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Seeking Agency and Forging Identity Through Documentary: Wuna Wu's Farewell 1999 and Let's Fall in Love.


The contemporary documentary scene in Taiwan has benefited from female documentary makers' remarkable creative energy. Challenging the celluloid ceiling, record numbers of Taiwanese women have assumed directorial roles and developed authorial voices through documentary. A significant number of Taiwanese women's documentaries foreground subjectivity as dynamic and changeable (Chiu 2012). In this essay. I argue that documentaries by Wuna Wu (Tri-jen Wu) are preeminent examples of this concern about subjectivity. Wu's films--particularly Farewell 1999 and the Let's Fall in Love series--jettison the notion of a stable or static identity, highlighting instead a performativity close to improvisational stage performance. Moreover, her works reveal that the process of mediation is essential to the constitution of identity. Participating in her own documentaries as both filmmaker and subject. Wu makes liberal use of first-person voiceover narration. The simultaneous use of participatory, reflexive, and performative documentary modes shines a spotlight on Wu's embodied, subjective experience and the act of filmmaking itself. Through Farewell 1999, Wu affirms the value of an ordinary female existence whereas in Let's Fall in Love, she shows how urban men and women empower themselves by appropriating and owning the marriage imperative in Taiwanese society. Documentary practice is what Wu resorts to for self-reflection, healing, and the building of affective bonds in moments of trauma, powerlessness, and abjection. Through the filmmaking process, Wu accrues agency and the courage to carry on. Let's Fall in Love, in particular, performs emotional labor not only for the filmmaker herself but also for the social actors and the audience. Besides Wu, some other women documentarians have also sought healing and agency through documentary making. For instance, by making Small Talk, a candid exploration of sexual identity, family relations, and domestic violence, writer/filmmaker Hui-chen Huang comes to terms with her mother's aloofness and a history of abuse.

The New Documentary in Contemporary Taiwan

The last two decades have witnessed a global revival of interest in documentary. The number of independent documentary films and videos (hereafter shortened to "documentary films") has steadily increased, and documentary festivals have proliferated not only in Europe, the Americas, and Australia, but also in many regions of Asia. The reasons for this worldwide documentary renaissance are many, chief among which are the advent of digital video technology, the availability of new avenues for funding and exhibition, and many film audiences' dissatisfaction with Hollywood's and other commercial cinemas' tendencies to avoid difficult social issues, not to mention plenty of film viewers' weariness with the glossy aesthetics of mainstream cinema typified by an overreliance on special effects and superstars. Indeed, documentary--due to its relative freedom from the entertainment imperative and its close proximity to everyday and local realities--has become one of the last strongholds for presenting issues for public debate. It has also become a favorite genre for many aspiring and ambitious filmmakers, both because of the relatively low production budget requirement and because of its unique aesthetics as the creative treatment of actuality.

In Taiwan, one of the most striking cultural phenomena in recent decades has been precisely a very vibrant documentary filmmaking scene. The development shares some similarities with the documentary renaissance occurring in other parts of the world while retaining local specificities. The revitalization of documentary filmmaking during the 1980s and 1990s coincided with the lifting of martial law and the ensuing expansion of freedom of speech and other civil liberties. Although the history of documentary filmmaking in Taiwan can be traced to the Japanese colonial period (1895-1945) and the postwar era. the practice took a new turn in the 1980s as the island entered a period of sociopolitical sea change. This shift in direction led to the coinage of the term "the new Taiwanese documentary" (Chi 2003). Like its cousin, "the new Taiwanese cinema" (which refers exclusively to fiction feature films), the new Taiwanese documentary represented a breakthrough in subject matter, aesthetics, and purpose, broaching many topics that were taboo and silenced during the martial law era (1949-1987).

