Nostalgia and Change: The Golden Horse Film Festival, Taipei, November 8-28th, 2013

Menghsin C. Horng (University of California, Berkeley)

The 50th anniversary of the Golden Horse Film Awards prompted reflection and nostalgia, leading me to recall my first Golden Horse Film Festival, ten years ago. When I first moved to Taipei in 2003, I caught a chronic case of festival fever that has yet to recede. My graduate studies in the U.S. put a temporary hold on participation in this annual ritual, yet returning to the city this fall instantly rejuvenated those experiences. From the pre-festival thrill of splurging on bulk passes, the frenzy that accompanies priority booking sessions, the media buildup and sudden blossoming of banners on downtown light poles, and then – finally – daily laps across town to attend screenings, discussions, and peripheral events, I was reminded once again of how the festival fosters cinephilic citizenry by creating numerous opportunities for interaction and engagement.

Though the Golden Horse Film Festival is international in scope, my own interests drew me to the screenings which most aptly commented on the place of the Golden Horse in Sinophone cinema. The hottest tickets were clearly those in a series of hour-long “Encounters with the Masters” following key films in each director’s filmography: Hou Hsiao-hsien (Golden Horse festival chair again, in discussion on Flowers of Shanghai), Ang Lee (the head of this year’s jury, speaking after Lust, Caution), Tsai Ming-liang (whose Stray Dogs opened the film festival, and who was slated to discuss I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone), Peter Chan (Comrades, Almost a Love Story), Ann Hui (The Way We Are), Jia Zhangke (A Touch of Sin), Lou Ye (Summer Palace), Johnny To (Election), and Stanley Kwan (Centre Stage) – the final listing accompanied, for good measure, by Maggie Cheung.

This promised assemblage of so many film luminaries was apparently enough to bring down the electronic ticketing system at the automated kiosks found at every 7-Eleven around the island. Bulk pass holders lined up well before sale time in order to reserve seats (some reported driving out of the city in order to ensure that they’d be first in line at less trafficked stores), only to punch through the same buttons for at least the first hour of sales, mostly without success. After watching the two people ahead of me remain locked out for over a half hour each, I finally went up to bat just as the system went back online. Unfortunately, the first two tickets I tried to purchase for Centre Stage and Lust, Caution had already completely sold out, suggesting that nearly every ticket purchaser who had managed to overwhelm the system in the first hour had attacked with the same strategy. While the response on Facebook clearly showed a number of unhappy bulk ticket holders, there were plenty who took the snafu in stride. “So the ‘50’ in Golden Horse 50 means we have to push at least fifty buttons to get our tickets?” quipped one poster. “I had no idea the inaugural activity of the Golden Horse was to stand in line as punishment!” joked another. There was also a tale of an entire 7-Eleven erupting in applause as one flustered ticket holder finally managed to complete her transactions. For myself, I found the shared vexation created a spontaneous encounter with my neighborhood cinephiles, as I ended up chatting about film with the strangers standing in line in order to pass the time.

I learned from my informal poll that afternoon that the festival draws audiences with a broad range of priorities and preferences. Most of us had wild hopes to snag at least one or two seats at the master talks – I managed to pick up tickets to hear Peter Chan and Hou Hsiao-hsien. The young man immediately ahead of me had hoped to secure a spot at Jia Zhangke’s talk, though his appearance was later canceled with little explanation (and, of course, much speculation). A couple women expressed their disappointment that there were few Japanese and Korean stars attending this year’s program. One film fest veteran said he made it a point to attend screenings based on the appearance of non-Asian filmmakers, even if he they weren’t particularly popular or if he had never heard of them before, as these were the rarest opportunities to his mind. We both had separate Alejandro Jodorowsky titles on our list, noting that his son Brontis was one of the special guests scheduled to visit.

Meanwhile, I wanted to catch as many short films as I could, and was slightly surprised to find that this year’s shorts totaled only a few screenings, as compared to the half a dozen or more that I recalled from years past. The short film lineups are often heavily represented by local and regional filmmakers, and it is rare for me to see the selections in competition outside of Taiwan, let alone with filmmaker participation. This year, the major screenings had been pared down to a single set of four pan-Chinese shorts in competition, two sets that nominally take Taiwan as their focus (either filmed locally, or created by Taiwanese artists), and a collection of six “homecomings” from Southeast Asian directors, distributed under the title Letters from the South. Festival programming is inclusive so that short films helmed by even a Singaporean and a Dutch director qualify as “Taiwan” films when the actors are local. Thus, the decision to crown Singaporean film Ilo Ilo with the Golden Horse Award for Best Feature Film only seems to complement festival expectations and experience.

