Ji Wenzhang, Documentary Film Director
Director Hou Jiran’s documentary Taiwan Black Movies looks at the “social realist” films that were in vogue in Taiwan from 1979 to 1983. The film explores “noir” movies made toward the end of the martial-law era, pictures that boldly depicted crime, sexual desire, and revenge. Characterized by exaggerated plots and scenes of sex and violence, these films slipped through the cracks of the National Film Censorship Board’s new system of controls, packing theaters and breaking box-office records island-wide. Beginning with The First Step in Error (1979), written by Zhu Yanping and directed by Ou Junyang (Cai Yang Ming), in the short space of five years 117 films dealing with crime, female revenge, gambling and other criminal activities were submitted to the Censorship Board. But these films – Taiwan’s most violent motion pictures, generally regarded as “depraved,” bloody, cheap, and coarse – were long denigrated by film historians and eventually forgotten; even the industry personnel who took part in their production are no longer mentioned.
Nevertheless, the “social realism” in these so-called “social realist” films was really just an imaginary construct of film-industry workers with an eye on box-office receipts, not a true portrayal of actual social conditions in Taiwan – the pictures true purpose was simply to titillate novelty-seeking filmgoers. But when placed in their temporal context, the films reveal the subtle relationship between the nation, audiences, and films of that era. Hou Jiran, who once served as an assistant film researcher, saw the significance of these movies, and the linked political and economic relationships that lay behind them. By means of comparison and analysis, and interviews with film workers, film researchers, and political commentators, as well as a look at social and political incidents that took place in the years in which the films were made, the documentary uncovers the emotional zeitgeist hidden within the lower layers of social realist cinema.
According to the documentary’s interviewees, at a time when Taiwan’s international standing was precarious – the Republic of China had been expelled from the United Nations, the United States and Japan had broken diplomatic ties with the country, and international society refused to recognize the nation – celluloid heroes provided timely consolation, a way for Taiwanese viewers to unburden themselves of anxiety. Economically, the nation had begun the “Ten Major Construction Projects,” building an export-processing zone, and women were joining the workforce in large numbers. Did economic competition from women cause a sense of anxiety in Taiwan’s male filmgoers? And was this apprehension expressed in the box-office success of the large number of female revenge films filled with sex, violence, and society’s darker elements? Furthermore, the “Kaohsiung Incident” 1 took place in 1979 and democracy advocate Lin Yixiong’s mother and daughters were murdered in 1980, 2 stunning much of the nation and awakening citizens to grim political realities. Could those events have been related to the Government Information Office’s decision to loosen strictures on noir films, thus anesthetizing audiences to official violence and causing them to shy away from involvement in social causes that might call down authoritarian rulers’ wrath? “Black movies” played an opportune role at that time, individualizing social problems, asking questions without analyzing the structural political and economic factors that lay behind them, merely providing an outlet for collective emotions by serving as a “social floodgate.”
These reflections and criticisms are the documentary’s most interesting aspects. In that era Taiwanese were generally simple, honest and conservative, but powerful social forces had built up over time and were urgently waiting to be unleashed, seeking catharsis. Hou Jiran believes the films’ violent images reveal that the collective consciousness long suppressed under martial law was in fact seeking an outlet in the extreme cinematic imagery. The documentary recounts these phenomena as they develop, one by one, from the film negatives of “black movies.”
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