Chung Chih-Wei, PhD student, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University
How High Is The Mountain (2002), the second film in a trilogy, is documentary filmmaker Tang Xiang Zhu’s masterly continuation of his previous How Deep Is The Sea (2000). Tang says that the reason he first started making films is closely bound up with two events which happened simultaneously, “the birth of my son [… and] my father’s stroke.” In this context of old life passing on and new life beginning to grow, he started to reflect on his own existence and imagine the shape of his life to come. A fundamental aspect of Tang’s identity, and the ambiguity which marks it, is that he comes from a waisheng family from China. 1 The “Xiang” part of his name indicates that his father’s hometown was in Hunan; the “Zhu” represents his own place of birth in Taiwan—Hsinchu (Xinzhu). The fact that his name is derived from his father’s indicates that the son inherits his father’s homeland and his homesickness.
One of the reasons Tang made How High Is The Mountain was to deal with this emotional stumbling block. The director is also one of the main characters, and in his role as narrator he frequently addresses the camera. The action mostly consists of his father’s visits to relatives in China, 2 interspersed with narration of past events and Tang’s reflection on them. At the same time, it is also a record of the happy occasion of the birth and childhood of the third generation of the Tang family in Taiwan. In symbolic terms, the father can be seen as the gradually disappearing past, while the new baby embodies hope for the future. The narrator, representing the present, stands on the boundary between past and future; he is the unifying factor, the backbone, of the story. How High Is The Mountain uses the framework of a family history to tell a highly subtle and complex story about national and ethnic identity in Taiwan since 1949.
Tang’s father was injured in the 823 Artillery Bombardment in 1958 and lost the sight in one eye. Afterwards, he left the army and moved to Chienshih Township in Hsinchu, where he became a police officer in indigenous territory. Tang recalls his father always being a silent and uncommunicative man, so in the documentary Tang constantly asks him questions, carefully capturing what his father says in his thick Hunan accent. The elder Tang’s physical disability and his silence are an enduring reminder of the apparatus of state violence and its failure to look after its own people. It is this failure that drove Tang senior to retreat deep into the mountain areas – the place that most strongly represented “native Taiwan” for that dispersed generation. One of the film’s most moving scenes shows the old man, after a stroke, raising himself up on his crutches to look out the window at a coconut palm swaying in the wind. The camera freezes a brief lyrical moment in a life of toil.
1Waisheng (literally “other province”) is used to refer to Chinese people who came to Taiwan in the late 1940s and early 1950s and their descendants. By contrast, bensheng indicates people whose families have lived in Taiwan for generations, often several hundred years.
2These trips are highly significant as it was not until 1987 that such “family visits” were allowed.
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