For film buffs, the phrase “Made in Taiwan” suggests the carefully composed, acutely observed, and historically complex explorations of self and society in the works of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, and Edward Yang. But Taiwanese cinema predated the new wave. This 17-film series introduces two major auteurs, virtually unknown here.
Wang T’ung is a contemporary of Hou and Yang, but his early, biting satires about the hardships of mainland life put him in a different political register. The son of a Nationalist general, he began his career with If I Were Real (1981), about a poor Chinese soldier struggling to be transferred back to Shanghai in order to marry his pregnant girlfriend. While on leave there, he impersonates the son of a high Peking official and finds party apparatchiks eagerly kowtowing before him. Ignore the melodramatic, propagandistic ending and the moments of romantic kitsch. This adaptation of the Russian play Inspector General, by H. Gordoriz, is a sharp and darkly comic portrait of society’s bowers and scrapers.
Confucianism meets existentialism in Lee Hsing’s Execution in Autumn (1972). Set some 2000 years ago during the Han dynasty, this visually ravishing tale opens in prison, where the last male heir to the great Pei clan rages and whines while awaiting execution. In flashbacks, the film recounts his wayward past; spoiled by an indulgent grandmother, he grew into a wanton murderer. But his long stay in jail proves to be his moral salvation. Lee was a teacher of Hou; their films share stately pacing and strong reliance on image to tell a story. Impeccably cast, with fantastic costumes and sets, Execution is at once a work of high camp and a philosophical meditation on individual responsibility and the road to a life of peace.