From the late 1980s through the 1990s, the new Taiwanese documentary thrived, albeit in the shadow of the new cinema, as the key figures of the latter movement such as directors Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, and Tsai Ming-liang received countless international accolades and thus seemingly emerged as the representative auteurs capturing the changing faces of Taiwan in moving images. Then, during the early 2000s, the production of narrative films a la mode of the new cinema languished while documentary filmmaking gained momentum. At present, although narrative film production has shown signs of resuscitation and a comeback, documentary filmmaking continues to be one of the most robust modes of cultural production in Taiwan.

There exists a fairly complete chain of operation from granting agencies and television stations that fund documentaries, to academic programs and community workshops that train documentary practitioners, to the Public Television Service and numerous domestic and international him festivals that frequently exhibit new documentaries. Some documentaries have even enjoyed a commercial release, drawing larger crowds to the theaters than most Taiwanese fiction features released during the same period. (1) Dozens of documentary makers have succeeded in entering their films in the competitions at international film festivals outside of Taiwan, frequently winning awards. And quite a few directors--such as Zero Chou (Mei-ling chou). Singing Chen. Chen-ti Kuo, Mong-hong Chung, and Hsin-yao Huang--have branched out into narrative filmmaking after achieving success with documentary.

The new Taiwanese documentary, at least initially, was intertwined with emerging social movements in a context of democratization. Filmmakers strove to give a voice to disenfranchised groups, using their works to preserve a visual record of Taiwan's transformation from an authoritarian system to democracy, as well as from an island of agriculture and labor-intensive industries to a late capitalist economy with a prominent high tech sector. Into the twenty-first century, documentary filmmaking has diversified, resulting in a highly pluralistic practice. As nonfiction film has become a favorite form among aspiring filmmakers, documentaries have addressed a wide spectrum of subjects ranging from the political to the intimate, and they exhibit diverse methods and styles (Lin and Sang 2012). Topics have included everything from historical and political traumas to gender and sexual identities. Methods have run the gamut from pure observation to participatory, reflexive, and performative modes, often incorporating interviews, archival photographs and footage, narration, animation, and even reenactments. And other than one or two notable exceptions who are employees of the Public Television Service (such as Ke Chin-yuan), almost all documentary makers in contemporary Taiwan are working independently, relying on grants, awards, personal savings, and occasionally commissions to finance their films.

Overcoming the Gender Barrier: The Rise of Women Documentary Makers

One phenomenon that stands out for any casual observer of this current scene is the high level of activity of women documentary makers in Taiwan. A cursory look at the documentary nomination and awards lists of major local film festivals reveals that roughly half of the most critically acclaimed or frequently discussed documentaries produced in Taiwan in recent years were directed by women. For instance, during the nineteen-year history of the Taipei Film Festival (one of the most important film festivals in Taiwan, held annually since 1998), ten different documentary films directed by women (including three co-directed with men) either won Best Documentary (eight) or defeated even narrative feature films to win the coveted Grand Prize (four, including two that won both Best Documentary and Grand Prize). (2) This strong showing by women directors in the field of documentary is a striking phenomenon considering the fact that male directors still dominate the world of narrative filmmaking in Taiwan. It also merits comparison with other countries such as Japan and mainland China, where acclaimed independent documentarians are predominantly male. (This is not to deny the fact that a number of mainland Chinese female independent filmmakers, some of whom made only one or two documentaries, have accomplished outstanding work. The list includes Li Hong. Yang Lina, Ji Dan, Feng Yan, Peng Xiaolian, Li Yu, and others) (Zhang 2007; Yang and Wei 2009; Yu 2014). What has contributed to the rise of women documentarians in Taiwan? What salient thematic concerns and representational strategies distinguish their works?

Although a thorough analysis of Taiwanese women documentary makers' careers and works is beyond the scope of this essay, we can observe that women's ability to break into the documentary field coincided with the general improvement of women's position in Taiwanese society effected by several waves of women's movements, which turned a new leaf in the 1970s with Annett Lu's non-government initiatives and culminated in a strong autonomous feminist movement in the 1990s after the lifting of martial law (Chang 2009).

