Unraveling Taiwan’s Stories of Pain and Tears: An Interview with Aephie Chen

Unraveling Taiwan’s Stories of Pain and Tears: An Interview with Aephie Chen
Photo Credit: Ingvar Haukur Guðmundsson

What you need to know

Many Taiwanese may lament that European audiences understand their hometown as no more than a remote island in Asia, but Chen took it as an opportunity to construct Taiwan’s identity with cinema.

In many ways, Taiwan is an outlier in Asia. The country is the first and only in Asia to have legalized same-sex marriage. It is a haven for free speech and expression in the region, and it is one of the very few places that has avoided a resurgence of Covid-19.

For Aephie Chen, a Taiwanese-born British filmmaker, cinema also represents a slice of Taiwan’s peculiarity. The country has long ago discarded censorship while films continue to be at risk of being banned in the rest of the Chinese-speaking world.

In 2019, she organized the first Taiwan film festival in the United Kingdom and Iceland to share Taiwan’s cinematic talents and the many unheard stories of Taiwan’s uniqueness.

The Taiwan Film Festival UK & Nordic came back this year in March and December with the theme “wounded yet healed,” featuring a number of documentaries on Taiwan’s long journey of democratization and environmental activism. 

Tickets were nearly sold out in the U.K. in March, before the Covid-19 lockdowns. The film festival was supposed to take place in Norway as well, but it was postponed because of the pandemic. 

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Photo Credit: Taiwan Film Festival UK & Nordic
The Taiwan Film Festival UK & Nordic took place at Rio Cinema, a popular independent cinema in London, in November and December.

While the festival last year focused on what Taiwan is, Chen seeks to show how Taiwan has managed to become as resilient and inclusive as it is today with the Taiwan Film Festival UK & Nordic 2020. 

“Taiwan is a place expecting to be understood,” the festival’s website reads. “Rather than waiting for people to voice support for us, we choose to recount, in sincerity, who we are and why we exist, on our way to explore with movies new routes to being understood.”

Since the end of World War II, Taiwan has come a long way, surviving a martial law period for almost four decades — known as the White Terror — when political dissidents were suppressed, imprisoned, and sometimes executed.

“We have gone through a lot of historical traumas within one short century,” Chen told The News Lens. “Our happiness is built upon the flesh and blood of generations of people.”

Globally, Taiwan has also lost most of its diplomatic allies in the past decades, particularly during the 1970s, and has been shut out of most international organizations. But it is the experience of being abandoned by the world that forces the country to depend on itself and contain Covid-19 so successfully, she added. 

A film festival to define Taiwan

Chen, born in Tainan, left the southern Taiwanese city at the age of four and traveled from one country to another with her father, whom she called an international migrant worker. She arrived in the U.K. in 2006 and started studying in film school.

Feeling a strong connection with Taiwan, Chen has had a fraught relationship with her identity. She often cringed at talking about it, even with Taiwanese people living overseas, because of the lack of consensus of what it means.

As she grappled with her identity via film studies, Chen found that Taiwanese films had almost no presence in global cinema, appearing only in Asian or East Asian film festivals and often categorized as a part of Chinese-language cinema.

The idea to change the status quo sprouted in Chen’s mind, but it grew into a plan only after she met Georgina Paget, a London-based film producer who optioned one of Chen’s screenplays. Paget would later become her co-curator for the film festival.

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Photo Credit: Taiwan Film Festival UK & Nordic
Aephie Chen spoke before a film screening at Taiwan Film Festival UK & Nordic in London.

They had mulled over a Taiwan-U.K. co-production, but it soon hit a stumbling block. The lack of a co-production treaty between the two countries, which often gives filmmakers access to tax incentives, made the plan financially inviable.

“While such a treaty is beyond our scope of ability, we can exert our influence as a civic organization,” Chen said. 

