Sunday, November 29, 2020

Taiwan B-Movies at AFA: Taiwan Black Movies

Before Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang, there was Woman Revenger and Lady Ninja. Starting in 1979, there was an explosion of ROC exploitation filmmaking that not so coincidentally coincided with Taiwan’s super-charged economic growth and the development of the democratization movement. Hou Chi-jan surveys the films and their cultural significance in Taiwan Black Movies, which screens as part of Anthology Film Archive’s free online retrospective, Taiwan B-Movies.

Sort of euphemistically (but maybe not really), the Taiwanese “Black” or B-movies are referred to by critics as the “social realism” films. In fact, the film that launched the genre,
Never Too Late to Repent, was a very realistic depiction of prison conditions. Those that followed cranked up the violence to levels previously unseen in local cinema, while pushing the sexual envelop as much as they could at the time.

Back then, the KMT was still anti-Communist (whereas it is now infamous as Taiwan’s pro-CCP party), so adaptations of Mainland “Scar Literature,” novels chronicling the horrors of Mao’s regime, could count on a little slack from the KMT censors. Ironically, the awkwardly titled
On the Society File of Shanghai would give rise to a major Taiwanese exploitation subgenre: the women’s revenge film. Indeed, a number of the clips seen in TBM look like they could have come from a dingy print of Lady Snowblood, or something even tougher.

Hou’s talking heads represent a fairly wide spectrum of film criticism. Collectively, they probably express just as much disdain for these films, as they do admiration and nostalgia. Each point is also vividly illustrated with relevant film clips, but sadly, a number of these films are obviously not well preserved.

Yet, a number of Hou’s talking heads arguably get it wrong when they minimize the films’ worth as a barometer of national unrest. In fact, to contemporary eyes, these B-Movies look like an accurate reflection of Taiwan’s tormented psyche at the time. Taiwanese films had never been so violent, which surely meant something. (I always argue, if you want to see into the dark recesses of a nation’s collective subconscious, watch their genre films—that’s where the fears and resentments come out.)

Hou and company definitely give viewers a taste for the grungy vibe of these B-movies. Frankly, what we see should intrigue exploitation fans, making them curious to watch a number of referenced films that are also playing as part of Anthology’s series. Hou’s approach is conventional, but the liveliness of these lurid films still comes through loud and clear. Recommended as good cinematic and cultural history,
Taiwan Black Movies screens for free (12/2-12/15), via Anthology’s virtual cinema.