And yet, to some extent it is the unfavorable working conditions within the Taiwanese film industry that have forced women to seek other forms of cinematic representation and expression--most significantly TV and independent documentaries. As many scholars of women's cinema aver, there is still widespread and tenacious bias against women's assuming certain key authorial roles in the film industries, not to mention the simple fact that women's opportunities for occupying such authorial positions have historically been very limited (Wang 2011; Ulfsdotter and Rogers 2018). Statistically, even now, women only constitute a small fraction of directors globally. For instance, "The Celluloid Ceiling," a multi-year study that has tracked women's behind-the-scenes employment on the top 250 domestic grossing films in the United States, reports that women comprised only 11% of all directors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films of 2017. Overall, "women comprised 18% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. This... is virtually unchanged from the percentage achieved in 1998" (Lauzen 2018). Although no detailed statistical study of women's behind-the-scenes representation on Taiwan's domestic films is available, there is plenty of empirical evidence to suggest that women comprise only a minority of directors in narrative filmmaking (Huang 2006). Most Taiwanese women with directorial ambitions have found their niche in documentary filmmaking instead, which requires on average less capital investment and smaller shooting and production crews.

Therefore, it is important to examine women's documentary output, as this is the genre where large numbers of women have successfully overcome the gender barrier to excel. They are to be congratulated for having asserted themselves as authors in the documentary field in an East Asian society traditionally dominated by Confucian patriarchal values, competing head to head with male documentary makers for funding, attention, and the opportunity to have a vision and a voice.

Another major factor is the advent of new digital technology. In Taiwan as well as in the West, the low cost of digital video cameras has made it possible for historically marginalized groups in the capitalist economy--such as women, certain ethnic minorities, and the working class--to overcome socioeconomic disadvantages and seize the means of media production to engage in image making. Reflecting on women's dynamic documentary filmmaking activities in Taiwan, Kuei-fen Chiu observes that "the advancement of media technology," such as the invention of lightweight cameras and the decreasing cost of computer facilities, "certainly exerts a subtle impact on the gender politics of documentary filmmaking" (2012, 170). According to Chiu, other factors have also helped to make documentary filmmaking accessible and congenial to women: the low budget demanded by documentary projects compared with narrative feature films, and the proliferation of film festivals in Taiwan since the 1990s, which, unlike commercial theaters, have provided screening venues without requiring "complicated business dealings often beyond the power of individual filmmakers" (170).

Performing Intimacy and Subjectivity Through DV: Wuna Wu's Documentaries

Chiu stresses that because of the convergence of multiple factors, women can now "use documentary to pursue their dreams and intervene in public debates on the issue of subjectivity" (170). For Chiu, what is particularly striking about the documentaries by Taiwanese women is that many treat subjectivity not as a "given" but as something that is disturbingly problematic. She maintains that this is very much in line with contemporary theoretical views of subjectivity as "'non-static,' or, in the words of Judith Butler, 'performative.'" (171).

Taking Chiu's observations as a point of departure, I argue that Wuna Wu's work is a preeminent example of the striking foregrounding of subjectivity as dynamic and performative (in addition to the two examples that Chiu discusses in her essay--Si-Manirei and Mei-ling Hsiao). However. I argue that the performative highlighted by Wu does not evince a major overlap with Judith Butler's conception of performativity, which theorizes that gender identity is not an ontological given but is rather constituted through the cumulative effects of repeated bodily acts and therefore open to change (Butler 1990). Although Wu's films jettison the notion of a stable or static identity, they highlight a performativity closer to improvisational stage performance than to repeated everyday acts. More importantly. Wu's films present the performative nature of subjectivity as coterminous with a process of mediation--the self can reveal itself and observe itself only through the Other, whether in the guise of a physical person or the camera. By subjecting some of the self's most private moments and intimate experiences to the camera, Wu insists that mediation is essential to one's gaining of self-knowledge, and that performativity is inescapable precisely when a person is most keen on discovering his/her innermost feelings and desires. The subject is neither manifest to him/herself through pure introspection, nor self-contained.

