Taiwan: The Future Secured

With Edward Yang's death in 2007 and the comparative silence of Tsai Ming-Liang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien (although in Tsai's case, it's not so much silence as the lack of interest by US distributors), it was inevitable that we should start wondering where the next great Taiwanese director is coming from. National film cultures go through lulls and streaks, like home-run hitters and EPL strikers. Of course, since so few foreign films find their way to the States (okay, it's a lot better in NYC, among other places), there is no accurate way of gauging the actual state of a film industry, short of moving there, or spending many, many hours in the region's film festivals. For those of us who actually have to work for a living, those are not viable options.

Happily -- again, in NYC -- we have the Film Society of Lincoln Center, BAM Cinemathek and so on, and in the case of Taiwan, the FSLC is doing yeoman service with an excellent series, currently in midstream, that offers not only a few of the obvious names like Yang, Hou and Tsai, but also some all-but-forgotten delights, from the acrobatic martial arts cinema of King Hu (A Touch of Zen), to the politically tinged farce of Stan Lai's The Peach Blossom Land, an unjustly neglected work that played ND/NF in the early '90s but never found a distributor.

But what about contemporary filmmakers? On the strength of his second feature, The Fourth Portrait, I'd say that Chung Mong-Hong has a good chance to be the next major voice from the little island. This tale of an 10-year-old boy who suddenly loses his father and must return to the ome of his estranged ex-hooker mother is a sober piece of neo-realism reminiscent of early Hou, but with a mathematical precision that undercuts the film's potential for treacly melodrama. Chung's approach to the material is satisfyingly cerebral, but the heat generated by his actors, especially the preternaturally self-possessed Bi Xiao-hai as the boy, brings the film's emotional temperature up a few notches. It's an excellent formula, cool director meets hot cast, to put it in McCluhanesque terms. The film is a bit langorous in the middle, but that doesn't hurt it one bit. Indeed, there are moments when one wishes Chung had taken his time even more. At any rate, if he's an example of what is going on in the Taiwanese film industry, the future of this small but powerful film culture is in good hands.