Lecture: Talking about the Unseen

©Taiwan Film and Audiovisual Institute

Mou Tun-fei has an exceptional position in Taiwan film history. He is a complete outsider close to the very underground experimental movement of the time. To have a better understanding of his particularity, this presentation will focus on the situation of cinema in Taiwan in the 1960s. At the time, the film industry was divided between the official production in Mandarin with prominent directors such as Lee Hsing and Pai ching-jui (Mou’s master) and the commercial, more independent cinema in Taiwanese. This cinema made with low budget, in haste and mostly on location was projecting an image of the society quite different from the official directors of the “Healthy realism”. Mou Tun-fei himself was caught between these two irreconcilable models.

Recap of Q&A

Wafa and Victor, both of you are well versed in the history of Taiwanese cinema. Did the fairly recent rediscovery of Mou Tun-fei’s films alter your view on that history?

Wafa Ghermani When I started working on Taiwanese cinema, I was in France, and there we had only access to Taiwanese films of the eighties and nineties. My teachers at the time stated that there was nothing made during the Japanese era [from 1895 to 1945], that Taiwanese cinema only started when the Chinese nationalists arrived, and that there was nothing interesting before the eighties. This was really the discourse of [author and film producer] Peggy Chiao, who could speak English and worked a lot to get the New Taiwan Cinema recognized. She was inspired by the French New Wave and their discourse on establishing a new cinema by creating a rupture between the past and the present. This changed when I went to Taiwan and started reading about its cinema – also after my Chinese got better, which was important so as to not to only rely on French and English literature. I read about the films made in Mandarin and in Taiyu. The latter were all said to be opera films, and not quiet interesting, but when I started watching them, I realized this wasn’t true at all. Later, in 2018, at the Taiwan International Documentary Festival, it was a huge surprise for me to see the films of Mou Tun-fei, of whom I had never heard before. Those films were digitized in 2008, which made me wonder why it took so long to show them to the public.

Victor Fan I grew up in Hong Kong in the seventies and eighties, and at that time a lot of Hong Kong studios as well as music and television were still closely connected to Taiwan. When you research Hong Kong cinema and what happened before 1949, Taiwan is an interesting confluence of the legacies of Guomindang policy. You could even say that in the twenties it had been one of Chiang Kai-shek’s dreams to set up a studio like the CMPC [Central Motion Picture Corporation, the studio for official Mandarin cinema, founded in Taiwan in 1954]. And meanwhile, as Wafa has pointed out in her presentation, the Mandarin film industry in Taiwan was also partially fueled by the demand from Hong Kong studios, and those in Singapore as well. All of this is a very interesting transnational field of study. Part of my interest is to look at Chinese-language films not only as a national cinema, or a cinema that is bound by a preconceived notion of what a nation state is, but also explore how different linguistic, cultural or regional spheres interact with each other. In the thirties and forties, during the Sino-Japanese War, there was a very vibrant debate among intellectuals and even politicians in which they were looking at the nation state not as a top-down entity but almost as a federation of different regions with different cultural specificities. 

In 2018, I was visiting the National Taiwan Museum while they were showing all these newly restored films like The Mountain[Richard Chen, 1966] and A Morning in Taipei [Pai Ching-jui, 1964], and I just couldn’t leave the gallery. I had read some descriptions of these films in Hong Kong magazines from the sixties and seventies, but it was the first time I was able to actually see them. I was shocked, and realized how inspiring these films must have been for a whole generation of filmmakers in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Wafa What you said, Victor, in your introduction to The End of the Track, about how Mou Tun-fei was trying to liberate the bodies of his protagonists from the constraint of the Guomindang representation reminded me that Lee Hsing and Pai Ching-jui were both using Taiwanese-language actors such as Ko Hsiang-ting and Ou Wei because they had a sort of uncivilized body. The official, Mandarin-language actors were really bland, with very constrained bodies. When I talked to [contemporary video artist] Su Hui-yu about his explorations of sexuality and the body from the sixties until today, we mentioned how this pushing of the boundaries recently is once again completely erased from the more mainstream, commercial cinema in Taiwan.