At any rate, a common priority that emerged over the course of my observation was a desire to see and interact with special guests in attendance – a successful feature of Taipei film festivals that has been steadily nurtured over the years. Audience exchange is not just an opportunity to bask in the presence of stars (though that was definitely the agenda for Ivy Ling-po’s fans at a screening of The Love Eterne). For as long as I’ve been observing film festivals in Taipei, Q&A sessions have been lively and instructive, if constrained, forums for public exchange. Golden Horse Q&A sessions were mostly moderated by Wen Tien-Hsiang 聞天祥, whose effervescence and easy patter have made him a fixture of the Taipei festival scene. Audience questions ranged from the concise and detailed (“What was your production budget?”) to elaborate explications based on a speaker’s shot analysis. Several filmmakers expressed frustration when pressed to either confirm or deny the validity of certain mechanistic interpretations. Resisting such questions, many of the filmmakers preferred to turn the questions back to their audience, stressing that their authority as someone who was present during the creative process offered only one possible perspective, whereas the audience had to continue the work of interpretation on their own.

The Golden Horse Pressroom managed to generate Q&A transcriptions at a fairly rapid clip, creating a rich archive of supplementary material accessible to the public. Discussion logs (in Chinese) can be found on the Golden Horse Press site. Additional YouTube videos of some live sessions can be found on the official Golden Horse channel.

For those who could not fight their way into sold out guest appearances or popular Q&A sessions, there were a number of lower pressure interactive activities. The Audience Choice awards, based on ticket stub ballots collected at the end of every screening, were tabulated and posted daily, generating a sense of ongoing competition. The final vote as of 11/28 includes the following top five (the rest of the top twenty can be found on Facebook):

1. Lust, Caution 《色,戒》
2. Centre Stage 《阮玲玉》
3. Twelve Nights 《十二夜》
4. English Vinglish 《救救菜英文》
5. Sweet Alibis 《甜蜜殺機》

I can speculate that the top two titles rode to their lead positions on the basis of star power and rarity of the event; anyone who had managed to obtain tickets to see Ang Lee, Stanley Kwan, and Maggie Cheung must have been extraordinary lucky, or went to great lengths to obtain their ticket. Twelve Nights, also a sold-out world premier, pulls up as a dark horse – or rather, dark hound – in third place. This documentary tracks a group of Taiwan shelter dogs over the course of twelve days, which is the legal holding period from intake to reclamation, adoption, or euthanasia. While this may seem like an unlikely entry at a major international film festival, the artful cinematography and savvy editing made this a compelling subject for local audiences, cultivated over the years to embrace the theatrical appeal of documentary films. English Vinglish, Indian director Gauri Shinde’s debut romantic comedy, is notable for taking its high position without the boost of any guest appearances, while Taiwanese police comedy Sweet Alibis thrilled attendees by bringing out nearly its entire celebrity cast. As a festival-specific list generated apart from the politics and pomp of the official awards ceremony, I find the Audience Choice selections to be a fascinating and sometimes surprising indicator of popular and local appeal.

One final sidebar event worth noting was the concurrent exhibition on the history of the Golden Horse Film Award, installed at the newly opened Songshan Cultural Park. On display are film posters, illustrated magazines, records, playbills, original character designs, storyboards, scripts, manuscripts, cameras, sound recording equipment, props, costumes, trophies, signatures, news reels, video clips, prepared interviews, and much more. The exhibit is a sheer delight for anyone who relishes vintage cinematic history, particularly the 1960s ~ 1980s, where the material archives rarely get displayed outside of the region. At the same time, there are notable absences that inevitably haunt any attempt at retrospective completion. An entire half of the exhibit was comprised of names and faces of those who had already passed away, or had retired from filmmaking and emigrated elsewhere. Displays from the 1980s and before consisted mostly of two-dimensional items – paper, photographs, written and illustrated evidence of a history constrained by the preservation capacities of traditional archives. The more recent the chronology, the more multi-dimensional and sensual the displayed objects, including delicate fabrics, glistening plastics, the voices and the living presences of the filmmakers. While the exhibit commemorated the festival’s growth and change, it also highlighted lamentable losses and historical absences that we may never be able to fully recover.

The exhibit’s other notable absence was, indeed, China. To be clear, China was represented, but did not command a presence relative to the Mainland industry’s influence on the current market. Surveying the history of the Golden Horse Award as unfurled through this exhibition space, it became even more apparent how closely Taiwan and Hong Kong’s film industries have been intertwined as a matter of precedent. China has not held what I would call a decisive footing within the Golden Horse, though Mainland films have been permitted in competition since 1996 (In the Heat of the Sun captured the award for Best Feature Film that very year). Certainly, this is expected to change in the upcoming decade. We can anticipate that the second half of the 60th Anniversary exhibition will look quite different.

The Golden Horse, however, has never been the unbridled creature represented in its trophy form. If nothing else, the retrospective exhibition served to remind me of the rules and policies by which both the Golden Horse Film Festival and Awards Ceremony were established and continue to operate. Yet, the rules do inevitably change and standards shift along with each generation of cinephiles. This horse has endurance, as long as it continues to adapt to new turf.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *