Next week, the Walker will be showcasing Hu Tai-li’s Stone Dream as part of DocuLens Asia, a forum and film series put together by the U of M Institute for Advanced Study’s Asian Film Collaborative. But Stone Dream is just one of the many screenings and Hu Tai-li is just one of the many filmmakers that DocuLens Asia is bring to Minnesota. The film series pulls together over a dozen Asian films (most screening at Nicholson Hall on the U of M campus) in the ever-booming documentary field with films from China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and India. The Forum, running November 2 – 4, will include visiting filmmakers and scholars from just as many countries.
To shed some light on the full extent of the Series and Forum, I asked frequent Walker Cinema visitor and ever-enthusiastic cinephile, Professor Leo Chen, from the U of M’s Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature Department to answer a few questions.
What is your role in the DocuLens Asia Forum and Film Series?
My colleagues at the U and I have been talking about the urgent need to increase both the campus and community interests, as well as, awareness in Asian cultures. I suggested the topic and themed events on Asian Documentary for the Asian Film Collaborative of the Institute of Advanced Studies at the U and I helped organize the DocuLens Asia series and forum.
What is the Asian Film Collaborative?
Asian Film Collaborative consists of faculty members and graduates students at the U who are interested in introducing, promoting and discussing Asian cultures and civilization through the universal medium of cinema. We are one of the many collaboratives housed within and sponsored by the U’s Institute of Advanced Studies. Our interests and plans are not only introducing and engaging with the fastest growing region of the world, but we also would like to bring Asian cultures to Minnesota and reciprocally bring Minnesota to Asia. People who are interested in Asian cultures are welcome to join us.
How did you settle on focusing the Forum and Film Series on documentaries?
Documentary is the most happening scene in film making throughout Asia today. The much wider accessibility of digital filmmaking, particularly in terms of cheaper and mobile camera and editing apparatus, have been paving paths for the many documentary projects and movements made by civilians, both professional and layman alike, and all walks of life, picking up and turning the camera lenses towards their own life as well as the various aspects of societies in Asia. With the convergence and conflation of economic platform of globalization, ever acceleratingly facilitated by the instant digital transmission and exchange of images, documentary film and the various modes related to documentary filmmaking continues to saturate our lives, not just in Asia but in United States as well. The Twin Cities, for example, has many active documentary filmmakers, with lively documentary film clubs, churning out wonderful projects concerning both local and universal issues. I thought it will be interesting and informative for us to see what’s happening in Asia through the lens of Documentary and DocuLens Asia is meant to not only enliven our awareness of Asian cultures but also try to bridge our cross-cultural exchange and appreciations as world citizens.
The Film Series has been such a great opportunity to see documentaries that are never going to see much, if any, exposure here in the U.S. How did you find and choose your selections for the series?
As a filmmaker both in documentary and feature film myself, I am always paying attention to the world of documentary filmmaking and as a professional habit I try to keep track with the fastest growing and most fascinating fields of documentary filmmaking in Asia and the U.S. Many of the films are selected by my colleagues at the Asian Film Collaborative for their cultural significance, in-depth exploration and aesthetic exposition. We also try to make the selection more representative, although not necessarily comprehensive, of the energy and innovative outburst of creativity happening in Asia today. This really is a rare and much needed opportunity for us to see the other side of the world and through our exposure to and learning from Asian societies. We can not only better understand our fellow residents of the earth, and hence ourselves, but also better position ourselves for an engaging in life at large.
Were there any films that you want to screen for the series but couldn’t get for whatever reason?
There are many films we cannot accommodate within our limited time and resources. Films such as the Villager’s Documentary films from China, a retrospective of Japanese director Shinsuke Ogawa, and many more interesting documentary films from Asia that can not make it here this time. I do hope that more interests and institutions will find Asian documentary a worthy cause to continue and broaden its dissemination.
These films have a refreshing disregard for so-called market forces of the film industry (aka Hollywood), with very localized and personal intentions but, nonetheless, global relevance. Even though Asian documentaries are finding their way into international film festivals, it still takes something pretty special, like your Film Series, to see them. Where do these films fit; what is their market and who is their audience?
The distribution and exhibition of documentary film traditionally has a limited market and we usually ended up vying with the art house cinema for the much smaller theatrical screening space and time in terms of distribution. Some travel the film festival circuits, and some goes straight to the Public TV channels. Every once in a while some topical documentary films would garner media attentions and got a good run at the box office in the United States. But that’s about as good as you can get. With the burgeoning documentary movements in Asia, however, the situation is a bit different and the changing is towards the exciting growth.
