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Archiving Memories: Lan Tsu-wei on Taiwan’s Audiovisual Culture

Lan Tsu-wei has been appointed the TFAI’s first chairman. He aims to document the history of Taiwan’s audiovisual culture from 1895 onwards. (photo by Jimmy Lin)

Lan Tsu-wei has been appointed the TFAI’s first chairman. He aims to document the history of Taiwan’s audiovisual culture from 1895 onwards. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
 

In the 1980s there was a film library tucked away inside an unpretentious office building on Qingdao East Road in Taipei City. This mecca for Taiwanese film buffs offered access to the works of internationally acclaimed directors such as François Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Michelangelo Antonioni.

 

In 2020 the library was renamed the Taiwan Film and Audiovisual Institute (TFAI). Its newly appointed chairman, film critic Lan Tsu-wei, remembers how, back in the day, people used to start queuing outside the library two days before the annual Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival. Information was tightly controlled in the martial law era. Under the strictures of martial law, Golden Horse provided the only opportunity to watch inter­national films. The level of interest and enthusiasm was phenomenal, Lan smilingly recalls.

Our shared memories

Lan watched his first film when he was four. The male and female protagonists were writhing under a duvet. When Lan asked his mother what they were doing, she scolded him. In 1969 the entire family stayed up to listen to a radio commentary on the Golden Dragon baseball team’s battle at the Little League World Series in the USA. Lan also witnessed the inauguration of Taiwan Tele­vision in 1962. When The Love Eterne was released in 1963, it took Taipei by storm. These are not only Lan’s personal recollections but also part of Taiwan’s collective memory.

Older cinemagoers may recall that films used to be preceded by the national anthem and newsreels. These shared memories have become an integral part of Taiwan’s history.

Lan wants the TFAI to preserve historical memories such as these. Through rearranging and interpreting the past, he aims to retain and reinstate Taiwan’s collective memories and shared cultural heritage.
 

In 1971 the Tainan Giants won the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The champions were passionately welcomed during a parade past Taipei’s Zhonghua Market. (courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

In 1971 the Tainan Giants won the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The champions were passionately welcomed during a parade past Taipei’s Zhonghua Market. (courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
 

Establishing the TFAI

Responsible for the preservation, restoration, and promotion of Taiwanese films, and for education about them, the TFAI has undergone several incarnations, from the earliest Film Library of the Motion Picture Development Foundation (1978-1991), to the Chinese Taipei Film Archive (1991-2014), and then the Taiwan Film Institute (2014-2020). The TFAI received its current name in late May 2020, and its mission has been expanded to encompass TV and radio archiving.

Lan Tsu-wei, the TFAI’s first chairman, is the first Taiwanese journalist to have visited the international film festivals in Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Tokyo, and San Sebastián, along with the Oscars, within a span of five years. He has been a TV news producer and led the production department at Central Motion Pictures Corporation. For many years he shared his passion for film music on the radio. A lifelong film connoisseur, Lan is an ideal person to head the TFAI.

“We aim to compile a history of Taiwan’s audiovisual culture from 1895 onwards,” Lan says. The year 1895 has been chosen not because it saw the beginning of Japan’s colonization of Taiwan, but because the world’s first film was created that year. Toyojiro Takamatsu’s Taiwan Jikkyo Shokai (“Introduction to Conditions in Taiwan,” 1907) marked the first time Taiwan was filmed. The world’s first wireless radio broadcast of music and entertainment was reportedly made in the USA in 1906. In 1928 the establish­ment of the Taipei Broadcasting Station brought the wider world to Taiwanese households. The historical film Kano (2014) shows Taiwanese families listening to a live radio commentary on the 1931 National High School Baseball Championship of Japan. These are all precious moments that define the national psyche.
 

Many Taiwanese people share fond memories of going to the cinema in Ximending when they were young. (courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Many Taiwanese people share fond memories of going to the cinema in Ximending when they were young. (courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
 

Archiving past and present

Television and radio now fall within the TFAI’s remit. As Lan acknowledges, piecing together fragments of memory isn’t easy. However, “if we don’t make an effort now, it will be even harder in the future.”

Until 1989, Taiwan was oblivious to the preservation of images, Lan observes. “As a result many cultural assets and social memories have vanished irretrievably. Even if you have personally witnessed the beauty of it all, you won’t see it again.”