Audience member In I Didn’t Dare to Tell You, I found the character of the artist, the teacher’s boyfriend, to be fascinating, particularly in the way he communicates his ‘wisdom’. Do you think this character suggests that artists (or hippies if you prefer) could ‘save the world’, particularly from the blights of intellectualism as represented by the teacher?

Victor Mou Tun-fei himself plays the artist and I think that he, in a way, really believes that. The character is from a new generation, a liberated hippy-like figure. Besides that he is also very American, but whereas in the US being a hippy is associated with left-wing politics, the artist in I Didn’t Dare to Tell You is more of an American, capitalist individual, a freethinker who would consider himself an educator if not a savior. In the short film The Mountain, Mou Tun-fei answers a question about his identity as someone who came from mainland China and his reply is quite taboo for the time: “I don’t know. I came to Taiwan as a young boy. You can call me a mainlander, but Taiwan is really my home. I don’t know how to describe it.” For us, today, that seems to be reasonable, but at the time it was considered very rebellious. 

Wafa Indeed, and in The Mountain you see that his friend is a local Taiwanese, without there being a divide between the two groups. The artist in I Didn’t Dare to Tell You also reminded me of the fact that artists weren’t perceived so positively in Taiwan. In Pai Ching-jui’s Two Ugly Men [1973], the artist is kind of an evil figure, who looks like a liberator but is actually destroying a couple. The image in I Didn’t Dare to Tell You of an open-minded teacher who liberates the children is, I think, the beginning of another type of teacher, like the one who is close to his students in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Green, Green Grass of Home [1982] or the drawing teacher in The Dull Ice Flower by Yang Li-guo [1989] who asserts himself against the other, traditional teachers.

Audience member Could you also share some details about Mou Tun-fei, who seems like a rather interesting personality? How did he go from shooting films like I Didn’t Dare to Tell You and The End of the Track to horror, exploitation and even hardcore porn, if I am not mistaken?

Victor Mou Tun-fei originally went to Hong Kong under contract of Shaw Brothers. By the eighties, the big studios in Hong Kong weren’t doing well and Shaw Brothers was pretty much the only one remaining. Shaw Brothers and other film companies, both in Taiwan and Hong Kong, were inspired by Nikkatsu in Japan to make softcore pornography. Even though some people might say that Mou Tun-fei goes beyond the limits of softcore… Like in the Nikkatsu tradition, some of his softcore films can be very political. In 1980, he made Lost Souls, which is a shot-for-shot remake in a much more commercial way of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò. He also added an action sequence, which is of course very unlike Pasolini. By the end of the eighties, he was signed by the left-wing, pro-PRC studio Sil-Metropole, headed by Hsia Moon, who was working for the mainland China government at the time. There, Mou Tun-fei made a film about a Japanese military unit that conducted human experiments in Manchuria [Men Behind the Sun, 1988]. It was very controversial because it was borderline anti-Japanese propaganda and a politically highly problematic exploitation film. In a lot of Chinese-language websites and even more intellectual publications, Mou Tun-fei is still considered the father of evil cinema (laughs).

Audience member How has Mou Tun-fei influenced current Taiwanese directors?

Wafa The question regarding Mou Tun-fei’s influence is difficult, because his films disappeared after 1970 and were screened again only a couple of years ago. It was really shocking to discover that a third way might have been possible in Taiwan, a very personal cinema that was not the official nor the commercial one. What we might find as an influence is a sort of undercurrent reaching filmmakers today such as Hsin Chi, Wu Fei-jian, Lin Tuan-duo and others who are using tiny means and government subsidies to create simple, but highly personal films. We still have this tradition of films that are outside of commercial cinema in Taiwan and not quiet arthouse either, in comparison with the Western standard. 