A graduate from the Tainan National University of the Arts specializing in documentary filmmaking, Wuna Wu has been making documentaries (all shot in DV) since the early 2000s. In Farewell 1999 (2003. betacam). Wu attempts to come to terms with a haunting personal loss: the death of her mother. Shot five years after her mother's passing, the film enacts a ritual of mourning, which is in essence a threshold experience marking both an end and a beginning.

Many elements in the film suggest melancholia, which, in the sense elaborated by Freud, is characterized by the self's intense identification with a lost beloved and by the self's internalization of the beloved's traits. Strong identification of this nature is revealed in one of the first lines in the film's voiceover narration, when Wu says, in a sad tone deliberately devoid of accent, that when her mother found out she was terminally ill, "Mother waited for death, and so did I." In the subsequent scenes, the mother's once vivacious self is shown by the only surviving video of her as well as photographs, while the reality of her death is symbolized by a spinning ceiling fan that slows down to a halt, a phone that stops ringing after not being answered, and the monotone chants of Taoists and Buddhists to send the soul of the deceased to a higher realm so commonly heard at funerals in Taiwan. In the voiceover, Wu remarks on how she has invariably cried hard at the funerals she has since attended after her mother's funeral, as if she were re-living her mother's funeral, at which, ironically, she had failed to let the tears flow. Her crying at the later funerals, then, compensates for an initial failure and blockage. The substitution of the later funerals for the original scene of trauma and loss functions as part of a psychic mechanism to work over her grief. It raises the question of whether her sorrow at the later funerals is genuinely and specifically for the deceased on those occasions, or whether her weeping is an impromptu performance, a form of acting out, to assuage her anxiety over her inability to mourn her mother. Her weeping belatedly mourns her mother through the enabling mediation of the other deceased. In this vein, the documentary itself also serves as mediation. It is by re-opening her wounds for the eye of the camera and by speaking into a recording device to an imagined viewer that Wu is able to identify and articulate her grief. As the documentary's title suggests, through the film's mediation, she can now give a definite shape and form to 1999--the dark year of her mother's death--and finally leave it behind.

We might compare Farewell 1999 to a form of self-help or therapy for treating post-traumatic stress. The documentary organizes the ordinary, nondescript life of Wu's mother into a personal mnemonic monument open to public view and exorcise the mother's ghost.

Although death is final and irreversible. Wu seeks to mitigate her feelings of powerlessness and deprivation caused by the loss of her mother by making the documentary. Acting as both filmmaker and subject, she is able to express her melancholy and, furthermore, observe her own despondency, avoidance, and displacement. When these negative feelings are successfully processed and transformed into creativity and an ability to engage others, the result is a poetic essay film that gives closure to personal trauma and that, to some observers, declares the arrival of the "Me" generation of filmmakers on the scene of the new Taiwanese documentary (Chen 2008; Kuo 2012).

In Let's Fall in Love (2009, HD) and its sequel, My Father, My Mother (2013, HD), Wu turns her lens on urban men and women coping with the stress of having unsuccessful relationships, dealing with external and internalized expectations of marriage in a highly heteronormative society, and navigating the treacherous waters of marriage. What triggered the documentary project was that Wu had just broken up with a longtime boyfriend. Still reeling from heartbreak and other unresolved emotions, Wu was invited to attend several female friends' weddings and could not but feel like a failure. Then, through a friend, she met the matchmaker Helen Chen.

