The history of Taiwanese movies has enriched in the recent years. One can recognize the initial domination of the ruling class in the Asian film industry. For a long time, the cinematography has been regarded as a tool to make the socioeconomic problems irrelevant. The new generation has established itself as the main actors that create a history. From a modern point of view, Taiwan can be described as the country that it is constantly preoccupied with finding own identity. For decades, the Taiwanese have been living under the Japanese occupation and the martial law imposed by the ruling party. The nation has been deprived of being an integral part of the history. The remarkable movies produced by the renowned directors significantly contribute to the beliefs and feelings of being a genuine Taiwanese that are also manifested within a diverse national context. The paper seeks to explore the early history, perceptivity of Taiwan’s cultural identity, transformation, and emergence of the first and second waves, the portrayal of people’s real experience in the cinema, iconic films, and the future perspectives.   

Early History

In the early 20th century, many theatres functioned, and the Japanese, who occupied Taiwan at that time, produced some ethnographic movies. The film industry did not succeed until the Chinese nationalists moved back to the island after the end of the civil war. Most of the directors used the local dialect in the movies making them propagandistic. They tried to enlist the population’s support for the nationalist party. The Taiwanese could watch melodrama and films about the Chinese martial art kung fu. They were free of propaganda. Discussing such sensitive social themes as the strained relations between the mainland migrants and Taiwanese natives were strictly prohibited. Many films skillfully blended actions with Chinese religion and philosophy that deeply affected later works.

Perceptivity of Taiwan’s Cultural Identity

Taiwanese cinematography enables the whole world to perceive national cultural identity that is based on common political and socioeconomic experience. It motivates people providing them with a sense of meaningfulness. Taiwanese filmmakers signify the national style emphasizing the cultural and historical contexts, in which they are situated. It is important to discover the talent and genius of directors and how they represent the country’s unique identity in the cinema using the artistic insight. 


The Cinema’ Transformation and the Emergence of the New Wave

In the distant eighties, the film industry of Taiwan significantly weakened in the face of success reached by Hong Kong. The slow liberalization of government tried to encourage every young auteur to experiment with the new styles and themes as a way of promoting the country’s independence. The period of the 1980s was characterized by the drastic transformation as an immediate response to the growing popularity of Hong Kong filmmaking. The New Wave led by the renowned directors Hsiao-Hsien, Nien-Jen, and Yang emerged in Taiwan. They applied a highly realistic approach while making films underscoring the importance of the Taiwanese history and art in their masterpieces. The cooperation of non-professional and professional actors, filming location, local dialects also took place. The New Wave directors examined social themes of Taiwan that were once prohibited. They also created films based on the cultural characteristics and social consciousness of the Taiwanese society that successfully launched a movie to a new level.

The period of the 1980s was crucial since the Taiwanese cinematography finally gained international recognition. The island’s cultural identity was greatly reflected in the works of numerous filmmakers, whom the economic progress and urbanization encouraged to continue exploring and meditating in the search of uniqueness and otherness. Therefore, the 1980s is the significant historical period, when the Taiwanese finally recognized own nativeness. The Western critics praised the work of Asian filmmakers, who skillfully promoted the national cinematography.

Taiwanese Otherness and the Portrayal of Realism during the New Wave

Taiwan’s directors have masterfully projected the distinctive “otherness” in their films as an important strategy to compete with Hollywood masterpieces. The word “native” refers to the cultural traditions of indigenous people lived on the island for centuries. The Taiwanese screenwriters and filmmakers meditate, reflect on, and interpret the natives’ life in the specific way. The specific geography, mixture of cultural identities of immigrants and natives within the island itself, and the political uncertainty have complicated the attitude of locals towards Chineseness, a state of being Chinese. 

In 1980, the Taiwanese directors started to face difficulties because of competition caused by the convenient home videos and Hong Kong’s filmmaking. In order to promote the industry, the national motion picture company developed a project aimed at supporting the new cinematographers. They underscored the necessity to portray the realistic everyday life instead of creating kung-fu action movies and romantic melodramas that were highly popular in the previous decades. The focus of Taiwanese filmmakers on realism led to the fact that critics and movie enthusiasts started to compare their works with the masterpieces of Golden Age of Italian cinema characterized by neorealism.