Some Asian documentaries enjoyed not only platform theatrical release but also earned impressive ticket sales in their home countries, such as Taiwanese documentary about earthquake survivors Life (2004) which became the highest grossing film including commercial releases that year. Several documentary-styled feature films from Asia also made it to the theaters here, such as Mountain Patrol – Kekexili (2004) from China. We certainly hope that there will be more theatrical release of documentary, but that issue has to be discussed within a larger framework of the economy and infrastructure of U.S. film industry.
Can you tell us a little bit about Stone Dream and what makes Hu Tai-li such a unique filmmaker in Taiwan?
Stone Dream is a unique documentary in terms of its politically sensitive subject matter on the tumultuous history between Taiwan and China. It is also an interesting case provoking much debate in Taiwan about the moral economy and responsibility of documentarian, particularly when dealing with the issues of production and distribution within the critical perspective of a global transnational cultural industry. Hu Tai-li, director of Stone Dream, aims to document the ethnic mixing and acculturation among different immigrant groups in Taiwan through the life of an elderly veteran named Liu Pi-chia who was the subject of the trailblazing documentary on a humanist subject by an innovative pioneer director Richard Yao-chi Chen in 1965 called Liu Pi-chia. A visual anthropologist, Hu invests “ professional” effort by using extensive footage drawn from her fieldwork. Liu is a “ Mainlander,” referring to the roughly three million people who retreated to Taiwan with the KMT regime in 1949, and Hu tries to show how he finally admits that he is a “ Taiwanese” after more than half a century’s life on this island, and is willing to die here. The political conflict between Mainlanders and so-called Taiwanese, namely those who emigrated from coastal China several hundred years ago, has intensified since the 1990s, particularly after the shift of ruling power in 2000 to the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). In the case of Liu, his wife is Taiwanese Aborigine, and the geo-political identity of Liu’s stepson is clearly oriented towards Taiwan instead of China, in stark contrast to the father. Criticisms from both the Taiwanese academe and independent journalism pointed out that the veteran’s words in film’s conclusion conveniently match the DPP government’s political propaganda advocating an assimilated identity for Taiwan. At stake here is the director’s way of asking questions, eliciting the veteran’s final reply anticipated and to a certain extent functioning as a politically correct message to meet the mainstream demands of society and the ruling party. The message in the film carries good will, but it obscures the fact that the collective psyche of most Mainlanders in Taiwan is not as easily managed as this film suggests, and the political/psychological discrepancy between most Mainlanders and Taiwanese is still an issue and much threatening political crisis.
Political issues aside, for which every audience should be the judge, the film does connect existential questions with historiographical concerns, all conveyed in a beautiful and mesmerizing feast of images and sound.
What are some other highlights of the Forum and Conference?
Without sounding too promotive, in terms of highlighting the events, I think we are very proud to present many important Asian filmmakers along with their films. These are wonderful opportunities for us to engage in conversation with the most cultural-shaping practitioners of documentary film in Asia. DocuLens Asia also presents an impressive array of scholars, from both the States and international academic communities, whose research and discussion of the cultural history, narrative functions and formal aesthetics of Asian documentary will enlighten and help us understand the significance and cultural implication of documentary films from Asia, the most important art form and media, to quote Dziga Vertov’s Kino-Pravda statement, from last century and increasingly more so into this century.
I have the French DVD of West of the Tracks, so I was able to watch it at my own pace (needless to say I didn’t watch it all in one sitting). What do you think Wang Bing’s intentions were with this nine-hour documentary? It’s a pretty huge commitment for a viewer!
Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks is one of those behemoths, along with Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) and Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964), that had most certainly marked the landscape of cinematic culture in general and documentary film in particular. As a cultural monument, West of the Tracks is not only a record of both the ideals and disintegrations of an industrial socialist aspiration and the generations of life that peopled the site, but the nine hour long documentary also a very beautiful elegy capturing a disappearing way of life with the waning ideology that propelled it, with the existing national economics and mode of production brushed into dustbin by the real and some might argue the only existing behemoth – the transnational globalization of capitals. Lamenting the decay and rusting of the steel factory complex in Manchuria, West of the Tracks documented the lives and flesh among the steel, and through the pathos and ethos on screen it also preserved a vestige of some short-lived metal sheen coming through the by-gone age and aspiration of Chinese socialism, splintering its aura and shining the sublime through the pixilation and ebbing torrents of a post-socialist sublimation.
For those of us who didn’t make it to the left party, all puns intended, here is the chance to be united, like the “Workers of the World, Unite!” It is a wonderful feeling of camaraderie with fellow cinephiles, being re-united, watching the whole nine hours of West of the Tracks together. Meanwhile, we can also imagine the camaraderie of fellow workers who share a belief in a better society through revolution, through steel and blood, no matter how irrelevant it may sound today, that had united many before, among and after us.