Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Beyond the ‘little fortunate life’ (中文 link at bottom)

On the surface, ‘Twa-Tiu-Tiann’ is light entertainment for the Lunar New Year. But its director has other purposes for his film

Last week I had the chance to attend the premiere of Nelson Yeh’s (葉天倫) latest movie, Twa-Tiu-Tiann (大稻埕) in Taipei. I’d run into Nelson before, during a protest against media monopolization, and later at a rally organized by entertainers in support of residents of Dapu, Miaoli County, whose homes were being demolished by the government. I knew, therefore, that despite featuring variety show host Chu Ko Liang (豬哥亮) and other popular actors, Yeh’s latest film would offer something more than simple entertainment. And it did, though I suspect some critics fail to understand what he was trying to do achieve.

I won’t give the plot away, and I urge people to go watch it. Suffice it to say that the movie has a time travel component, in which Jack, a typical, self-absorbed, apolitical young contemporary Taiwanese man, is dragged back in time to the Japanese colonial period in the 1920s, where he becomes embroiled in the birth pangs of a Taiwan nationalist movement. From his experiences and by befriending Chiang Wei-shui (蔣渭水), a key figure in the resistance movement, Jack learns several lessons, from the importance of knowing one’s history (often a problem with younger generations in Taiwan) to avoiding the pitfalls of living in the past (often a problem with older generations of Taiwanese). Jack returns to the present, ready to create his own “golden era” of fighting for his country against odds that are only hinted at but that should be clear to anyone who knows anything about the existential threat that Taiwan faces today.

This is simple enough stuff, which is told with humor, the necessary romantic components, and a solid recreation of Dihua Street (迪化街).

While the movie has been doing extremely well at the box office, it has encountered some criticism, especially among people who are acquainted with the history and Chiang’s role. Some have pointed to historical inaccuracies, while others have complained that the film isn’t “serious enough.”

Director Yeh at the premiere
Fair enough, and the movie does have its inaccuracies and shortcomings. But Yeh, who knows his history, is intelligent enough to also know that a historically accurate documentary was not the best format to accomplish his goals — and by goals I don’t mean making money. Twa-Tiu-Tiann is an entertainment and uses well-known actors because to attract people who otherwise would have no interest in knowing about Chiang and other people from a century ago who defied their colonial masters. (Some critics, such as student leader Chen Wei-ting (陳為廷), understand this, which is why they still encourage people to go see the movie.) If only 5 percent of those who watch the movie subsequently want to know more about Chiang, and if another 5 percent decides to join the ranks of the young Taiwanese today who are creating their own “golden era,” then Yeh will have succeeded. And as I said, Yeh, along with some of the actors in the film, has been out there on the streets with the young activists. His goal is to inspire, to draw a line of continuity between the past, the present, and the future, and to demonstrate how much more meaningful life can be if young people become political, if they care beyond their “little fortunate lives.”

Which brings me back to Dapu, or more specifically on Ketagalan Boulevard on August 18 last year, when thousands of people rallied against forced evictions and the demolition of people’s homes by state and corporate interests. At one point during the protest, my friend Fish Lin of the hip hop band Kou Chou Ching, addressed the crowd and bemoaned the tendency among Taiwanese to be content with what can be loosely translated as their “little fortunate lives” (小確辛, a term first used by Japanese author Haruki Murakami). By that, Lin, a regular presence at protests, meant people’s selfish tendency to not involve themselves in civil society or politics as long as events do not directly affect their lives. (“The X family home was demolished, but as long as it’s not my home that is being targeted, there is no reason why I should involve myself, as doing so will cause me unnecessary trouble.”)

If we extend that way of thinking to the national stage, we can more easily explain why Taiwanese often exhibit little alarm when an authoritarian giant threatens the future of their country and their way of life, and when the policies of their government seem to invite the realization of that threat. This national trait could very well be the consequence of a society which under Martial Law and the White Terror was conditioned into believing that one had better mind his own business and not get involved in the affairs of others. Now the White Terror is no more, but it has been replaced by a new terror, that of authoritarian China, which has succeeded, through a campaign of propaganda, in convincing many that unification is inevitable. If such an outcome is inevitable, then the victims might as well not worry about politics and focus instead on maximizing their own selfish interests in preparation for annexation (“KMT or CCP, as long as I have a smartphone, a decent job, my daily latté from Starbucks and a roof over my head, why bother?”). Of course there is nothing inevitable about unification, but many people in Taiwan believe that this is the case — which reminds me of a key scene in Yeh’s movie when Rose, Jack’s love interest, scoffs at the mention that Japan, which seemed like an invincible force at the time, would “surrender” one day.

I’ve touched on this subject before, by arguing that the “status quo” that defines Taiwan’s existence and its relations with China has also created the conditions for a society in which everybody fends for himself: Make a little bit of money, get a good education, build a home, and lie low as history passes you by. By doing so, people become apolitical and rarely, if ever, confront the authorities. This, in turn, encourages passivity and mediocrity — even among Taiwan’s purported defenders — which the nation, given its situation, simply cannot afford.

The ranks of politicized Taiwanese are growing slowly. But the majority of them remain little Jacks, satisfied with a world that rarely extends beyond their smartphones, girlfriends, and the job that allows them to keep both. If Taiwan is to survive as a distinct society, many more people will have to realize that having limited material aspirations just isn’t good enough. 

(Small anecdote: Minister of Culture Lung Ying-tai (龍應台) was at the press conference prior to the premiere on Jan. 28. As she walked on stage, a female fan who was standing next to us excitedly told her boyfriend that the minister was there. Whereupon the boyfriend said with irony, “I don't know why she's here [the ministry provided some funding], since she knows so little about Taiwanese cinema anyway.”)  (Photos by the author)

New! A Chinese-language translation of this article is available here.

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