Sometimes it’s difficult for documentaries to convey all they hope to convey, especially when the documentary is about a film genre or a culture’s film output. The filmmaker may have his or her own aims, for instance, and sometimes those aims get in the way of the films themselves. (The Cambodian cinema documentary Golden Slumbers from last year’s NYAFF comes to mind.) That’s not always the case, of course. There’s a great doc on Australian exploitation movies called Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!, which is a spirited, madcap intro to the wonder of Aussie genre films.
Taiwan Black Movies covers the Taiwanese exploitation films of 1979 to 1983. Only 60-minutes long and made for a Taiwanese audience, the documentary leaves a lot of the socio-political grounding unstated. Even if the Taiwanese people don’t remember the films themselves, I’d assume they know the history of their own country during that period of martial law and democratic reform, and this knowledge fills in the gaps in the documentary.
I know nothing about Taiwanese history and politics, so I didn’t immediately comprehend the cultural relevance of these movies (and any observations I make are wild extrapolations based on inference). However, watching Taiwan Black Movies with two of the genre movies it showcases — Woman Revenger and Never Too Late to Repent — enhanced all the films I saw that day and gave me a better understanding of the genre.
[For the next few weeks, we will be covering the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival and the 2013 Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF 2013 coverage, click here. For Japan Cuts 2013 coverage, click here.]
Taiwan Black Movies (台灣黑電影)
Director: Hou Chi-Jan
Release Date: 2005 (Taiwan)
Woman Revenger (The Nude Body Case in Tokyo | 女性的復仇)
Director: Tsai Yang-Ming
Release Date: 1982 (Taiwan)
Never Too Late to Repent (The First Error Step | 錯誤的第一步)
Director: Tsai Yang-Ming
Release Date: 1979 (Taiwan)
The Saturday of Taiwanese genre movies began with Hou-Chi Jan’s documentary Taiwan Black Movies followed by the Tsai Yang-Ming films Woman Revenger and Never Too Late to Repent. Seeing the genre films after the documentary was ideal since the bold energy of the movies added life to the detached historical perspective of the documentary. Film programming and sequencing like this reveals the deep value of focused film festivals like NYAFF. Double-bills, triple-bills, and Q & As can be so enlightening for an audience. It’s like listening to an album rather than just a song off the album — there are ideas unfolding and reflecting back on themselves that I wouldn’t notice without the other two films. Saturday was a conversation about Taiwan Black Movies, not a monologue.
(There was a contemporary Taiwanese romantic comedy by Hou-Chi Jan shown between Woman Revenger and Never Too Late to Repent called When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep. It was a major palate cleanse, and much different in tone and presentation than his documentary. Look for that review tomorrow.)
A few impulses seemed to drive these two Taiwan Black Movies and other films in the genre. They’re social message movies at their heart. The film that kicked it all off is Never Too Late to Repent, originally titled The First Error Step. The movie stars Ma Sha as an orphan who grows up among poverty and prostitutes, winds up in prison for killing a man, and then tries to live a reformed life. It’s sort of like a chain gang movie and a redemption story, but it’s also a kind of mythmaking vehicle for its star: Never Too Late to Repent is an adaptation of Ma Sha’s own memoir. The film was a box office sensation in Taiwan.
Never Too Late to Repent is a gritty yet melodramatic film that reminded me in some ways of Kinji Fukasaku mixed with early blaxploitation. The characters are down and out, and the settings expose lives of squalor and desperation. Woman Revenger is a different kind of animal, however, even if it’s from the same director and inspired by a true events (this time forced prostitution). The film also features Ma Sha, though he’s in pure bad guy mode and proud to show off his real-life dragon tattoo.
Released just a few years after Never Too Late to Repent, Woman Revenger is more exploitation movie than social message movie. It involves a dance teacher from Hong Kong (Elsa Yeung) who travels to Japan after the death of a friend. There’s missing cocaine, a missing eye, and an eventual revenge squad of dance students armed with katanas and wakizashis. Apart from some crowd footage in Harajuku that goes on too long, it’s well-paced, though it trades in the moral drama of Never Too Late to Repent for schlock. There are two goofy music cues: the first is a loungey version of Bernard Herrmann’s score from Taxi Driver and the other blatantly lifts Bill Conti’s score from Rocky during a sumo match.
Going back to the information in the documentary, I began to realize that these films function as reactionary artistic expressions in addition to being social message movies. The Taiwan Black Movies were social-realist responses to the prevailing Taiwanese romance films of the time that were filled with sugary emotions and fairy tale plots, but they were also a kind of push against the oppression of the government. The critics and historians that appear in the documentary note the way the films tried to depict the dirtier sides of Taiwanese life. There’s also the adolescent wonder of seeing bare breasts on screen. That’s the joy of the social message movie and the joy of the exploitation movie all rolled into one.
The films themselves often had to kowtow to government censors, removing nudity and extreme violence, and including messages in which characters who do bad things (even if they are ostensibly good guys) need to be punished by the proper authorities. That may explain the heightened emotions and violence in these two films just as much as the pedantic moralizing. These are acts of free speech within narrow confines of free speech; a scream that’s impassioned because at least the scream is allowed.
By knowing about the censorship from the documentary, the print of Never Too Late to Repent that was screened became not just an imperfect, incomplete version of the movie; it was an informative chronicle of the Taiwanese government’s crackdown on expression. The print I saw was restored from two surviving copies of the movie: one that had the picture, one that had the sound. The surviving picture came from an uncut version of the film while the audio was taken from a censored print. During scenes of excessive violence, all of the audio cut out; during scenes of brief nudity or implied sex, no sound. Some of these silences lasted a few seconds, though others lasted a minute, maybe two. (There’s also an entire chunk of a scene missing from the last act of Woman Revenger, maybe even a shot or two earlier in that film.)
Jean-Luc Godard once said, “Film is truth 24 times a second, and every cut is a lie.” In this case, the missing scenes and missing audio are lies as well as admissions of guilt, like the telltale redacted text in government documents. It may be 30 years since these films were first released, but the earnestness of the social messages are just as apparent as the political meddling. Over the course of three films, I began to comprehend some of the culture that made these movies possible. In a lot of ways it’s a miracle that these Taiwan Black Movies still exist since the prints of these films were destroyed. Efforts at recovery and restoration are being made, but it’s slow going, and apparently many Taiwanese filmgoers don’t even remember these films.
Director Tsai Yang-Ming was in attendance for a Q & A and to accept a NYAFF lifetime achievement award. His career spans 50 years as an actor, director, and producer. Tsai seemed grateful, even downright humbled. At one point he said he wouldn’t have known that he’d achieved anything if he hadn’t been told he’d done so.
That long Saturday at Lincoln center made me hope these Taiwan Black Movies get thie due. I’m really interested to find out more about these films and to see them for myself. It just goes to show that even during the extended silences in Never Too Late to Repent, there are shouts that will not go unheard as long as there are people willing to pay attention.
Taiwan Black Movies: 70 – Good
Woman Revenger: 70 – Good
Never Too Late to Repent: 70 – Good
All three films watched together: 79 – Good