief Exploration of the Links and Implications Behind the Question

Whether Taiwan is or should be a part of Southeast Asia has continued to be a hot point of discussion throughout the years. There are inescapable variables, particularly with its demographic and history with the People’s Republic of China, that puts it squarely under East Asia. In terms of culture, however, is where the claim is the strongest.

Taiwan has a hard enough time being recognised as a country (particularly by its neighbour). To make any bold declarations as a Southeast Asian country, such as by being a part of ASEAN, would have catastrophic implications for all involved.

The central question explored here is if Taiwanese cinema should be considered Southeast Asian. Both share similar themes and styles. Taiwanese filmmakers, particularly from the Taiwan New Cinema movement, has also been largely influential for many Southeast Asian filmmakers.

However, instead of looking to find a definitive answer through analysing and cross-referencing films from both regions, I thought it would be interesting to explore the implications of the question.

As frustrating as it is, the lack of an easy answer sans film analysis perhaps shows that politics and arts will always be inextricably linked. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s emergence from illiberal democracy to haven for freedom of expression and the positive effects from the shift could make it a key case study for countries yet to follow along.

A Brief Summation of Taiwan’s Cultural History

Taiwan’s claim to be considered a Southeast Asian country could be traced back centuries. Before the mass immigrations of Han Chinese in the 17th century, what we know now as Taiwan was home to an indigenous population that shares a common ancestry with those in Southeast Asia. 

These people are collectively known as Austronesians, with the Austronesian language eventually splintering into modern languages such as Tagalog and Malay. This cross-pollination between what we consider today as Southeast Asia and Taiwan is so prevalent that Malay, Indonesian, and the Minnan languages continue to share similar vocabularies.

(Today, Taiwan’s indigeneous people make up about 2.38% of the island’s population / Image credit: justaiwantour.com)

Another link with Southeast Asia is with the common ancestry stemming from China, particularly from the coastal provinces of Fujian and Guangdong. These early migration patterns have led to deeply similar languages, culture, and traditions that a large number of Chinese in Southeast Asia share with today’s Taiwanese.

An Equally Brief Summation of Taiwan’s Film History

Similar to Indonesia,Taiwan’s introduction to cinema was through the Japanese. Under Japanese rule from 1895 to 1945, films intended for local consumption aimed at consolidating control and cultural assimilation.

The island saw itself under the Kuomintang government after the Japanese’s surrender, with its early years marked by limited censorship of films – particularly those from the defeated Axis powers. It was only with the KMT’s defeat in the mainland when regulations were tightened, partially by their belief that they lost the civil war due to the Chinese Communist’s victory over the hearts and minds of the mainlanders through its control of film. 

This period of Taiwanese “national” cinema would, again, see most films dedicated to propagandistic narratives and documentaries. A standout during this period was Too Late for Reunion (1947), produced with the overseas Chinese market in Southeast Asia in mind, showcasing glimpses of what would prelude deep cross-cultural pollination in film particularly from the 1980s onwards.

By the mid-1980s, Taiwan would begin democratisation, with its first direct presidential election in 1996. However, Taiwanese filmmakers were already beginning to make their mark in the country by 1982 with the anthology film In Our Time 光陰的故事

The film features four directors, Edward Yang, Tao Te-Chen, Ko I-Chen, and Yi Chang, who would go on to be integral in beginning what is now known as Taiwan New Cinema. While films from the movement were hardly successful domestically, they were international award winners with a lasting influence that continues to persist today. Themes tackled by these films would go on to inspire a generation of Southeast Asian filmmakers.

(Directors of the Taiwan New Cinema / Image credit: Film still of ‘Flowers of Taipei: Taiwan New Cinema’)

The Taiwanese government would ride the wave of resurgence, with initiatives such as the “newcomer policy” to rebuild the country’s film industry and to attract new talent. This push would go as far as bringing local films to colleges. One such example was the College Film Festival’s tour around the island in the early 1980s, offering free screenings and meet-the-crew sessions.

While Taiwan New Cinema and government-backed cinema would rarely be on the same page, the resulting conflict between the two movements created a dynamic environment paid attention by both locals and Chinese abroad.

This did not mean that Taiwan’s film industry would be on a constant trajectory upwards. Overseas co-productions and investments (particularly with Hong Kong and China), a growing relaxation of foreign film imports, and competing new media were all factors in local productions’ plunge in popularity. 

Still, the island would become a hotspot for aspiring filmmakers for locals and for Chinese from Southeast Asia with its numerous grants, vibrant film festival circuit, and governmental support. These factors signalled concerted efforts by the Taiwanese government to build up its cultural industry, with an eye on more than just economic benefits.

Back in Southeast Asia

In very, very broad strokes, film regulations and censorship, with the exception of Thailand, were about as tight in Southeast Asia as with the rest of Asia in the 20th century. No doubt, this was due to the rise of illiberal democracies and dictatorships during this period in the region. 

What little opportunities were given for creative expression were further stifled for the minority Chinese in Southeast Asia. While Singapore would be a demographic exception by having a Chinese majority, the country’s focus on rapid industrialization in its early years produced similar consequences for film. 

For the Chinese in Southeast Asia aspiring to be filmmakers, their options were limited. China was under communist control while Taiwan was under martial law in a period that would be known as “White Terror” until the 1980s.

For most of the 20th century, the refuge of choice was Hong Kong, with its booming economy, film industry, and its comparatively greater degree of political freedom under the British. This, however, would change as the world approached the 21st century.