She and Paget then laid out a five-year plan for an annual film festival, unraveling Taiwan’s story — rooted in the years of pain and tears — to audiences of the U.K. and five Nordic countries step by step. The first edition of the film festival took place in the U.K. and Iceland last year, with the theme “allergens,” which she used to describe Taiwan’s receptivity to ideas thought to be controversial or dangerous in other countries.

“We are the first Asian film festival in Iceland,” she said with a frisson of excitement. “Japan soon followed suit with Ozu Yasujirō.”

The curator also recalled how touched she was when an audience member, who visited the theater for all the screenings despite having limited mobility, thanked her for “bringing stories of a place where I might never set foot on.”

Many Taiwanese may lament that European audiences understand their hometown as no more than a remote island in Asia, but it came as an opportunity for Chen to construct Taiwan’s identity with cinema.

To curate the festival program, she returned to Taiwan to conduct a field research and watched as many Taiwanese films as possible. It was also during this trip when she invited director Tsai Ming-liang to London, where he would later speak after the screening of a series of his films from 2003 to 2020 at the Tate Modern.

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Photo Credit: Taiwan Film Festival UK & Nordic
After Tsai, Aephie Chen invited Chen Chieh-jen, a Taiwanese contemporary artist, to London and screen his work at the Tate Modern in the second year of the festival.

While Tsai caught many eyeballs, Chen also sought to show the work of lesser-known filmmakers in Taiwan. One of her picks in London was On Happiness Road, Hsin Yin-sung’s directorial debut, which portrayed a girl contemplating her identity as Taiwan transitioned from dictatorship to democracy.

In Reykjavík, Chen chose to screen The Great Buddha+, a dark comedy by Huang Hsin-yao. She was concerned if the audience would have difficulty relating to the life of refugees and waste-pickers in the film, but she soon realized the topics it brought up — human avarice and resilience — are universal.

In Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale, a historical drama film by Wei Te-sheng, the aboriginal peoples in Taiwan are reminiscent of the history of Iceland, which began with the settlement by Viking explorers in the 9th century, she added.

Connecting Taiwan with the world

Despite her eagerness to promote her hometown, Chen understood the importance of connecting Taiwan with other cultures. “In a foreign country, it is not enough to tell the stories that happened in Taiwan; that would be like playing monologues,” she said. “You have to respond to issues that locals care about.”

Chen said she hopes the U.K. audience would look at local environment activism from a new perspective while learning about Taiwan’s martial law period from The Age of Awakening, a documentary that traces Taiwan’s history of environmental movements since the ‘80s.

“There are, for example, anti-nuclear movements in both Taiwan and the U.K.,” she said. “Democracy and the environment are global issues.”

This year, the festival also featured an artistic dialogue about the ocean among those hailing from island countries. Two British and Japanese composers were invited to perform live after the screening of a series of Taiwanese films on the future of islands and the ocean.

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Photo Credit: Taiwan Film Festival UK & Nordic
Aephie Chen spoke with Extinction Rebellion UK after the screening of The Age of Awakening.

Katthveli book club, another part of the festival, featured Tsai Kun-lin, a White Terror political victim, who shared his story of building his own prison on Green Island and joined Lam Wing-kee, the Hong Kong bookseller in exile, to explore democracy and free speech in crisis.

Chen’s project is not just about “expanding the space for Taiwanese,” she said, but creating a space of diversity, where everyone learns from each other.

As the next step, Chen’s team will turn to crowdfunding to sustain their project. In the long run, her goal is to turn it into a private foundation to finance emerging filmmakers from Taiwan.

In her mind, Taiwan may be open to possibilities, but it has also been vulnerable. Part of her motivation to start the festival, Chen noted, was “to maintain a sense of crisis about the instability of Taiwan’s existence in the world.”

“I’ve always felt Taiwan is a treasure island protected by sea gods,” she said. “Overseas Taiwanese like me are bastions that defend it; we are the voice for Taiwan abroad.”


READ NEXT: 6 Best Taiwanese Films to Watch on Netflix During Quarantine

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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