Because few Taiwanese dared to go into filmmaking, TV, radio, journalism, the arts, history, and politics during the days of the China KMT occupation-dictatorship, even decades after Taiwan’s democratization the decolonization process remains stalled. Taiwanese do not have the institutions, the people, nor the vocabulary to yet fully recover their historical memory and examine their own histories. This new film about the invading China KMT’s political prisoners and white terror during the 1950s and 1960s is an attempt to reverse that tide – for Taiwanese to reclaim their memory, and to tell their own stories. It was a difficult film to watch, much tears, sometimes I just closed my eyes for minutes to shut out the pain. But I told my wife going to a theater is no less important than voting – a small, personal vote against Chinese colonialism.
The incongruities and complications of modernity and modern Taiwan are these – to walk out of a beautiful and heart-wrenching film, subtle and tastefully done, into a western-style shopping mall complex in downtown Taipei. And then, a few minutes later, on a subway, to transfer to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial stop – the same invader-dictator who is responsible for these crimes against humanity, yet Taiwanese citizens are still forced to host a memorial in his honor. And for extra incongruity, one of the Taipei mayoral candidates claims to be Chiang’s illegitimate great-grandson. And he may actually win. None of it makes any sense, yet all of them must coexist, parallel universe-like, democratically and peacefully.
How to reclaim historical memory, tell one’s own stories, and decolonize one’s own nation peacefully and democratically? The greatest strength of this film, I thought, was complicating and humanizing all of the characters, from China KMT political prison guards to political prisoners who are from China to Taiwanese victims – without descending into moral relativism and “What a tragedy of that era ….” b.s. These are my initial thoughts – I am going to take a while to think over my notes and ponder all of this. The range of linguistic diversity, accents, and languages brought over from China to the beautiful code-switching between southern Taiwanese to Japanese to English, speaks to a level of multiculturalism and diversity inherent to Taiwan that the China KMT dictatorship tried mightily to erase. The film did a masterful job with a light touch – this is a subject and a story that’s constantly at risk of tipping over into melodrama. The China KMT crimes and the human suffering were drama enough when simply illustrated. Something about the way the film was filmed and narrated and the stories interspersed felt immersive throughout – a deep sense of sadness and anger, sadness for the needless suffering and injustice, anger that the criminals remain unrepentant and unpunished, beautiful shots of the Pacific Ocean waves and the natural beauty of the Green Island almost as momentary reprieve.
It also occurred to me that decades of China KMT brainwashing into their particular brand of neutered in service of the Chiang crime family dictatorship “Confucianism” and decades of enforced forgetting have nearly erased most of modern-day Taiwanese memory of highly educated and super strong-willed Taiwanese women leaders in its history. A history that films like this is beginning to remember.
The film’s thankless task is also President Tsai’s thankless task – tell a fair and complicated historical memory story which some will take offense for not being harsh enough; while even touching the subject is making Chinese reactionaries inside Taiwan upset. Yet these are necessary steps for the future of Taiwanese democracy and nationhood – requiring brave, selfless Taiwanese to take – to engage the pain and suffering while opening a democratic and peaceful path for national coexistence. 8.11.2022
© Taiwan in World History 台灣與世界歷史. This site grants open access for educational and not-for-profit use. Maps and illustrations are borrowed under educational and not-for-profit fair use. If you are the rights holder and prefer to not have your work shared, please email TaiwanWorldHistory (at) Gmail (dot) com and the content will be removed.