Preserving Taiwanese Cinematic Heritage 

TOPICS editors sat down with Lan Tsu-wei, president of the Taiwan Film & Audiovisual Institute (TFAI), to talk about the development of Taiwanese cinema, its relationship to the world and society, and TFAI’s role in preserving films of the past.  

What is the Taiwan Film & Audio-visual Institute and how has it developed over the years? 

TFAI is a foundation that preserves Taiwanese and mainland Chinese films. Founded as the Film Library of the Motion Picture Development Foundation in 1978, TFAI was the first film library founded in Taiwan. At first, there was only a library, screening room, reading room, and a few video viewing rooms at TFAI. But since 2008, we have been digitally restoring films. As of 2022, we have finished 661 advanced digital scans and 95 digitally restored titles – 76 with partners and 19 in-house. Today, we house about 20,000 film titles and 400,000 artifacts in our 10 vaults.  

We arrange around 10 restoration projects each year to restore and re-release more films. This dedication to preservation is crucial in maintaining Taiwan’s film history, which is deeply rooted in the country’s culture. 

What was it like being the first film library in Taiwan in the late 70s? 

Initially, the library’s mission focused on exploring film aesthetics by introducing foreign classics to the public. This mission was quickly realized as the Film Library became very popular with young people as it was one of the only places where it was possible to enjoy foreign films. Also, as times were changing and Taiwan was becoming more and more international, Taiwanese people enjoyed going to the movies to learn more about other places, cultures, and people. 

Romance at Lung Shan Temple (1962)

Why and how did the Film Library start preserving films? 

When we started the Film Library, we didn’t really know how to do film preservation. So, learning from books, we started by preserving older Hollywood films. Then, as the market began opening up and society became more democratic in the 1980s, more and more foreign films from the European market started coming to Taiwan. 

In the beginning, the government only supported the preservation of Mandarin films. Then, around 1990, the Film Library began preserving all types of films.  

In 1989, under director Ray Jing, the Film Archive began compiling old Taiwanese Hokkien (Taiwanese-language) films and other artifacts of the Taiwanese film industry. This effort to preserve Taiwanese culture – especially through Taiwanese-language films – was inspired by the worrying fact that many Taiwanese-language films were beginning to disappear. Of the total 1,200 Taiwanese-language films, sadly, most have been lost to time. 

What do you feel Taiwanese cinema means to the people of Taiwan? 

Movie-watching has always been very deep-rooted in Taiwanese culture, and going to the movies has always been a favorite pastime activity here. Through movies, we have been able to explore our Taiwanese identity and learn about the world’s cultures. 

Another thing about Taiwanese people is that, aside from enjoying movies, we also enjoy music and singing – which you know if you’ve ever been to KTV or karaoke with friends. So in the early days of Taiwan cinema, the music and movie industries worked together to complement each other and attract more people to the movies.  

In the 1970s, successful films would release three to five songs in advance to attract the audience to the theaters. By the time a film was released, the audience would already know the lyrics, so they’d go to the theater to watch the movie and sing the songs together. 

Because of the Taiwanese love for movie soundtracks and singing, in later years movie concerts for Taiwanese films were also organized in Kaohsiung and Taipei together with the One Song Orchestra, an orchestra comprised of talented young musicians with classical music backgrounds dedicated to performing music that fuses the Taiwanese and classical genres of music. 

A Touch of Zen (1971)

What do you consider to be the representative parts of Taiwanese cinema? 

There are a few elements and genres that I think are quite representative of Taiwanese cinema. Early Taiwanese films were almost wholly made in the Taiwanese language until the government’s promotion of Mandarin in mass media led to the decline in Taiwanese-language films being made. During this time, 武俠 (wuxia, martial arts) films and melodramas were the most popular genres. Martial arts films were popular at the time because it was a format familiar to the people of Taiwan due to newspapers and other publications also publishing these types of stories around that period. 

Once the 1980s began, “New Taiwanese Cinema” films started to appear in theaters. These movies differ from the previous era’s romantic and martial arts films.  Instead, they portray realistic, sympathetic versions of everyday Taiwanese life and tell the stories of urban and rural life in Taiwan.  

One such example of New Taiwanese Cinema would be a film we recently worked on remastering for re-release, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness. In the film, you see a realistic portrayal of life in Taiwan during the White Terror period. These films explored the Taiwanese identity while also chronicling the evolution of Taiwan and Taiwanese society in modern times. 

Finally, as you know, Taiwan is a very forward-thinking society when it comes to the LGBTQIA+ community. This has been crystalized in Taiwanese cinema with LGBTQIA+-themed movies and productions appearing in theaters very early. Inclusivity and diversity are other things that are quite unique to Taiwanese society and Taiwanese cinema. 

A City of Sadness starred Tony Leung, one of many Hong Kong actors who have starred in Taiwanese films. What was the relationship between the Taiwan and Hong Kong film industries during the 1980s and ’90s? 

During the early 1980s, films from Hong Kong started to take center stage in the Taiwanese market – leading to box office competition for Taiwanese films. Realizing that the two industries could work together on productions would lead to a close relationship between the film industries of Taiwan and Hong Kong that flourished throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Many popular Mandarin-language movies from the time were made as collaborations between the Taiwan and Hong Kong film industries. 

The two industries would collaborate on films, each bringing something unique to the table. Taiwanese film distributors would fund the films, while Hong Kong film companies would focus on recruiting star-studded casts to draw moviegoers to the theaters to see their new movies. 

Teenage Fugitive (1984)

Why do you think Taiwanese films seem to have a bit of a darker, sadder tone in general? 

Watching many New Taiwanese Cinema films, one may think Taiwan is quite a dark place. However, these films aim to allow viewers from Taiwan and around the world to gain a deeper understanding of the country’s history while allowing directors to create works of art that speak to a shared national identity and history. Moreover, seeing these stories brought to the silver screen could be seen as a form of catharsis since parts of Taiwan’s modern history had previously been taboo to discuss in public forums – let alone in the medium of cinema. 

Looking ahead, what do you see in the future of the Taiwan film industry? 

Foreign productions have noticed Taiwan’s beauty and suitability as a filming location. Having attracted several big names in the Hollywood film industry before the pandemic, including Martin Scorsese’s Silence and Lucy, starring Scarlet Johansson, and with film productions around the world beginning to return to normalcy, Taiwan is in an excellent position to serve as the home base or a filming location for other big studio productions. 

Taiwan’s unique geography and convenient transport make it easy to film in a variety of locations. For example, you can be on the top of a high mountain in the morning and standing on a beach at the seaside at lunchtime. 

Additionally, Taiwanese directors and production companies continue striving to create meaningful artworks. The nurturing of the next generation of filmmakers in Taiwan is one area that continues to require attention and support from both the film industry and the education system. Further government support can also create opportunities for more Taiwanese stories to be shared with the world. The Taiwanese film industry continues to produce films – both for theater and for online streaming services – that appeal to viewers in Taiwan and around the world, and I’m sure that the future for Taiwan’s film industry is bright and exciting. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Photos courtesy of TFAI.