Usually, it is the French who supposedly celebrate artists who are under-valued in their own countries, but apparently it was Japan that best appreciated Jean Cocteau’s poetry in the early Twentieth Century. Among his greatest admirers were a circle of expat Taiwanese poets and scholars. They were ardent nationalists, but nearly their entire literary oeuvre was in Japanese. There is no known film footage of the Fushashisha writers, but viewers will meet them through their poems and letters in Huang Ya-li’s impressionistic essay-documentary, Le Moulin (trailer here), which screens as part of What Time Is It There? Taiwanese Film Biennial at the UCLA Film & Television archive.
Le Moulin, taking its name from one of their key literary journals, is a hefty one-hundred-sixty-two-minutes, but there is nary a talking head in sight. Instead, Huang uses Ozu-esque recreations of their empty homes and offices as well as Ken Burns-esque still photo shots, as the backdrops for narrated poems and excerpts from their work. Clearly, a lot of biographical detail is sacrificed, but we still get the broad strokes of their lives and times, along with an intimate sense of their loves and fears.
They were Taiwanese, but the French surrealists significantly shaped their artistic development, as well as prominent modernists like James Joyce, Salvador Dali, Charles Baudelaire, and Charlie Chaplin. Yet, they were synthetizing all these influences and their own colonial resentments in Japanese, which explains why their work is largely forgotten today. Which national canon should claim them? Of course, the Fushashisha school also had a hard time of it during the White Terror, but the extensive time they spent in Japan probably would have made the Mainland just as bad for them, if not worse (they were truly bourgeoisie poets).
There could be room for a more traditional documentary on the Le Moulin contributors, but Huang’s film is certainly distinctive as a work of non-fiction cinema. Viewers might need to acclimate themselves to its rhythm, but it is worth the effort. Their verse is quite evocative and their prose is indeed rather poetic. It is also strangely compelling to watch their lives fly by from such an oblique vantage point.
Le Moulin could be the most carefully crafted film you will see all year. It is also one of the most poetic. At the risk of sounding like a philistine, it probably could have been trimmed to a mere two hours without irredeemably damaging its artistic integrity, but at least this way viewers definitely get their money’s worth. Recommended for poetry lovers and experimental film patrons, Le Moulin screens this Sunday (11/5) at the UCLA Film & TV Archive.