Seeking Agency and Forging Identity Through Documentary: Wuna Wu's Farewell 1999 and Let's Fall in Love.

Author:Sang, Tze-Lan Deobrah
Position:Global East Asian Cinema: Abjection and Agency - Critical essay


The contemporary documentary scene in Taiwan has benefited from female documentary makers' remarkable creative energy. Challenging the celluloid ceiling, record numbers of Taiwanese women have assumed directorial roles and developed authorial voices through documentary. A significant number of Taiwanese women's documentaries foreground subjectivity as dynamic and changeable (Chiu 2012). In this essay. I argue that documentaries by Wuna Wu (Tri-jen Wu) are preeminent examples of this concern about subjectivity. Wu's films--particularly Farewell 1999 and the Let's Fall in Love series--jettison the notion of a stable or static identity, highlighting instead a performativity close to improvisational stage performance. Moreover, her works reveal that the process of mediation is essential to the constitution of identity. Participating in her own documentaries as both filmmaker and subject. Wu makes liberal use of first-person voiceover narration. The simultaneous use of participatory, reflexive, and performative documentary modes shines a spotlight on Wu's embodied, subjective experience and the act of filmmaking itself. Through Farewell 1999, Wu affirms the value of an ordinary female existence whereas in Let's Fall in Love, she shows how urban men and women empower themselves by appropriating and owning the marriage imperative in Taiwanese society. Documentary practice is what Wu resorts to for self-reflection, healing, and the building of affective bonds in moments of trauma, powerlessness, and abjection. Through the filmmaking process, Wu accrues agency and the courage to carry on. Let's Fall in Love, in particular, performs emotional labor not only for the filmmaker herself but also for the social actors and the audience. Besides Wu, some other women documentarians have also sought healing and agency through documentary making. For instance, by making Small Talk, a candid exploration of sexual identity, family relations, and domestic violence, writer/filmmaker Hui-chen Huang comes to terms with her mother's aloofness and a history of abuse.

The New Documentary in Contemporary Taiwan

The last two decades have witnessed a global revival of interest in documentary. The number of independent documentary films and videos (hereafter shortened to "documentary films") has steadily increased, and documentary festivals have proliferated not only in Europe, the Americas, and Australia, but also in many regions of Asia. The reasons for this worldwide documentary renaissance are many, chief among which are the advent of digital video technology, the availability of new avenues for funding and exhibition, and many film audiences' dissatisfaction with Hollywood's and other commercial cinemas' tendencies to avoid difficult social issues, not to mention plenty of film viewers' weariness with the glossy aesthetics of mainstream cinema typified by an overreliance on special effects and superstars. Indeed, documentary--due to its relative freedom from the entertainment imperative and its close proximity to everyday and local realities--has become one of the last strongholds for presenting issues for public debate. It has also become a favorite genre for many aspiring and ambitious filmmakers, both because of the relatively low production budget requirement and because of its unique aesthetics as the creative treatment of actuality.

In Taiwan, one of the most striking cultural phenomena in recent decades has been precisely a very vibrant documentary filmmaking scene. The development shares some similarities with the documentary renaissance occurring in other parts of the world while retaining local specificities. The revitalization of documentary filmmaking during the 1980s and 1990s coincided with the lifting of martial law and the ensuing expansion of freedom of speech and other civil liberties. Although the history of documentary filmmaking in Taiwan can be traced to the Japanese colonial period (1895-1945) and the postwar era. the practice took a new turn in the 1980s as the island entered a period of sociopolitical sea change. This shift in direction led to the coinage of the term "the new Taiwanese documentary" (Chi 2003). Like its cousin, "the new Taiwanese cinema" (which refers exclusively to fiction feature films), the new Taiwanese documentary represented a breakthrough in subject matter, aesthetics, and purpose, broaching many topics that were taboo and silenced during the martial law era (1949-1987).

From the late 1980s through the 1990s, the new Taiwanese documentary thrived, albeit in the shadow of the new cinema, as the key figures of the latter movement such as directors Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, and Tsai Ming-liang received countless international accolades and thus seemingly emerged as the representative auteurs capturing the changing faces of Taiwan in moving images. Then, during the early 2000s, the production of narrative films a la mode of the new cinema languished while documentary filmmaking gained momentum. At present, although narrative film production has shown signs of resuscitation and a comeback, documentary filmmaking continues to be one of the most robust modes of cultural production in Taiwan.

There exists a fairly complete chain of operation from granting agencies and television stations that fund documentaries, to academic programs and community workshops that train documentary practitioners, to the Public Television Service and numerous domestic and international him festivals that frequently exhibit new documentaries. Some documentaries have even enjoyed a commercial release, drawing larger crowds to the theaters than most Taiwanese fiction features released during the same period. (1) Dozens of documentary makers have succeeded in entering their films in the competitions at international film festivals outside of Taiwan, frequently winning awards. And quite a few directors--such as Zero Chou (Mei-ling chou). Singing Chen. Chen-ti Kuo, Mong-hong Chung, and Hsin-yao Huang--have branched out into narrative filmmaking after achieving success with documentary.

The new Taiwanese documentary, at least initially, was intertwined with emerging social movements in a context of democratization. Filmmakers strove to give a voice to disenfranchised groups, using their works to preserve a visual record of Taiwan's transformation from an authoritarian system to democracy, as well as from an island of agriculture and labor-intensive industries to a late capitalist economy with a prominent high tech sector. Into the twenty-first century, documentary filmmaking has diversified, resulting in a highly pluralistic practice. As nonfiction film has become a favorite form among aspiring filmmakers, documentaries have addressed a wide spectrum of subjects ranging from the political to the intimate, and they exhibit diverse methods and styles (Lin and Sang 2012). Topics have included everything from historical and political traumas to gender and sexual identities. Methods have run the gamut from pure observation to participatory, reflexive, and performative modes, often incorporating interviews, archival photographs and footage, narration, animation, and even reenactments. And other than one or two notable exceptions who are employees of the Public Television Service (such as Ke Chin-yuan), almost all documentary makers in contemporary Taiwan are working independently, relying on grants, awards, personal savings, and occasionally commissions to finance their films.

Overcoming the Gender Barrier: The Rise of Women Documentary Makers

One phenomenon that stands out for any casual observer of this current scene is the high level of activity of women documentary makers in Taiwan. A cursory look at the documentary nomination and awards lists of major local film festivals reveals that roughly half of the most critically acclaimed or frequently discussed documentaries produced in Taiwan in recent years...

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