Taiwan National Film Industry's Feminine Ideal

by on 週五, 27 四月 2012 評論

Whereas in the 1980s and 1990s, Taiwan New Cinema could be characterised by strong, mature female characters, in recent year, an attempt by the film industry to attract a younger audience has had an influence on film content and the representation of women. Indeed, recent commercial cinema tends to offer simplified story plots and development and is heavily influenced by Japan, Korean and local television (whereas Japanese and Korean cinema audiences are very diverse and allow a widescope of film genres, Taiwan cinema production seems to focus mainly on a younger demographic with certain formulas and stereotypes in films.). As a result, in these teenage dramas, “women” are quite absent on screen compared to “girls”. The young girl has become the central representation in Taiwan cinema and most of the time in a secondary role. There is a dichotomy in the representation of female characters: the innocent – passive - girls and then mothers; which seems to indicate a real lack of a positive alternative role-model. Still some films try to give another image of female characters. This article is an attempt to describe the different type of female image representation in recent Taiwan cinema.

Peripheral female characters

In recent success, such as Monga (Doze Niu, 2010) or Winds of September (Tom Shu-yu Lin, 2008), being narratives about male friendship, female parts are naturally reduced to vague shadows amongst a male dominated cast. They are objects of desire and competition, a way of asserting manhood but do not exist in and for themselves. They have a part as a peripheral narrative device. In Winds of September, the female classmates are seen from afar, outside the boys-circle. The male group is disturbed when one of them decides to be with a girl. Yen is the only one who has a girl–friend but their relationship is portrayed as not very successful. The film plays between the warm complicity between the guys (swimming together, going out on motorbike rides) and the disruption of female characters to this complicity. Thus, Winds of September and Monga articulate their narration around troubles caused by girls – those they steal from one another in particular. In Monga, the role of the young prostitute is concretely peripheral, as she is reduced to the space of the room which she occupies and seems to be meant only to introduce a hint of heterosexuality in a film haunted by a blatant homoeroticism. But the moments Mosquito shares with her in her confined space are also the only moments when Mosquito can escape the violence of the group. In these cases, female characters only exist as outcasts, as symbols of innocence and danger. This projection turns female characters into ghostly presences with no real substance.

The only recent film that plays with this peripheral aspect is You’re the Apple of My Eye, indeed by adopting the narrator's point of view, the film endorses the young hero's gaze on his classmate. She, herself is deprived of an existence outside the hero's gaze but she is both peripheral and central to the narration. This narrative stance allows the main character to create an ideal female who still escapes his understanding. The film establishes a distance and a game between the external image of the heroine, and the life of the hero. Whilst the heroine is seen as a smooth surface without any real desire or lust, the male character is shown with an overactive body. The heroine is seen, described, talked about but does not have a direct active role in the narration. Still the female character remains someone alive, in opposition to many ghostly characters

Dissolution of the stereotype

If, male centred narration projects a passive image of women, female oriented narrative tends to do exactly the same thing. Indeed, the beauty ideal of skinniness and whiteness as promoted in advertisements and films leads to a dilution of female characters into pure ethereal images. The most striking example is the transformation of Kui Lun-Mei who starred first as a strong tom-boy character in Blue Gate Crossing and who is now mostly cast to perform skinny, white and nearly boneless characters. In Taipei Exchange, she represents an immature heroine, with childish expressions, ideals and relationships. Flesh seems to be completely absent in her relationship with the pilot. The choice of actresses is very important in this trend, most of them are extremely skinny, with long hair and a very white skin, which make them look more like ghosts than human beings. Moreover, their characters are also very soft and shy most of the time. The heroine of Honey Pupu is more defined by her voice than her body and in One Day, the relationship between the two main characters is lit in a slight overexposure which makes it seem a little unreal. The exception of Nikky Hsie's part as a demonic, destructive prostitute in Honey Pupu is only a characterisation of her virtual persona. She represents flesh and sexiness in her attire and attitude but is the evil character of the group. Feminine desire seems to be banned and condemned and her character only gains positivity when she is discovered to be pregnant. The choice of being less commercial entails primarily avoiding this physcial stereotype. In Seven Days in Heaven the female character is somehow comic in a tragic situation, her indifference to the burial process seems to emphasize theemptiness of her life.

Becoming the Body: Blow Fish and Yang Yang

In Blow Fish, the director and the screenwriter/actress distort the classical representation of heroines in films. The film starts with a training session in a department store, the heroine is just another white, nameless, transparent puppet in the great commercial mechanism. But when she escapes to the countryside and invites herself to stay at the coach's house, she loses her inconsistency and gains a body. Even if she remains silent, she imposes her will on the coach. The white skinny body and the silent attitude are turned into a demanding and active body that creates a strange effect. It could be argued that the film is more like a fantasy story and not realistic at all.

So in a more realistic representation, Yang Yang is more like a bildungsroman following the emancipation of an athlete. As in Miao Miao in which Sandra Pinna/ Zhang Rong Rong's vitality is contrasted with effeminacy, in Yang Yang, she is pure movement, a desiring body and an energy that becomes a real presence. The film follows her closely, capturing a body and a personality in transition. In the film Yang Yang is central and is the one making her own decisions about her life and her sexuality. The choice of the director to choose a sport professional also adds to this idea of a more active role. The last long shot of the film following Yang Yang as she runs – a clear reference to Truffaut – also conveys the resilient strength of the heroine being something other than just an image – she becomes an actress.

In some few exceptions, women characters are adults and as a consequence this changes the perception of them. The same happens in Seven Days in Heaven in which young characters are secondary and older characters more important. Still in this film the character of the daughter is a quite hard to grasp. Focusing on adults, the film avoids the stereotypes on youngsters and female characters stands out with their strong personality and comical qualities. They also represent – the daughter, the funeral specialist, the absent daughter and the nurse – examples of independent and successful women

Except for these few examples, Taiwan cinema in recent years has not been a female character role provider except for perpetuating an ideal of softness that reminds us of the ideal character depicted in 1970s films.

 

Wafa Ghermani

I am a French Doctorate candidate on film studies
my research topic is on national identity and film concerning Taiwan from 1985 till nowadays

我是一個法國的電影系博士生(巴黎三大)

我研究台灣電影與認同的關係,從日本時代到現在

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