Victor The group around Theater Quarterly magazine was well-connected to critics and theoreticians in Hong Kong. Some of the films we’re now talking about were seen by Hong Kong critics, who were inspired to write about them, even though I have no hard evidence that these films were ever invited to be screened in Hong Kong. This provided the theoretical background for the Hong Kong new wave that would emerge in the eighties. Also, diverging to the softcore pornography again, at one point the CMPC was collapsing and by the late seventies and early eighties a sexploitation genre came into being in Taiwan. In these films, of which there were hundreds, strong women would go around to kill men in revenge for their misogyny. Historians are still figuring out the role this genre played in Taiwan and Hong Kong cinema. 

Wafa Among these so-called Taiwan Black Movies, some were rape and revenge films, and some were gangster stories. I think they have a link with the Taiyu films of the sixties and the seventies, when the Taiwanese language was forbidden in cinema. Even though their films had to be spoken in Mandarin, a lot of former Taiyu filmmakers could continue their work in this B or Z cinema. Someone like Hung-Min Chen, who had been an editor for King Hu and who had also directed Taiyu films, could remain active and make e.g. the very funny monster movie Zhan shen [1976]. These Black Movies are also recently being rediscovered, again as an undercurrent besides the official cinema in Taiwan. Most of these films were made by male directors, who were really exploiting an eroticism of torture. There was also one incredibly strong film [The Lady Avenger, 1981] made by a female director, Yang Chia-yun, which is completely different from the others in its feminist approach.

Audience member The [Chinese] subtitles in the films from ‘Voices of Youth’ are written from right to left. Could you explain why that is? Is there a technical, cultural or other reason?

Victor It’s considered an awkward, fairly modern practice. The horizontal writing of Chinese from the right to the left happened from the late 19th century up until the early eighties and is almost a construction of cultural specificity. Before this point in time, if you look at e.g. medieval painting or horizontal calligraphy, there was no standard. That was re-standardized in the eighties: when you write horizontally, you do that from left to right, and not from right to left.  

Audience member I Didn’t Dare to Tell You is the earliest film I can think of in which a character (Mou as the artist) wears a hoodie. In Western cinema, they’re not really popularized until the late 1970s, post Rocky, and they don’t really feature in sixties American countercultural cinema either. Do we know whether these were generally worn in Taiwan at this time (outside of cold storage work)? If it’s a fashion/identity statement, I was just wondering where the stylistic influence came from.

Victor We need to bear in mind that there were a lot of US military bases in Taiwan. By the eighties, Taiwan was already manufacturing tons of products for the US, Japan, Hong Kong and so on. Prior to that point, fashionable American items were already advertised to the middle class and popular among wealthier people. On the other hand, GIs would often give shoes and such to poorer kids. There’s even a particular kind of sandal, which has become something of a national symbol of Taiwan, that was originally a sporting shoe distributed to GIs. 

Wafa Actually, I didn’t notice the hoodie, but I did realize that the character was wearing jeans. That’s a sign that the artist is also quiet rich, because they were very expensive at the time. In The End of the Track, one of the boys wears jeans and the other one shorts, because he is poor. We can see their social differences in their clothes. 

These films also have a fascinating story to tell about the portrayal of youth. Could you elaborate on that?

Wafa When I saw the documentary short The Mountain, with Mou Tun-fei and some of his friends, I was astonished, because it was the very first time I saw young Taiwanese people of the sixties speak freely. In the films of the time, youngsters were an idealized representation by the state. Perhaps films in Taiwanese language had a little bit more freedom, but those too were a fantasized portrayal. In these two films, I Didn’t Dare to Tell You and The End of the Track, Mou Tun-fei is really using his own experiences of youth, and that is a big difference for me.

Victor The Mountain is completely free-spirited and what was said in that film was considered dangerous. For the two features we saw it’s somewhat different, since they were funded productions. Still, it’s interesting that in The End of the Track, when the parents of the wealthy boy try to convince him that he should focus on his work, he retorts against them and says that people have to study hard and contribute to society. He goes on and on. In his words you really hear the vocabulary of the Guomindang text book. There’s no mistake that he’s reciting the paradigm of the New Life Movement and that this scene is a very personal attack on the Guomindang government. The end of that film is also poignant. The boy feels that in the adult world everything is ugly and when he goes to the cave, you have the sense that there’s no hope for the future as long as the regime continues. The ending of I Didn’t Dare to Tell You is also very telling, with this sense of suppression and censorship. The close-up of the kid, staring into the camera and saying to his father that he could not tell him, is like another statement to Chiang Kai-shek.  