Interacting with Helen, what Wu discovers is that an ancient Chinese profession has been given a shot in the arm. Helen works as both a matchmaker and a marriage consultant in addition to running a business consulting firm. Her approach to matchmaking is unconventional in modern-day Taiwan: she does not wait for clients to come to her for help; rather, she often aggressively tries to connect an acquaintance who refuses to marry or has difficulty finding the right person with someone she has "spotted" for him or her. All this is taking place in the context of the high divorce rate in Taiwan, where one in every three marriages ends in divorce. In at least one story featured in Let's Fall in Love, Helen's acquaintance, a forty-year-old woman, first reacts with skepticism and disbelief before quickly seeing Helen's point of view and accepting the match Helen thrusts upon her--a computer programmer twelve years her junior. Called Consultant Chen (Chen guwen) and sometimes CEO Chen (Chen zong) by her clients, Helen has a whole philosophy to back up her practice: marriage is better than singlehood, and love develops after marriage. One of her clients trusts her so much that he says to his wife Victoria on camera that he decided to get married, not out of a faith in his wife, but rather out of his faith in Consultant Chen. A common motif in these stories is that these people have found their "true love" and happiness only through the active intervention by Helen Chen, whose success even caught the media's attention, which nicknamed her "Matchmaker of the Century" (Shiji da meipo). A rather deconstructivist view of subjectivity comes through in the documentary, as seen when one interviewee remarks on camera that deciding to get married requires a leap of faith just like the decision to accept a religion. The implication is that, essentially, neither type of decision is based on pure rationality or epistemological certainties. The subject cannot really know what s/he wants, nor what would be best for her/himself. The singles who were once apathetic to the idea of marriage have to blindly reach the life-altering decision to get married.

In the film, even our filmmaker Wuna Wu falls under Helen's magical spell. Advised by Helen, she begins to take steps towards re-initiating communication with her embittered ex- boyfriend. She discovers, however, that the chasm between them is beyond bridging. The process of making this essaylike nonfiction film with her trademark voiceover narration, once again, functions as a form of mediation that helps Wu to get to the bottom of her innermost feelings and desires. It also helps her work on untying certain knots in her social relations, thus healing raw emotional wounds. Additionally, by asking married couples to act out their arguments and fights as well as endearments in front of her camera, the documentarian performs a mediating function similar to Helen's and serves to help the couples reach a better understanding of themselves and each other.

Throughout Let's Fall in Love and its short sequel My Father, My Mother, Helen Chen comes alive as a marriage guru, whose advocacy of marriage can be viewed as either helpful or obnoxiously coercive and heteronormative (even for self-identified heterosexuals). It is not difficult to detect an element of theatricality in Helen's rapid-fire responses to clients' problems, always spiced up with a healthy sprinkling of truisms. Even in My Father, My Mother, in which Helen does not exactly succeed in resolving the long-standing differences and tension between her own parents, she shows herself to be resilient and upbeat. And while she offers all sorts of advice about marriage and relationships, she never talks about her own marriage. If there is one person who is difficult for the audience to see clearly in these two films, it is Helen, who seems ever so wise, so witty, so multitalented, and so charismatic with her beautiful facial features and flamboyant taste in fashion. Is there anything under this persona of perfection? Or is her stellar performance as a successful mediator all there is?

As many scholars have argued, globalization entails not only economic, technological, and political transformations but also the reshaping of marriage, love, and sexuality (Giddens 1993; Padilla et al. 2008). In the case of China and other East Asian countries, during the early-twentieth-century modernization, global cultural influences introduced Western notions of romantic love and encouraged the free social interaction between the sexes and self-chosen marriages among urban educated youths, challenging Confucian orthodoxy and the centuries-old tradition of arranged marriages for young people of respectable families. A century later, in a highly capitalistic and Westernized society such as Taiwan, we are witnessing matchmaking practices making a comeback. Let's Fall in Love documents the interaction between globalization and a local tradition. The development of global capitalism and the influence of Western cultures have led to increased individualism, delayed (or avoided) entry into marriage, and a high divorce rate in Taiwan, but paradoxically, at the same time, certain traditional practices have resurfaced precisely in response to these social changes. Helen Chen's marriage consulting practice is both a continuation of traditional matchmaking practices and a reinvention of them. As a business consultant, she prizes efficiency and applies her pursuit of efficiency in her matching practice. Through her, men and women are introduced to each other with marriage as their goal, but they are given an opportunity to date briefly and get to know each other. Let's Fall in Love explores Helen's success and reveals that the interviewed men and women and the documentarian Wuna Wu herself all need the mediation of an Other to achieve a more salient sense of self and greater wellbeing. Meanwhile, Helen seems to thrive on her clients' attention and trust. She, too, has developed a stronger and more vibrant self-identity through her interaction with others. In this complicated web of personal interactions, the documentary camera does not simply play the role of a passive observer. Rather, the digital camera stimulates and enables a variety of intimacies--love, friendship, therapy, and individualized coaching and guidance. The documentarian, or perhaps more accurately, her digital camera, is a matchmaker of sorts, bringing together subjects to perform various forms of emotional work, and by extension, bringing curated stories of these subjects to documentary viewers for their own reflection. The story of Helen Chen told from a female filmmaker's perspective thus provides interesting commentary on what female-driven art can do for its audience. New media technology has joined hands with other aspects of globalization in molding and reshaping Chinese subjectivity.

