Feature Documentary Reviews

Film-Wen (2021) – 4 stars

Directors: Lee Chien-Cheng & Yang Chi-Sheng

Running time: 57mins

Film-Wen is an unassuming feature documentary on the surface. Following the wholesome adventures of Chang Ling-Wen (“Film-Wen” to his friends), it charts a couple of weeks in the life of the casually-obsessed film collector; amassing and preserving relics of cinema and human history.

But think a little more deeply on Lee Chien-Cheng and Yang Chi-Sheng’s movie, and those particular details mean this is much more than just a story about a charming middle-aged man and his eccentricities. All the while, something is at play at the background – and in a genre which is often rife with heavy-handed didactic polemics, this is a refreshing technique, though admittedly some of the pleasantries might also distract from the loftier motives behind the film. It’s hard not to get simply carried along with the enthusiasm of everyone else on screen.

People flock from across the country to visit Film-Wen. They gush over his collection, and his ingenuity and skill when it comes to restoring old cinematic equipment. Many of them are fellow enthusiasts, with gear of their own that often he has had a hand in fixing. Exactly why they share this mania is left ambiguous. Many reference partners who have tried to talk them out of it, financial barriers or fading youth. So why do they stick to it?

Clearly more is at play than just fun. Not that there isn’t plenty of that. One scene centres upon a restored film canister, which unexpectedly turns out to be early 1900s erotica – a Peeping Tom in a postal uniform leering comically through a keyhole at a (by modern standards timid) fumbling couple. The assorted film-enthusiasts have a hearty chuckle at that. Another scene sees Film-Wen track down his old teacher, some 40 years after graduating, to thank him for encouraging his early love of restoring film equipment.

And then, there’s the photography – by Chen I-Ting, Yang Chi-Sheng and Ma Jia-Hong – which conjures an enticing world of warmly-lit amateur theatres, part cinema, part museum. They do a fantastic job of capturing these soft, quiet, safe havens – and leave you longing to escape into them yourself. You can practically smell the musty seat covers, and feel the stillness of the air, as the otherwise churning, grinding, modern world shudders to a standstill for the sake of a flickering projection.

But lurking just outside the frame is a knowledge that all this is standing on a precipice. That’s because the film takes place in Taiwan.

Relations between China and Taiwan are complicated, to put it extremely euphemistically. Without having the time or energy to explain that, I would suggest we leave it at: “It would do everyone involved a damaging disservice to go looking for goodies and baddies in among the Chinese Civil War,” and move on. But in their modern forms, China is widely understood to be looking at Taiwan similarly to how Russia was looking at Ukraine before February – and this is a context which can’t be avoided with Film-Wen.

This finally comes to the fore in a pronounced way during the one of the film’s latter monologues. Film-Wen informs the camera that the invention of film has transformed how we record history. While our species has been keeping records for thousands of years, something is lost in translation with those records. There is no context of movement or visible interplay between those portrayed in an ancient scroll, for example. In contrast, while film has only been around for less than a hundred and thirty years, Film-Wen argues it has already captured and preserved culture and history in more detail and clarity than whatever preceded it. As long as those films exist, those ways of life ‘exist’ in a way that other aspects of history might not.

Then, there’s the film’s concluding shots – which seem intended to illustrate what he is driving at here. It involves anthropological reel, shot sometime in the early 20th century, during the Japanese colonial period. It shows an indigenous population on Koto Island – now known as Orchid Island – and Film-Wen insists that (despite living an entirely different life to the men and women living in wooden huts and wearing loose-fitting linen) “this is our Taiwanese culture.”

He adds, “If nobody preserved this, and it’s gone, where could we possibly find our culture?”

It is a culture which the Chinese Communist Party sanctions. Taiwan, it ominously maintains, is not a country – to the extent that anyone who wants to do business in China, has to publicly flagellate themselves, John Cena-style, for implying anything to the contrary. Following Russia’s insistence for years that Ukraine was similarly not a sovereign state – or Israel’s mythical assertion that its settlements were built on empty desert, and were not in fact eating away at a pre-existing country –any work to highlight the country’s history and culture takes on another crucial element.

In this instance, the work of Film-Wen becomes much more than a pleasant hobby. It is an act of resistance. While many of the practices caught on camera in Film-Wen’s century-old film reel may have faded from living memory, the moving images keep their essence alive; and with it, the culture and history can still inform Taiwan’s modern existence.

Film-Wen is an interesting examination of Taiwanese culture, and its people’s determination to maintain their cultural and historical identity intact. Perhaps it might be argued that the niceties of the film’s opening half-hour distract or undermine that. But I am a big fan of its slow burn, leading us through a story without hammering us with a propagandistic determination to get a singular point across. When it eventually gets to its point, it feels a lot easier to relate to and respect for having had that patience.

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