Chai Ao, MA student, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University
Island Etude premiered in Taiwan in 2007. Written and directed by Chen Huai’en, the film starred Chen Mingxiang in the role of “Mingxiang,” a hearing-impaired youth. Just prior to university graduation the young man decides to bicycle around the entire island of Taiwan. Setting out from Kaohsiung, he pedals north along the east coast, passing through towns and villages, encountering a variety of humanity along the way.
The film’s aim is not to tell an exciting story, but to showcase Taiwan’s present-day landscape and the people who inhabit it. Cyclist Mingxiang is a witness; through his eyes – and the camera work of Hou Hsiao-hsien protégé Chen Huai’en – audiences view Taiwan’s natural beauty. They also see how that beauty is being despoiled, as evidenced by the shrinking coastline, dying ironwood trees, concrete pilings placed along shorelines to deter erosion, and the ongoing struggle between economic development and preservation of history and the environment.
But Island Etude doesn’t issue impassioned accusations; rather, moral judgment is implicit in the slow, quiet cinematography. Because of his hearing impairment, Mingxiang is always an outsider – passing through, seeing, and listening. On the road he meets an assortment of individuals: A Lithuanian woman in Hualien, with whom he communicates wordlessly; an elder in an aboriginal village who relates his people’s history and legends; and friendly residents of Keelung’s Bazitou district, who introduce the area to the youth. On the western side of the island Mingxian encounters a retired schoolteacher and an unemployed female laborer. Though no longer teaching, the former is still concerned with students’ futures; the latter is protesting the closure of the factory where she worked – the woman lost her job when the business moved to China. In the end, Mingxiang returns to his hometown of Changhua, where he and his grandfather join in a religious procession in honor of the goddess Mazu, showing how religious beliefs inform the lives of ordinary people, transforming human understanding of life into awe of the supernatural.
Island Etude presents a slice of Taiwan, a cross-section of people and landscape; nevertheless, the film’s Taiwan is also a whole. Audiences and residents who’ve never traveled around the island can now imagine Taiwan in its entirety – here, Taiwan isn’t simply a geographic entity but a shared emotional body, a place residents call home. A line from Island Etude has become a catchphrase: “If we don’t do it now, we’ll never do it.” Round-island trips have grown in popularity as well, a response to the film’s emotional wake-up call to Taiwanese audiences.