The TFAI is seeking to collaborate with the Voice of Han Broadcasting Network, the Police Broadcasting Service, and Taiwan Television to provide open access to their cultural resources. “We don’t want to over-­interpret Taiwan’s historical trajectory. What the TFAI aims to do is simply to preserve and restore what used to be.”

This task includes collecting interviews with professionals. “We’ll ramp up our efforts to interview professional practitioners in the film and audiovisual industries while they are still among us, so as to create an oral history archive. We very much hope they’ll help us reconstruct the history of Taiwan’s audiovisual culture.”

Lan mentions his own interviews with film director Wang Tung, which were published as a book in 2010. Before working in the film industry, Wang had trained in art and design. Lan’s interviews—an indispensable primary source for researchers—reveal the depth and breadth of Wang’s art, covering his set construction, camera movements, symbolism, casting, musical arrangements, language, and more.

“I always think of my career as a bridge,” says Lan, waxing lyrical. “At one end, I marveled at the gorgeous landscape of the 1960s to the 1980s. Now, in 2020, people at this end of the bridge don’t know what it was like at the other end. My job is to bring the scenes from the other end of the bridge over to this side so that people can know the splendor of the past.”
 

The work of the Taiwan Film and Audiovisual Institute now covers TV and radio heritage. This photo shows China Television System filming its 1972 drama series Qi Shi Fu Qi, on the legend of a star-crossed couple who transmigrate through seven generations in order to be together. The male lead was played by pan-Asian megastar Ivy Ling Po (first right). (courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

The work of the Taiwan Film and Audiovisual Institute now covers TV and radio heritage. This photo shows China Television System filming its 1972 drama series Qi Shi Fu Qi, on the legend of a star-crossed couple who transmigrate through seven generations in order to be together. The male lead was played by pan-Asian megastar Ivy Ling Po (first right). (courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
 

Film restoration

The TFAI’s documentary Archiving Time shows just how complex and intricate a process film restoration is. Restora­tion involves rescuing films frame by frame, ­repairing damaged sprocket holes and clearing away old splicing ­cement. After digital scanning, the digital restorer removes scratches and stains from each frame. The colorist touches up faded hues. The audio engineer brings back original sounds. The task is one of herculean proportions.

The TFAI’s mission to remaster classic Taiwanese films began in 2013. Its achievements to date include Dragon Inn, A Touch of Zen, and Raining in the Mountain, all of which have received accolades at the Cannes Film Festival, and rights to the restored versions have been sold.

In an article published in The New York Times in May 2020, film critic Ben Kenigsberg dubs Hou Hsiao-hsien “Taiwan’s greatest filmmaker.” Lan Tsu-wei ascribes the timing of this tribute to the TFAI’s recent digital restora­tion of two of Hou’s masterpieces, A Time To Live, A Time To Die (1985) and Dust in the Wind (1986), with the sale of online streaming rights making the films available in the USA. Classic films are timeless, and digital remastering ensures that they can be passed down to posterity.
 

The sounds and images of cinema, TV, and radio have helped shape Taiwan’s national psyche. (photo by Jimmy Lin)

The sounds and images of cinema, TV, and radio have helped shape Taiwan’s national psyche. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
 

Making national treasures accessible

Under Lan’s guidance, the TFAI will adopt a two-pronged approach: academic research is important, but content that appeals to the general public is also vital.

For example, we seldom recognize the achievements of the comedians Hsu Pu-liao and Chu Ke-liang, whose performances shared similarities with Chaplin’s iconic tramp. The popular film scores of David Tao, Sun Yueh, and Hsu Pu-liao also deserve to be rediscovered. Lan emphasizes that Taiwan’s film culture is not represented only by the masters of the Taiwanese New Wave of the 1980s-1990s. It boasts a much greater diversity.

But after preserving and restoring these national treasures, what use would it be if they were to be locked up in the archives? Lan compares films hidden away in storage to neglected concubines in ancient China who yearned to be noticed. “Our intention is to make our work openly accessible to everyone in the future.” Only when these audiovisual resources become publicly available can we continue to remember, re­vital­ize, and celebrate the glorious blossoms of Taiwanese culture.

Lan draws an analogy from Western literature. In Roman mythology, the god Janus has two faces looking in opposite directions, one to the past, the other to the future. “The TFAI is an heir to the spirit of Janus,” Lan says. “We aim to revive the past for the appreciation of the present generation, but we’re not neglecting the present moment either, because archiving begins in the here and now.” Lan’s words define the TFAI’s mission: its archiving of the past is at once grounded in the present and oriented toward the future.