(Art)house Violence: I Didn’t Dare to Tell You

I Didn’t Dare to Tell You (1969) © Taiwan Film and Audiovisual Institute

Since its establishment in 2014, Taiwan Film Institute (now renamed Taiwan Film and Audiovisual Institute) has done miracles with regard to restoration of Taiwanese films. The reevaluation of local film history led to some amazing discoveries in the mouldy and dusty archives. Preservation and excavation of local film heritage meets the ongoing project of restructuring and redefining Taiwanese national identity halfway, some titles fit it a bit more than others. Taiwanese-language films gradually gained visibility following the initiative undertaken by Chris Berry and Ming-Yeh Rawnsley, but there are hidden cinematic treasures which fell victim to censorship during the White Terror. In recent years several film festivals (TIDF, Festival des 3 Continents), most recently Electric Shadows, revisited these recently excavated titles, one of which is Mou Tun-fei’s directorial debut, I Didn’t Dare to Tell You. If it was allowed to be released uninterrupted upon completion in 1969, the history of Taiwan cinema and its place within the global art cinema canon probably might have looked a bit different.

Mou Tun-fei is a curious case of an ambitious filmmaker whose works do not fully fit into any mode, genre or aesthetic. His biggest international success, Men Behind the Sun (1988), firmly connected his name to the cinema of exploitation, the label which he rejected and continuously tried to shake off. Mou himself did not seem to fit into any place he has lived and worked in. He has spent many years travelling in Europe and South America before he was persuaded to join the Shaw Brothers in the 1980s as one of the young talented filmmakers employed to pump fresh blood into the studio’s vertically-integrated rapidly ageing organism. Mou more or less adjusted to the pressure to ensure box office hits and appreciated the amount of financial security and artistic freedom granted by the studio. He continued to pursue the topics and motifs which fascinated him. One proved to be especially long lived: violence in different shapes and forms.

I Didn’t Dare to Tell You follows two stories that run parallel to each other. The Main plot line is focused on a young boy whose father struggles to pay gambling debt and save money to send his son to secondary school. The boy secretly starts to take night shifts at a factory to help out financially but finds it harder and harder to stay awake during classes and keep up with homework. He dreads to tell about his difficulties at school because of his father’s violent and unstable character which only got worse after the sudden death of the boy’s mother. Soon the situation comes to the attention of the class teacher – a young woman with personal problems of her own. She and her artist fiancé are the centre of melodramatic subplot. The couple hesitates to schedule the date of the wedding, negotiating the terms and conditions, expressing resentment over how the partner has changed over the years. This point especially weighs on the teacher who feels she has to act tough and strict for the benefit of her pupils’ learning process. The image of a young woman is under scrutiny, old photos of her are hung on the wall, her unfinished bust sculpted by the fiancé is placed in the centre of the room although it does not bear much resemblance of her facial features. The woman adjusts to this schizophrenic situation, trying to return to the way she used to be or at least reconstruct how others perceived her. Her demands are also met in the end: the fiancé shaves off his beard which changes his looks completely. The subplot is not explored further and, except for it being a very honest and quite nuanced depiction of a relationship, the interesting point is that the fiancé is played by Mou Tun-fei himself. Maybe the story was a sort of self-reflection on the relationship between an artist and a muse, a filmmaker and a main actress.

The Pygmalion motif and the bust sculpture connect Mou’s debut to European cultural tradition. I Didn’t Dare to Tell You bears resemblance with the major works of Italian neorealism. There is a familiar sensitivity to the topics of class inequality, family issues, labour, poverty and urban life. Visually, I Didn’t Dare to Tell You combines realistically shot scenes of daily life in black and white but also reveals Mou’s affinity to avant-garde experimental filmmaking through playful, sometimes ostentatiously modernist, use of objects and space that resonate with characters’ psychological state and create an atmosphere heavy with conflicting emotions.

Mou started his career as an apprentice of Pai Ching-jui who in the 1950s got a very rare opportunity to study filmmaking in Rome. Upon his return to Taiwan, he started working for the state-owned Central Motion Picture Corporation, which did not give much space for exploring different stories and experimenting with cinematic language. However, this transnational tie established through Pai’s individual experience resonated much more in his apprentice’s directorial debut. However, it was not the only reason for such influences.

Mou graduated from Taiwan Art College where he was most probably thoroughly trained in the canon and aesthetics of Asian as well as European art, classic and contemporary. Mou uses elements perceived as Western “high art” critically or even ironically, which is most evident in the film soundtrack. Waltz music accompanies several scenes, including the overly optimistic ending which seems to have been added following the pressure from the censors. The sound of waltz also aggressively intrudes the scenes taken at the artist’s studio which most probably had a different soundtrack in the original, I imagine jazz being the music of Mou’s choice for this film. The reflection on the obsession with „high art” made I Didn’t Dare to Tell You a true product of Taiwanese reality and mutilation by the censors turned it into a unique document of its times.

This multilayered systemic violence mirrors the one on screen. Mou’s films feature scenes of excruciatingly straightforward violence and I Didn’t Dare to Tell You is no exception. The scene of the father’s rampage in which the boy is severely beaten up is shot in close ups, making the physical and emotional pain almost tangible. Domestic violence, child labour and usury are the first of many dark sides of reality Mou Tun-fei made visible in his works. However, these discussions were not welcome in Taiwan under the autocratic rule of the Chinese nationalist party (Kuomintang). One reel of I Didn’t Dare to Tell You still remains lost and the original final cut of Mou’s debut film can be written down into the Taiwan cinema history that never happened.

This Essay article was published in May 2021