Saturday, 22 June 2019

FILM REVIEW: Our Youth In Taiwan - St. Peter's House, Manchester.

Yue Fu’s 2018 documentary film, Our Youth In Taiwan, focuses on two members of the Taiwanese Sunflower Student Movement who came to prominence in March and April 2014: Wei-Ting Chen and Boyi Cai. Filmed between 2011 and 2017, the film is as much a portrait of youthful idealism souring as it is an exploration of the relationship in documentary film-making between subject matter and the director of the film.

Hopping across the years and between Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China, the film explores the struggles of ‘social movements’ in the three countries against their respective governments (and the Chinese Communist Government exerts influence over all of them). The social movements are primarily made up of students who protest against state media, legislation (such as a controversial ‘Service Trade Agreement’ between Taiwan and China), and societal injustice. The film opens in 2017 as two figures watch footage shot back in 2012 to commemorate the events of 4th June 1989 in Tiananmen Square, before jumping back to 2011 where Chen leads a peaceful protest against the monopolisation of the media in Taiwan. Throughout, Fu’s voice provides narration to explain how she came to be a part of the social movement and became friends with Chen and later Cai, a student from China who has become involved in the protest movements even though she could be at risk of deportation if arrested by the police. Cai is very studious, she writes online articles and a book, and seems to be thrilled by the opportunities protesting offers but this causes tensions when returning home to China to visit her family. Chen, by contrast, is orphaned and seems to be using the protest group as a surrogate family; he is more mischievous than Cai but is no less passionate – one section of the film shows the aftermath of an altercation with the police at a protest where, it seems, one of the police officers has said a rather unfavourable comment about Chen’s parentage and this has caused Chen to become visibly upset.

The early part of the film establishes the roles and personalities of Chen and Cai before the film moves to its next sequence, in 2013 when Fu accompanies Chen on a journey to China to see Cai and then moving on to connect with fellow social movements in Hong Kong. Chen treats the trip as a holiday and cheekily suggests walking around wearing his ‘4th June 1989’ t-shirt but is forced into an act of ‘self-censorship’ by not wearing it. Cai, meanwhile, speaks of the Chinese authorities inviting her ‘for tea’ whenever she comes home from Taiwan. While Fu speaks of being a part of the social movement, her position is primarily as a documentarist and, as time goes by, her voiceover admits that she moved onto other projects until the Sunflower Movement occupied the Taiwanese government building, the Legislative Yuan, in late March 2014.

The occupation seemed to be what all the other protests had been building up to as students took direct action against what they felt was a trade agreement between Taiwan and China which would tip the balance of power in China’s favour. Members of the movement began to speak in strong, nationalist, terms about ‘being Taiwanese, not Chinese,’ words which would cut deep with Cai, still supporting the movement. Chen, meanwhile, became a poster boy for the students and was invited to closed meetings of the ‘elite’ members of the movement (a fact which Yu noted was at odds with the protestor’s attacks on the lack of transparency from the government regarding the trade agreement). As the occupation continued, there began to be a feeling of mistrust between those in the Yuan and the protesters outside the building, who were subject to attacks from the police. Eventually, the occupation came to an end but, the film shows, there was a feeling of ‘What now?’ from the protesters.

The final part of the film follows Chen and Cai in the aftermath of the occupation as both engage with democratic institutions as they attempt to get a foothold within, rather than outside, the system. Cai runs to be Student Union President at her university (having lead a protest against tuition fee increases). Chen, meanwhile, seeks election to the council in his home province and soon has a team around him who controls his image and forbids him from attending protests while he is campaigning. For the two of them, their dreams end bitterly: Cai’s Chinese nationality becomes her downfall at the ballot box and Chen’s hitherto undisclosed prosecutions for sexual harassment come to light and he withdraws from campaigning. The film then picks up in 2017 as Fu attempts to work out how to end her film and it soon becomes clear that Fu has been projecting her hopes onto her two subjects.

Stylistically, the film makes use of handheld camera work and a lot of the film’s frames feature Cai and Chen in medium close-up – they are, after all, the ones Fu has chosen to follow in the making of the film. The final section in 2017 does something different, however: here the cameras are on tripods, static rather than the frenetic blur of the handheld effect, as Chen and Cai – both visibly different people emotionally from their appearances earlier in the film- describe how they felt having seen their younger, idealistic, selves after viewing the footage. The camera is then turned on Fu as she becomes emotional and explains what she had hoped the two of them would achieve following the occupation of the Yuan and how heart-breaking it was when things fell apart. Here, Fu is no longer ‘the voice of God,’ the authorial narrator of the film, in this one shot she becomes a vulnerable surrogate for the audience as the film reaches its conclusion. This one scene lifts what has been a very solid documentary into something else entirely and subtly reframes what we have been watching for the previous hour and fifty minutes: Our Youth in Taiwan hasn’t just been an account of student action and protests between 2011 and 2014, it has been about the idealism of youth colliding with the harshness of reality, of transitioning from adolescence into adulthood.

A fascinating work, Our Youth In Taiwan is a well-made and thought-provoking film which explores the tensions between Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China, and seems even more pertinent following the very recent events in Hong Kong where people have protested against a new extradition law. While Our Youth In Taiwan may possibly be a bit overlong, it is perhaps fitting that the film, like its subjects, aren’t perfect but well intentioned nonetheless.

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 22/6/19

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