Because of the Cold War situation, Taiwan was very Americanized, which you can see in the character of the artist, but it also carries on the legacy of pre 1949 Guomindang politics. If you look at official films such as Beautiful Duckling [Lee Hsing, 1964] and even Pai Ching-Jui’s more daring Home Sweet Home [1970], you can still see the legacy of pre 1949 Chinese cinema and its moral values. It’s all about family, economy, society, the teacher… But Mou Tun-fei’s films are explosive. Kids are doing what they need to do.

Wafa I was also struck by the link with Wang Wen-hsing’s novel Family Catastrophe you mentioned in your introduction. It was published in 1973, a couple of years after the film, but they deal with the same process of the destruction of Confucianism and the question of the father figure. This underground movement doesn’t appear in official cinema. Looking back now, you see an opposition that was repressed, but kept trying to express its freedom. That gives us a completely new view on Taiwanese society, even if it was something for a minority of the people. The saddest thing of Mou Tun-fei’s films is that they died just after their birth. 

Audience member Could you elaborate on the role of the auntie who lives near the boy’s house in I Didn’t Dare to Tell You? Does she represent anything special?

Wafa She’s an interesting character, because she kind of attacks and destroys the father figure. In most films at the time, whatever the father does is the model and one cannot go against him. The auntie in I Didn’t Dare to Tell You is a chatty, gossipy woman, but she’s also telling the truth. She doesn’t forget the past: even if the father is a good man now, he still has his history. She is a kind of chorus, always defending the kid, even though she doesn’t know the entire truth.

Victor I agree with Wafa. In my introduction to The End of the Track, I also mentioned the juancun setting of both films [military dependents’ villages]. These villages were built by the Guomindang for settlers from different parts of mainland China. A lot of these people had been military officers or government officials, who had often seen better days. The auntie indeed indicates  a collapse of the father figure, and she is a truthteller, but at the same time there’s this sense of a lack of privacy. The whole area is almost like a big family. It’s a small village where the older people keep thinking that it’s a bus stop, a temporary place for them. They keep talking about the mainland. But younger persons don’t care about that, because they have never been to the mainland. Growing up in juancun, young people had to be good girls and boys, and that gave a feeling of oppression. From the late sixties on and into the nineties, this slowly eroded.

Audience member In language, the register shows differences between classes. Does Mou Tun-fei use this in his films?

Wafa That’s a good question. I’m not sure, but perhaps Victor is more sensitive about that. What did strike me was the dubbing, especially in The End of the Track. I think because of a lack of money, they used adults to voice the teenagers. I’m even wondering if Mou Tun-fei himself did one of the voices, because it sounds similar. I think there is a very standard way of talking in his films, which was also the rule at the time. But, Victor, perhaps you heard some differences?

Victor It’s very subtle. Everyone speaks standardized Mandarin, but there are some really small subtleties in the accents. Younger people, even when they speak standardized Mandarin, tend to be a little more loose with the grammar. Part of it has to do with that youngsters don’t always pay attention to speaking in full sentences. To give you one example: the person who lends money to the father in I Didn’t Dare to Tell You speaks with a heavy northeastern Manchurian accent, with a rolling r and very throaty. You can’t help but think about that as a signifier of someone who has money and took that money to Taiwan through the Guomindang. One of the perversities of this period is also that everyone in Taiwanese films is speaking a standardized received pronunciation. Beautiful Duckling e.g. sounds almost like a mainland Chinese film, you can just hear the Mandarin.

Wafa And it’s supposed to be old Taiwanese… 

Victor Yes. No one speaks like that in Taiwan, not even in mainland China.

This Q&A was moderated by Nancy Fornoville and Bjorn Gabriels. We thank all of the attendees for their presence, and the audience members for their questions.