The Portrayal of Taiwanese People in Films

In order to depict the real life experience of Taiwanese, the filmmakers have started to place the main heroes in the nonfictional situations. They promote the idea that a motion picture should neither idealize nor intentionally misrepresent the protagonists’ lives. In terms of filming, the directors choose the realistic locations, employ amateurs to shoot, use deep focus, and full shots. The auteurs prefer to work in a realist manner of filmmaking thus making Taiwan’s identity unique. The national cinematography pays significant attention to the local history and exploration of issues relating to nativeness. These movies express an unbiased attitude towards the local communities leading to the examination the natives’ consciousness. However, the Chinese are also present among the majority of Taiwanese. As a result, the impact of their culture, traditions, and customs in the motion pictures is huge. The controversies and debates over the cultural identity of Taiwan can be considered superficial if there is no proper reference to its roots linked with China. Some new Taiwanese directors continue to mention the Chinese traditions in their films thus enriching the entire national cinema.

A City of Sadness As the Iconic Film of the New Wave era

Despite the fact that most of the motion pictures have failed to reach the significant box office success, they have established Taiwan as a global film industry. Hou Hsiao-Hsien is deservedly regarded as the most outstanding producer and screenwriter of the New Wave era. The filmmaker’s style is quite simple. He uses minimal camera movement, long takes, intricate choreography, and focuses on the tragic historical events and their dire consequences. The director always encourages the actors to improvise in a naturalistic way. A City of Sadness produced in 1989 is probably the most recognizable motion picture of that period. The director greatly and impartially depicts the tragic events of 1947 in his highly acclaimed historical drama. The officials’ white terror has led to the massive confrontation of the civilian population and subsequent losses among dissidents and protesters. For the first time, the Taiwanese cinematographer has dedicated the film to the significant historical event. A City of Sadness greatly represents the cinematic strategy developed by the auteur to reflect the political identity in various contexts. The critics and movie enthusiasts praised the first Chinese-language movie on the historical theme. 

If to examine Hou’s historic drama, it can be identified as a resistance motion picture and deep cinematic work. However, it offers a completely different discourse of the struggle and rebellion. The notion of resistance and radical actions associated with revolt are also highlighted. The filmmaker uses the term “resistance” to portray the diversity of the environment and people’s behavior. Hou also pays attention to the fact that the resistance method can be physical and material. It depends on the situation. Hollander and Einwohner refer resistance to the social movement and controversial politics. The cinematography of anti-colonialism presents many typical examples.  

The Second New Wave

The New Wave filmmakers paved the way to the new period of cinematography characterized by the modern and urban settings. The Second Wave emerged in the 1990s and continued in the 2000s. Many directors and screenwriters could boast by the international experience. Most of them lived and worked overseas. Therefore, in the course of time, they brought new ideas to the Taiwanese cinematography.

 The Second New Wave auteurs pay little attention to realism unlike their predecessors. Instead, they emphasize uniqueness of Taiwanese people, their culture, and world outlook. Ang Lee is the most renowned contemporary filmmaker of the Second Wave period. His surprisingly successful motion picture Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon brought him the Oscar nomination for the Best Director, which he earned for the Brokeback Mountain in 2005. Ang Lee is well- known among critics and movie enthusiasts for his diverse works. The filmmaker also pays particular attention to such burning issues as repression, exclusion, and marginalization. Moreover, Lee heavily focuses on the conflicts that take place between modernity and traditions, as well as widely examines the transformation of the modern Chinese family.

The Identity of Taiwan as the Central Concern and the Future Perspectives

The Taiwanese directors make films to illustrate public misery. Therefore, realism has undoubtedly shaped the new cinematography. The island’s identity has become crucial for the filmmakers, and, therefore, they try to reposition it within the current political situation. As a result, they continue searching for the roots in the national history. Despite the fact that numerous issues are symbolically projected in the motion pictures, the concern with public’s emotions and feelings will still prevail. A particularly distinctive factor in the Taiwanese cinematography is how sadness, nostalgia, humanistic concerns, and sufferings interweave with the different aspects of a hybrid nation-state thus underscoring the Taiwanese identity on the screen. 

In the near future, the Taiwanese film industry will remain largely independent. However, the famous cinematic masterpieces and expansion will bring a beneficial position to Taiwan. Its cinematography will take advantage of the high box-office potential on the mainland without necessarily sacrificing the quality of product to get profit. Today, Taiwanese filmmaking does not demonstrate any signs of slowdown. The vitality, talent, genius, creativity, success, and the production’s quality continue to encourage the established and budding auteurs to add something new and unbelievable to the rich history.


No doubt, the history of Taiwanese cinematography has progressed in the recent years. The movie industry of an island is not as prolific as the filmmaking of the mainland and Hong Kong. However, it has produced the remarkable motion pictures that have introduced Taiwan’s auteurs and their works to the global audience in the twenty-first century. The recent success and recognition have demonstrated a presence of an appreciative audience for Taiwanese films despite the close cooperation of Hollywood and Chinese directors.  By embracing the unique culture and history of an island, its film industry will continue to impress the movie enthusiasts across the world.        


Related essays