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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

A Quest for Artfulness, Not Artiness

Taiwan's sheenless cinematic stories need a shot of life - real life

By Scarlet Cheng Hong Kong

TAIWAN CINEMA IS IN the doldrums and its salvation lies in less artiness and more artfulness. Even if independent film-house favorites like Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien do get top billing at chic international film festivals, their flicks are still bombing with regional audiences. Yang's Mahjong debuted at February's Berlin Film Festival. Nonetheless, it had trouble finding a distributor, even in Taiwan. Hou's latest, Goodby South, Goodby, was selected for prestigious Cannes competition this May, yet Shochiku, its distributor, found international sales were slow.

Both films tell desultory tales about small-time hoods who involve themselves in schemes that run awry. Yang's characters are younger, more naive and less interesting. What's more, Mahjong features two dreadful stereotypes of Westerners. The escapades of Hou's two slightly older hoods are a shade more real and definitely funnier. Yet a basic problem applies to both works: unless you are a die-hard movie buff, these films are pretty much unwatchable.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Taiwan films generally did not refer to the island's politics or social problems; dialogue was predominantly in Mandarin, not Taiwanese. Many popular films were costume dramas or kung fu flicks set in a remote China of very long ago.

Hou and Yang were both considered part of Taiwan's "New Wave" of filmmakers in the 1980s. Their early features, such as Hou's charming My Summer at Grandpa's, or Yang's evocative That Day on the Beach, marked a new cultural consciousness. These were clearly films about life and society in contemporary Taiwan - and not some amorphous Chinese world. The two directors continue in a nation-conscious vein, but recently, their story-telling has become self-indulgent and nearly opaque - especially for anyone not living in Taiwan.

A slightly younger generation of Taiwan directors may bring relevance and coherence back to the industry. Ang Lee is a prime example. His 1994 feature, Eat Drink Man Woman, stands as one of best films the island has produced in the past five years. While Hou and Yang's films mostly focus on their characters' alienation and isolation, Lee has made his mark by exploring the dynamics of family interaction. Witness his recent triumph in the West, Sense and Sensibility,

Eat Drink Man Woman delighted mainstream audiences - and this was Lee's intention. His conscious aim for commercial appeal was a source of contention for international critics. One American film festival director dismissed the director with the quip, "Maybe Ang Lee should go work for Disney now."

Walking a similarly populist line, director Sylvia Chang, a former actress, brings us a brilliant new domestic comedy, Tonight Nobody Goes Home. It stars a number of familiar faces from Lee's films - Gua Ah-leh, Lung Si-hung and Winston Chao (all of whom featured in Lee's 1993 hit, The Wedding Banquet).

At first, Tonight tells a familiar tale of a man's late-life crisis. Dr. Chen (Lung) celebrates turning 60 with his wife, their two grown children, and their partners. But squabbling breaks out when his son (Chao), up to his neck in debts, wants his parents to mortgage their house. His daughter, who believes she deserves the house, vehemently protests.

Dad is taciturn. Then one day he quits his dental practice and moves in with a curvaceous new patient (Yang Kuei-mei). Suddenly, the film takes less predictable turns. The family goes into shock and a hornets' nest of questions about marriage and family values is stirred.

Director Chang adroitly scores philosophical points throughout this brisk and appealing comedy. The wonderful ensemble cast is paired with a deliciously clever script that has the sensibility of a latter-day Jane Austen novel. It casts a caustic but ultimately sympathetic eye on the players trapped in a human comedy. Even Disney has a tough time turning out flicks as appealing as this.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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