The question remains, why do the urban men and women in Let's Fall in Love surrender their autonomy and entrust their happiness to old-fashioned marriage and to Helen, who behaves like a diva at the center of an opera? And why do they allow the documentarian Wu to probe their dating lives and marital relationships'? Perhaps, the men and women would rather belong to a community and follow a leader who forces individualized advice and instructions on them than be left neglected, unloved and adrift in a materialistic and--to borrow Zygmunt Bauman's word--"liquid" late modern world. What Let's Fall in Love shows is how lonely and isolated many middle-class Taiwanese are, such that they are desperate for attachments even if the attachments come at the price of giving up their independence. By allowing Helen to tell them that a commitment to marriage is what they need and by permitting Wu to fix her documentary gaze upon them, the filmed subjects willingly perform various small parts to support the leading roles played by Helen and Wu. They are part of a social and psychological experiment run by Helen and also participants in a film project directed by Wu. In some ways, the urban men and women, through their dramatic reenactments and playfulness, have already taken ownership of the marriage imperative and the gaze, which otherwise could have been oppressive and controlling. The documenting process affords agency to not only Wu but also the social actors, for the camera transforms marriage into theater, and counseling sessions into acts of persuasion and drama.


As Wuna Wu shows, for middle-class Taiwanese, abjection does not necessarily come in the form of poverty and catastrophe. Abjection is more likely hidden in experiences of loss, competition, the atomization of society, loneliness, and being adrift in a world that is all too liquid and changeable. However, for working-class Taiwanese, the story is different. To conclude this essay, it is worth mentioning Small Talk (2017, HD), a first-person documentary by Hui-chen Huang, a writer/filmmaker that grew up in a working-class family.

Winner of the Teddy Award for Best Documentary/Essay Film at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival and quite a few other film awards. Small Talk is a survivor's account of family estrangement and sexual violence. Huang, who is both filmmaker and subject, took up the documentary project hoping that this would induce her mother to talk about her own history, the family's past, and the relationship between mother and daughter. Interviewing her mother opened many festering wounds but ultimately allows the documentary maker and her mother to reach reconciliation and renew their bond.

Hui-chen Huang opens the documentary with a first-person voiceover claiming that her mother Anu does not seem to love her. They live under the same roof and yet they are strangers to each other. Everyday, Anu cooks and ptits dishes on the dining table for Hui-chen and her young daughter to share, but she seldom talks to them. In fact. Anu always hurries out the apartment after wolfing down her meal. She would rather go out to spend hours playing mahjong with her female friends than waste an extra minute talking to Hui-chen at home. We realize, soon enough, that Anu is a "tomboy" who loves women, and that she has enjoyed relationships with numerous women. Anu also worked as a priestess in "soul guiding troupes" that people hire to perform folk rituals at funerals.

Besides feeling rejected by the mother, Hui-chen did not have the benefit of schooling. She was forced to quit school when she was in third grade when her mother took her and her sister away from their father. Worried that he would find them and kill them. Anu did not allow the girls to attend school. Furthermore, out of economic pressure, Anu sent the girls to soul guiding troupes to earn money by performing acrobatic and dancing numbers.

