The Chinese connection in Taiwan’s first indigenous film

In Taiwan’s first indigenous filmFinding Sayun, there are two casting assistant/cameraman characters from Beijing, as well as a director from Beijing. The director from Beijing never appears on screen. We only hear his voice as he watches the footage recorded by his Taiwanese casting director. What are these mainlanders doing in a Taiwan indigenous film? One reviewer complains the Chinese connection is irrelevant and was probably included to attract Chinese investment. Another possibility is that the director Laha Mebow wanted to attract Chinese tourists to the village. B&B tourism is part of the marketing of the film. I don’t know if Chinese tourists stay in B&Bs, but there are now a lot of Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan. What if the investor put pressure on the director to change the film in accordance to mainland audience expectations? What if the director put on rose-colored glasses to make her village attractive to the mainlanders? These are delicate questions. I was too afraid to ask them. So, I asked the director via e-mail what the mainlanders are doing in her film. Suffice it to say, the director encouraged me to find the meaning of the Chinese connection in the film itself rather than the film’s investment structure or marketing strategy.

It seems to me that rather than declare the mainland Chinese presence in Finding Sayun irrelevant we should try and make sense of it.

So what does the Chinese presence in Finding Sayun mean? Yukan, the “star” of the film, hopes to go to university, perhaps in Taipei, but if he is a good enough soccer player he might end up in China. There are a roughly million Taiwanese people in China – about 3-4% of the population – and Yukan might eventually join them. China’s part of the lives of Taiwanese people, including aborigines. Or Yukan might end up somewhere he’s never heard of. At the same time, Taiwan’s aborigines have become part of the lives of the people of the PRC, initially through broadcasts of Teresa Teng’s rendition of the song “Gaoshanqing” (High Mountains Green):

高山青 High mountains green

澗水藍 Blue rivers rill

阿里山的姑娘美如水 Maiden of Alishan, lovely as a stream

阿里山的少年壯如山 Young man of Alishan, solid as a hill

The mainlanders go to Alishan, and why shouldn’t they go to Nan-ao? Chinese tourists will tend not to be very sympathetic to indigenous causes in Taiwan. According to the PRC, Taiwanese indigenous peoples are not indigenous peoples at all; they are collectively the smallest of China’s fifty-five official minorities, the gaoshanzu. The PRC can happily approve the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples because the PRC calls its indigenous peoples “national minorities.” The claim that Finding Sayun is Taiwan’s first film by an indigenous director could only be made on the Taiwan poster.

But I don’t wish to drag cross-Strait politics into this discussion of Finding Sayun. The point being made in this film is that things Taiwanese, including Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, are on Chinese people’s radar, and vice versa. The film “builds bridges” as the cliche has it, represents Taiwan’s indigenous people (or more specifically the residents of the village in Nan-ao in which the film was made), to themselves and to outsiders in Taiwan, China and possibly the rest of the world. Better for curious outsiders to learn about Taiwan’s indigenous people by watching a film like Finding Sayun than a film like Waiting for the Flying Fish. Tourism is part of the marketing strategy of the former; the latter seemed like feature length tourist brochure.

If Laha Mebow seems to be wearing rose colored glasses in Finding Sayun, she put them on herself. There is unhappiness in the movie, but it’s focused on the young widow and mother whose husband dies at the beginning of the film in a work-related accident. She becomes a symbol of indigenous suffering. (Indigenous peoples tend to work in DDD (dangerous, dirty, degrading) jobs, if they can get jobs at all; indigenous unemployment has risen as a result of the “guest workers” policy.) Finding Sayun is otherwise a generally upbeat, positive film. It’s described as a 溫馨片, a “heartwarming film,” which seems to be a film genre. But given the incredible variety of indigenous experience, negativity can’t be one of the criteria for the determination of where a film is on the indigenous continuum or whether it’s authentically indigenous. Rather than arguing that Finding Sayun is heartwarming out of generic conformity, it’s just as convincing to argue that it’s upbeat because Laha Mebow wanted to share a positive vision of her own people.

In the end the Chinese director’s film, the film within the film, does not get made. Finding Sayun, the indigenous director Laha Mebow’s film, is a work of which the director and her community can be proud.

Darryl Sterk is a Chinese-English literary translator and scholar of Chinese literature, specifically Sinophone literature from Taiwan. His scholarly interest is the comparative representation of aboriginal places and peoples in film and literature.