One fine selection of the New York Asian Film Festival's focus on Taiwanese cinema, "Warriors and Romantics: The New Cinema From Taiwan," is the anthology 10+10, a collection of short films from some of the top talent in Taiwan, ten established directors and ten newbies. It's a film festival in less than two hours, 20 short films with an average running time of 5 minutes each. Commissioned by the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival (and the opening film of the 2011 festival), 10+10 is incredibly eclectic, a cinematic Whitman's sampler, a one-stop shop of insights and evocations of Taiwanese society, culture and history. And it all concludes on a gracefully beautiful end note courtesy of a moderately successful filmmaker, some guy you may have heard of named Hou Hsiao-hsien.
The title 10+10, besides being purely descriptive of its content, is also a canny reference to Taiwan's National Day of October 10, also known as "Double Ten Day." October 10, 2011 marked the 100th anniversary of the Republic of China, another name for Taiwan. Appropriately, depictions of the past figure in several of these films. The aftermath of war is given a visceral treatment in Kevin Chu's "The Orphans" and Chang Tso-chi's "Sparkles." "The Orphans" follows a mentally disabled woman (Chang Fang-yi) living homeless on the streets with her blind father, selling her body to survive. Impressionistic flashbacks detail how life in war-torn Burma landed them here, with a rather heavy-handed social-problem message that emerges as the main thrust of the piece. "Sparkles" is more successful, an intense war drama, the most expensive film of the bunch (the director supplemented his allocated budget with $8 million NT from his own pocket), which details a major battle between Communist and Nationalist forces in 1949. The site is now preserved as a tourist attraction, but for the old woman at the center of the story looking back on her experiences there, it is a painful piece of living history.
Gentler and more nostalgic visions of the past are provided by two beautifully made pieces. Chen Kuo-fu's "The Debut," set in 1968 Taipei, finds a young singer (Doris Wang), upset about being cut from a variety show, being comforted by an older performer (Peggy Tseng), who assures her that she has a much brighter future in entertainment ahead of her. Rendy Hou's "Green Island Serenade" begins in 1954 with a radio performance of the beloved titular song, which continues to touch people across the decades as the same singer continues to perform it. These two films are the most visually beautiful of the collection, with ace cinematographers Jake Pollock ("The Debut") and Kwan Pun-leung ("Green Island Serenade") providing, respectively, rich, deeply saturated colors, and exquisite black-and-white images enhanced with a pinkish glow.
Some comic pieces form major highlights of this collection. Wang Toon's "The Ritual," the curtain raiser that kicks everything off, has James Cameron's Avatar forming the basis of two men's epic trek to a shrine to show gratitude for their recent fortune, which a concluding twist makes clear is not quite worthy of such a long journey. Cheng Yu-chieh's "Unwritten Rules" finds a film crew in crisis over a location prominently featuring the Taiwanese national flag, a production design detail that will doom their chances of getting their film distributed in Mainland China.
A couple of shorts impress with their direct, unadorned simplicity. Ho Wi Ding's "100" follows a man of the titular age as he makes the very long trip from his home to his mailbox; the quiet poignancy of this man's endurance and persistence comes through powerfully. Wei Te-sheng's "Debut" features Lin Chin-tai, the star of Wei's indigenous people's epic Seediq Bale, and his prayer in voiceover as her prepares for his appearance at the film's world premiere at the 2011 Venice Film Festival. This deceptively simple set-up belies the complex questions it raises about the costs of cultural assimilation. Lin is grateful that Seediq Bale will inform and bring attention to his people's culture and history, but his prayer is a Christian prayer, leaving one to wonder what is lost when such a passionate advocate of indigenous culture so wholeheartedly embraces Western religion.
Two superior selections, Shen Ko-shang's "Bus Odyssey" and Chung Mong-hong's "Reverberation," go in a more genre-based direction, with fantastic results that confirm these directors' status as two of the best of Taiwan's newer cinematic talents. "Bus Odyssey" is a black-and-white, documentary-like depiction of a bus ride, in which the inflexibility of the driver (Nikki Hsieh) in matters regarding rules and regulations leads to tragedy. Shen shines in the short form, a fact already proved with his great earlier short "Two Juliets," made for another commissioned project. "Reverberation" concerns a bullied young boy, tortured daily by three tormentors who, unfortunately for them, learn that this boy has family connections that allow him to turn the tables on his bullies. Both these films are miniature gems, fully realized short tales.
Other directors also step up to the plate to offer other great miniatures, made with poignancy, wit, and clever twists. Chen Yu-hsun's "Hippocamp Hair Salon" sees a woman (Lee Lieh) going to a special hair salon that provides erasure and alteration of painful memories along with hair washing. Her special request forms the film's hilarious twist. Veteran actress-director Sylvia Chang's "The Dusk of the Gods" is a nicely told story of remorse and forgiveness that follows a social worker (David Chang) who recalls one of his charges, a young man on death row who wishes to send a token of remorse to the parents of the young girl he murdered.
And now we come to the closer, and in many respects, the crown jewel of the anthology, Hou Hsiao-hsien's "La Belle Epoque." This film features Hou's exquisite muse and frequent star Shu Qi, who receives a gift of gold bars from her great-grandmother (Mei Fang), who tells the story of how the gold bars were created, and how it represents the sacrifice and the deep familial love that went into their creation; she details as well the many uses they were put to. "Old gold bars are much purer," she tells her grand-daughter, and this purity extends to the past itself. The memories this past evokes are as priceless as the gold bars, which she implores her grand-daughter to never cash in. This episode ends with the taking of a family photo. The masterful staging and framing of the film, as well as the sensitivity and naturalism of its performances, evokes what we all love about Hou Hsiao-hsien, and is a reminder of his myriad gifts, rendered here in flawless, miniature form.
While one can quibble with the weaker, slighter selections, such as the usually reliable Arvin Chen's "Lane 256" or Hsiao Ya-chuan's "Something's Gotta Give," as well as the lack of female directors other than Sylvia Chang (a Zero Chou film would have been greatly welcome, for example), 10+10 nevertheless is a valuable snapshot of the renewed vitality of Taiwanese cinema, one which continues to make great progress.