Film review: Flowers of Taipei - on Taiwan cinema's global reach

Documentary looks at how output of Taiwan New Cinema movement in the 1980s influenced filmmakers elsewhere, through interviews and excerpts from films of that era

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 June, 2015, 9:28am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 July, 2015, 2:10pm

For those who don’t know much about its titular subject, Flowers of Taipei: Taiwan New Cinema gives a wonderful primer on why the 1980s were such an important period. For much of the decade Taiwan was still under martial law, and politically the island was isolated. In those circumstances, filmmakers used the big screen to explore Taiwanese identity.

First-time director Hsieh Chin-lin grew up watching movies by directors such as Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang, and in this documentary presents a nostalgic look at why their outputs have influenced filmmakers around the world. Contrary to the Hong Kong cinema of the time, which was overwhelmingly commercial, Taiwanese films were often slow-moving, character-driven, and carefully framed. The films' subject matter gave viewers an insight into the issues Taiwanese people were going through, particularly after the Japanese occupation.

The documentary includes interviews with directors such as Olivier Assayas, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Jia Zhangke and Tian Zhuangzhuang, who talk about how Taiwanese films have affected their own directorial styles and their perceptions of Taiwan. It also features long shots of train rides, walks in parks and compositions that are meant to be a homage to the classics of Taiwan New Cinema.

Interspersed between the interviews - conducted in places as varied as Paris, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Chiang Mai and Beijing - are clips from various movies, most of them by Hou and Yang, to further illustrate the interviewees’ points. Many praise the artistic nature of the cinematography of that time – a style these directors found refreshing and which has influenced their approaches to filmmaking; 

The pacing of the documentary drags a bit towards the end, and it seems bizarre to include Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and his impressions of Taiwan New Cinema. Finally there’s an audience with Hou, albeit a brief one, in which the director says the Taiwan New Cinema movement was sadly short-lived.

Flowers of Taipei was commissioned by the Taipei City Government’s Department of Cultural Affairs, and the documentary should be considered an exercise of soft power in a cinematic form.

Category: I (Mandarin, English, French and Thai)

Flowers of Taipei: Taiwan New Cinema is on limited release starting June 18