In the Mood for Late Summer

in 53rd Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival

by Teréz Vincze

The Golden Horse Awards, established in 1962, is a major showcase for Chinese-language films and an exciting feast for cinephiles keen on Asian cinema. The Awards receive submissions from Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and other Chinese-speaking territories. The accompanying film festival, established in 1980, presents not only the nominated films, but a very rich selection of world cinema during its three weeks in November.

This year’s opener, the Taiwanese film Godspeed (nominated for best director and best feature), summarizes the double nature of this rather impressive awards and festival marathon. The film lies somewhere between a social drama with local colour and a Tarantino-style violent extravaganza. Similarly, the Golden Horse Festival has a double purpose: it is an event designed to showcase artistic achievement, but its Oscar-style awards ceremony evokes commercial Hollywood cinema, and the list of nominees includes some popular films which are not so artistically adventurous.

However, the closing night film, The Road to Mandalay (nominated for best director, feature, original screenplay and lead actress) represented the festival’s more artistically and socially committed side. Its director, Midi Z, was awarded the title of “Outstanding Taiwanese Filmmaker of the Year”. As he stated in his acceptance speech, the fact that a poor boy from Burma can become a respected filmmaker and member of the Taiwanese film community shows how great this country and its film industry are.

The major awards were dominated by mainland Chinese productions, which claimed the awards for best director, feature, lead actor, lead actress(es) and cinematography. The two most memorable films in competition were the winner of the Golden Horse for best feature film, Zhang Dalei’s The Summer is Gone, and Crosscurrent, photographed by renowned master Mark Lee Ping-bing, who won the award for best cinematography.

The Summer is Gone – also the winner of the FIPRESCI Prize – is a truly remarkable first feature by a director who was born in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and graduated from the St Petersburg film school. The film, shot beautifully in black and white, reminisces about the director’s childhood, and takes place at the start of the 1990s in Inner Mongolia. It builds on the very unique, natural presence and performance of amateurs, who participated in creating the film’s scenarios through improvised dialogue. The story is shown through the eyes of the 12- year-old protagonist who will reach the next stage of his life by entering junior high school in autumn. The changing political and economic landscape of China provides a very subtly drawn background for the everyday life of the hero, his family and the town they live in. The film has a somewhat dream-like atmosphere which evokes the early coming-of- age stories of Hou Hsiao- hsien, as well as the best films of the Czech New Wave dealing with growing up in small towns. Crosscurrent, on the other hand, is a grandiose, obscure and disturbing poetic vision about death, love, longing and the search for meaning. Composed as a series of masterfully shot, picturesque episodes of a journey along the Yangtze river, this film is not only a truly cinematic ode to nature, but a grandiose attempt to recreate this magnificent river as a symbol of the mystery of existence and the visual expression of philosophical and poetic meaning.

Among the nominated films were many memorable Taiwanese productions. The Road to Mandalay confirmed Midi Z’s status as one of the most important contemporary Asian directors; his documentary City of Jade was also featured in competition, revealing the depth of the director’s knowledge about people who live on the margins of society, who are often seen in his films.

Another memorable Taiwanese feature was White Ant by Chu Hsien-che. It focuses on a mentally disturbed young man who is unable to deal with his environment. A misleading first impression of this man leads a stranger to react rashly, triggering a tragic chain of events. The film has a cleverly crafted, non-linear plot structure, a handheld camera which emphasizes emotional tension, and strong acting which communicates the feeling of helplessness and sorrow caused by guilt. Ultimately, the film is not only the story of a mentally disturbed man, but a warning about the dangerous consequences of distrust and lack of empathy.

The outstanding documentary of the festival was also the work of a Taiwanese filmmaker: Huang Hui-chen’s Small Talk had its world premiere here. I sincerely hope that this extremely brave, deeply personal movie about the relationship between the director and her lesbian mother will find its way into many international film festivals and reach as many viewers as possible. Huang demonstrates the incomparable effect a documentary can have when its filmmaker seeks answers to the most disturbing, personal questions, even if it means performing an extremely painful vivisection of her own family. We still live in a society which tells disproportionately few stories about women. This great Taiwanese documentary shows once again how crucial it is to speak about female experiences.

This year’s ceremony started with a 25 th anniversary homage to Edward Yang’s classic A Brighter Summer Day, which has been restored and re-released in Taiwanese cinemas. Some of the film’s actors and collaborators were invited onto the stage. The award ceremony as a whole had a rather poetic arc, at least from an English-speaking perspective: it began with A Brighter Summer Day (the film’s original title has nothing to do with summer), and ended by awarding The Summer is Gone on the same stage.

Edited by Lesley Chow