Founded in the French city of Nantes in 1979, the Festival des 3 Continents has become a platform for Asian, African and Latin American cinema. The latest edition, however, favoured the first of the three – specifically, films from Taiwan.
For one week in November, walls and billboards in Nantes were covered in posters featuring actor Shu Qi in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 2001 film Millennium Mambo. Inside the Cosmopolis, the cultural centre that served as the administrative hub of the festival, a massive photograph of Taipei’s Raohe Street night market loomed large behind the reception counter.
Then there were the movies. One of the stand-out programmes at the festival this year was “Taipei Stories”, a showcase of 12 films set in the city over the past five decades. Four other Taiwanese films featured in a sidebar marking the 40th edition of the festival; Tsai Ming-liang, whose latest title, Your Face, was among those unspooling at Nantes this year, was flown into town to conduct a masterclass.
The strong Taiwanese presence at 3 Continents could be attributed to the long-running connections between the festival and filmmakers from the island.
It was at Nantes, for example, that Hou won his first major international award, when The Boys from Fengkuei (1983) scooped the festival’s top prize, the Golden Balloon. More recently, artistic director Jérôme Baron has struck up a close working relationship with the Taipei Film Festival, while running a workshop for rookie Taiwanese filmmakers under his Produire du Sud (“Produce of the South”) initiative.
But credit should also go to the Taiwan Film Institute. Formerly the Chinese Taipei Film Archive, the state-backed organisation was once responsible mostly for the preservation of Taiwanese and mainland Chinese films. The change of name in 2014 bestowed the institute with the additional task of promoting Taiwanese cinema abroad.
Speaking to Post Magazineat Nantes, institute director Chen Pin-chuan said Baron and his team visited Taipei last year and outlined a programme of Taiwanese films revolving around stories and characters in the city. “It was a great opportunity as we could offer another perspective in looking at Taiwanese cinema, and offer alternative options for selection,” he said.
Chen’s advice led to Baron selecting Early Train from Taipei, an overwrought melodrama about a provincial woman’s ill-fated attempt to clear her family’s debts by taking a job as a nightclub escort in the capital. Liang Zhefu’s 1964 film is of note because it unfolds in Taiwanese (Hokkien).
“International audiences are probably less aware of Taiwanese-language films from this era – but these are movies we spent a lot of time preserving and restoring,” said Chen. “A lot of people probably know of films coming out of the Taiwanese New Cinema [from the early 1980s to the early 90s], but less attention was paid to titles produced in the 50s and 60s.
“We hope we can make people aware of these other parts of Taiwanese cinema: films made in the Japanese colonial era, for example, or propaganda films [made during Chiang Kai-shek’s rule], or the so-called ‘social realist’ movies.”
The latter should not to be confused with their gritty, progressive counterparts in Britain or India: bizarrely, Taiwanese “social realist” cinema alludes to the titillating sex-and-violence flicks made in the 80s and much less acknowledged abroad than the more art house films made by Hou, Edward Yang De-chang and Ko I-chen around the same time.
But that’s where the institute comes in: partly with its backing, 15 of these B-movies will be shown at the Cinémathèque Française, in Paris, next April. “Through the presentations of these films, French audiences can understand more about our cinema – and I understand the Cinémathèque will be organising lectures to go with them.”
Echoing both the vision of his 3 Continents collaborators and the New Southbound Policy of Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, Chen said the institute would continue to build ties with filmmakers from Southeast Asia.
“There’s nothing new in this because the region was the main market for Taiwanese films in the 1970s and 80s,” he said. “We might have too limited a vision of what constitutes an international collaboration. People usually think of Europe and the United States, but it can also apply to Southeast Asia.”
Chen said the institute had been admitted as a full member of the Southeast Asia-Pacific Audio Visual Archive Association in April, after years of collaborations with counterparts in Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand. He also plans to initiate documentary-making workshops in Myanmar and Cambodia.