(2019 Golden Horse Award winner ‘Detention’ 返校 based its story on Taiwan’s “White Terror” period / Image credit: Warner Bros. Taiwan)

By the 1990s, Taiwan was a democratic haven with a burgeoning economy and film industry, a majority population of similar culture and ethnicity, and home to a group of world-renowned filmmakers. It was an easy choice for many Southeast Asian Chinese filmmakers, including Tsai Ming-liang. The Malaysian-born director moved to Taiwan in 1977 for studies before going on to become a prominent voice in Taiwanese cinema. 

More recently, the island has become the launching pad for the careers of Southeast Asian Chinese filmmakers such as Midi Z and Ho Wi Ding, as well as entertainers from all over the region. The multitudes of film festivals in Taiwan continue to give filmmakers from around the world platforms, often with sections specifically dedicated to Southeast Asian films.

More than just a popular tourist attraction, the island has grown to be the education destination of choice for the young Chinese, due to Taiwan’s grants and scholarships for Chinese descendents, and also as part of Taiwan’s overarching New Southbound Policy encompassing Southeast Asians of all ethnicities.

Taiwan’s Emphasis on Soft Power

In many ways, Taiwan is a geopolitical anomaly. To be ‘legitimately’ considered a sovereign nation on the world stage would require the recognition of such by other nations. This was fundamentally challenged for the island in 1971 when the United Nations expelled the Republic of China (Taiwan) and transferred China’s seat to the People’s Republic of China. Currently, Taiwan is only recognised by fifteen states, mostly from South America and Oceania.

Yet, the island grew to be an economic powerhouse as one of the Four Asian Tigers in the 1990s despite neighbouring China existing as an ever-looming existential threat to its sovereignty. 

Some would argue that Taiwan’s room to grow (and exist) could be attributed to the regional interests of the United States and the resulting security umbrella it provides. Others would suggest that while Taiwan inherently lacks hard power (i.e military), its emphasis on building soft power (i.e appeal, culture, values) has been significant in its success story. 

Along with economic initiatives such as with the New Southbound Policy, Taiwan has and continues to score high in terms of soft power partially due to its vibrant entertainment world. It’s all part of a fight for cultural clout, recognition, identity and ultimately sovereignty that threatens to sap China’s claim over the island.

This is the crux of why seemingly innocuous questions surrounding culture such as if Taiwanese films should be considered Southeast Asian, or vice versa, can turn out to be sensitive issues.

Still, Taiwan’s emphasis on building up its cultural industry, its reputation as a cultural hub home to some of the world’s most influential in their fields, and their pride for freedom of expression might prove to be overwhelming. 

For Southeast Asian Cinema: Possibly a Louder, United Voice

While not as immediate, Southeast Asia today also has to navigate China’s growing influence in the region. Its countries do not have to contend with the fundamental problem of sovereignty either. As such, the question of whether Taiwanese films should be considered Southeast Asian is understandably shirked by most in the region, with mainly its Chinese invested in the conversation.

(2011’s ‘You Are The Apple Of My Eye’ 那些年,我們一起追的女孩 was a smash hit both domestically and overseas / Image credit: Star Ritz Productions)

For decades, Taiwan has been a safe haven of expression for Southeast Asian Chinese with its cultural industry, democracy, market, and common heritage. Taiwanese media has been extremely popular with Southeast Asian Chinese, with films such as 2011’s You Are The Apple of My Eye 那些年,我們一起追的女孩 being box office smashes. 

For filmmakers, the works by the Taiwan New Cinema movement have been extremely influential with Chinese Southeast Asian filmmakers. For example, Singaporean independent film’s (often-parodied) penchant to be overly melodramatic could be derived from the movement. 

At the same time, there is also the trend of Southeast Asian Chinese filmmakers making Taiwan their home, with their films being seen and marketed as Taiwanese rather than Malaysian or Burmese. Perhaps it is due to the cultural similarities where it’s all too easy – so much so that it seems natural – for the Chinese in the region to see Taiwanese cinema as Southeast Asian. 

Furthermore, the themes tackled by Taiwanese cinema, such as the island’s emergence from dictatorship and of mass urbanisation, can find a home with the mass of Southeast Asian cinema – the same cannot be said for India, Japan, or China. Taiwan is a hub for opportunities that could be readily accepted by the region to collectively amplify the voices of filmmakers on the world stage.

Taiwan as a Case Study For Southeast Asia

The central question of if Taiwanese cinema should be considered Southeast Asian looks to divorce itself from the politics of the larger conversation – of if the country should be part of the region. Yet, the link seems inescapable, potentially highlighting the inexorable links between politics and art. 

Taiwan, in its quest for sovereignty, definitely has the advantage of cultural similarities and history with Southeast Asia. However, turning these into palpable soft power that sees itself competing with its larger neighbour did not happen overnight. If anything, Taiwan should be a key case study on the overwhelming “low costs, high payoffs” of investing in the development of a country’s cultural industries.

Similarly, trends throughout history has shown that the embracement of democratic ideals such as with the freedom of expression has been integral in attracting foreign artists. Much like Taiwan, several countries in Southeast East has had their own experience with illiberal democracy, but not many has opened itself up as effectively as the island.

The economic benefits of vibrant cultural industries through tourism and media export are well-documented. For Taiwan – which technically isn’t recognised as sovereign by most of the world – to be part of conversations regarding regional specificity shows that arts can and definitely do far more than rake in cash and entertain. 


Read more:
Unseen Perspectives Take Centre Stage – Queerness Represented in Asian Films
Hidden Voices – An Exploration of Chinese-Indonesian Cinema
Sometimes Surreal, Always Captivating – How Asian Films Fare When Remaking and Adapting Western Stories

Bonus read:
Hong Kong and Taiwan are cultural powerhouses. That terrifies Beijing.

There's nothing Matt loves more than "so bad, they're good" movies. Except browsing through crates of vinyl records. And Mexican food.
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