As if all this deprivation were not abject enough, the documentary reveals that Hui-chen's father sexually abused her when she was a child. This left a deep, permanent scar. In one of the climactic scenes in the documentary. Hui-chen confronts Anu, asking the mother whether she has ever wondered what happened when Hui-chen slept in the same room with her father while Anu and Hui-chen's younger sister slept in the other bedroom in their tiny apartment. Hui-chen is convinced that her mother knew about what was going on at the time but allowed the abuse to happen. But Ann vehemently denies it.

Hui-chen's painful questioning is met with Ann's enraged denials and then stoic silence. Meanwhile, Hui-chen breaks down in tears. All she wants to know is whether Anu hates her. If Anu dislikes her, is it because her father sexually abused her?

The scene in which Hui-chen confronts her mother reveals a case of appalling abjection. The past sexual abuse has made Hui-chen feel unclean. To Hui-chen's mind, if her mother dislikes her, it must have something to do with the fact that she has been dirtied. Also, to her mind, the ready association between her and her father--who was an alcoholic, gambler, and wife-batterer before his wife and daughters ran away and he committed suicide--must have made it difficult for Anu to love her. All these assumptions on Hui-chen's part suggest that she is suffering from self-hatred, a hatred that she projects onto Anu. She suspects that Anu rejects her but deep down it is she who is rejecting herself as sordid, unclean, and undeserving of love.

The documentary filmmaking process (which lasted for Hui-chen over ten years) functions then as a therapeutic journey that helps Hui-chen exorcise the demon of self-hatred. The camera is her witness and moral support. The camera is also a powerful medium that facilitates communication between mother and daughter, and between Hui-chen and herself. By openly questioning her mother on camera and expressing her longing for her mother's affection and acceptance, Hui-chen finally knocks down the last wall of the mental prison she built for herself. Earlier, she already overcame her lack of formal education through voracious reading and by taking classes at a community college. She has proven that she is capable of transforming herself and overcoming the hindrances from her family upbringing and class background.

Overcoming self-doubt and banishing the demon of self-hatred once and for all is the final step she needs to take toward recuperation and reconciliation.

Small Talk is a compelling example of how a new identity is forged and performed through documentary practice. Through shooting, editing, narrating, and the publication of a related autobiography (2017), Hui-chen Huang catalyzed changes in her relationships with her mother, with herself, and with bystanders (i.e.. the public). She gains agency through the intervention of documentary. Both filmmaker and subject, she subjects herself to an unrelenting gaze but, as result, accrues strength, clarity, and extraordinary courage to journey on.


Research for this article benefited from a Fulbright Fellowship to Taiwan, a grant from the Humanities and Arts Research Program of Michigan State University, and a grant from the Chiu Scholarly Exchange Program administered by Oregon State University.


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(1) The best known example is Po-lin Chi's Beyond Beauty: Taiwan from Above (2013). an ecodocumentary consisting completely of aerial videography.

(2) For the awards records of the Taipei Film Festival from 1998 to 2017, see <>. Accessed April 27, 2018. The festival has been held annually with the exception of the year 2001. The documentaries that won both Best Documentary and the Grand Prize were Let the Wind Carry Me (2009), co-directed by Chiang Hsiu-chiung and Kwan Pun Leung, and A Gift for Father's Day--The Tragedy of Hsiaolin Village Part 1 (2011), co-directed by Lo Hsing-chieh and Wang Hsiu-Ling (2011). In addition to the aforementioned ten documentaries, in 2008 Ho Chao-ti's Diary from Salvador won the Documentary Jury Special Prize, which is not one of the regular prizes of the festival and is given only on rare occasions. Besides the Taipei Film Festival, the award-winning lists of the "Taiwan competition" category and the special awards at the Taiwan International Documentary Festival (TIDF, held biannually since 1998) are also instructive.
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Title Annotation:Global East Asian Cinema: Abjection and Agency
Author:Sang, Tze-Lan Deobrah
Publication:Studies in the Humanities
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:9TAIW
Date:Mar 1, 2019
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