Returned From Hell: Hokkien Cinema at the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh
Twists! Turns! Shocking developments! Infidelity, shame, murder, more infidelity and crying children. If that’s up your ally, look no further than the Hokkien-language strand at the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh, online in the UK from the 18th to the 27th of September, including The Husband’s Secret (1960), Six Suspects (1965) and The Bride Who Has Returned From Hell (1965).
When we think of Taiwanese cinema, we mostly tend to think of the Mandarin spoken cinema produced in Taiwan. We think of King Hu’s wuxia, of Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien and the rest of the Taiwanese New Wave, and of their successors like Tsai Ming-liang and Ang Lee. But before most of that happened, there was another film industry in Taiwan.
From 1955 to around 1980, many Hokkien-language films were produced in Taiwan. Hokkien, also known as Minnan, is a language from the Minnan region in Southern China that is also widely spoken in Taiwan. The films from the Taiwanese industry that produced them, are often referred to as Taiwanese Hokkien-language cinema, Taiwanese-language cinema or as Taiyupian (Mandarin for ‘Taiwanese films’). The Taiyupian consisted of commercial cinema, that was distinct from the state-sponsored Mandarin-spoken film industry and strived while the latter struggled to find an audience, until the tables were turned and Taiyupian all but disappeared.
Three examples of this now largely forgotten industry will be available for viewing for free online (in the UK, at least) at the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh, representing several popular genres, such as the melodrama, the detective and the thriller.
Lin Tuan-Chiu’s The Husband’s Secret is a melodrama that truly revels in its genre trappings. Not only with a plot full of twists that make the story extra dramatic at every turn, but also through an absolutely hysterical voice-over that both explains character backgrounds and gives moralistic commentary on their actions. Yet, it is not shot in lurid colours, but rather in crisp black and white, which has been beautifully restored. Because of its visual style, The Husband’s Secret feels close to the Japanese New Wave than to the Hollywood technicolour melodrama’s of the time, like those of Douglas Sirk.
Coincidentally (or is it?), The Husband’s Secret was based on a Japanese novel (by Toshihiko Takeda) and film. The story centres on Tshiu-Bi, her titular husband Siu-Gi and her old friend Le-Hun. While Tshiu-Bi is leading a perfect (upper?) middle-class life, with the exception of not being able to have children, Le-Hun has to work as a hostess in a nightclub to support her four-year-old son. When he gets sick she even has to resort to pawning her coat despite cold winter weather, to be able to afford medicine. Of course, she herself gets sick in turn, and so Tshiu-Bi tries to help her friend out by putting her up in her own home, without realising that prior to their marriage, her husband and Le-Hun were once a couple. Is the four-year-old a product of that relationship? Siu-Gi certainly thinks so when he finds out about the existence of the child and is wracked with guilt over never supporting him or his mother. While all this truth is shielded from Tshiu-Bi, she encourages the kid to call Siu-Gi ‘daddy’, because of course she does. Le-Hun is also shadowed by her first boyfriend, also potentially the kid’s dad, an abusive hoodlum who wants to beat her for not being allowed near the child.
All that is only the beginning of all the dramatic twists and turns the story takes, including more shocking discoveries and pregnancies. A drama that is compounded by the voice-over, which adds even more dramatic background information or very judgementally comments on the actions that are also deemed inevitable. When Siu-Gi and Le-Hun finally commit adultery, the female narrator first sagely says: “When old lovers reunite, passion knows no bounds. Reason is conquered,” only to immediately follow that up with “How could educated people do something like this?!”
It’s such lines, plus dialogue like “Will you die with mommy?” that make The Husband’s Secret verge on the edge of parody. Though at the same time it also feels like a critique of women’s role in contemporary Taiwanese society. Le-Hun becomes more or less a social outcast for having a baby out of wedlock, while Tshiu-Bi is heavily pressured to have a baby inside her marriage, to the point where she considers surgery that supposedly would improve chances of conception. When she wants to divorce her husband after discovering his infidelity, her own aunt and uncle step in to prevent such shame to the family, and also make decisions on Le-Hun’s yet unborn new child, all in the name of preserving their good name. The two women appear to have no say, yet manage to find a way to work out a solution that makes everybody (somewhat) happy.
Lin Tuan-Chiu’s second film in the programme, Six Suspects, also portrays Taipei as a city full of sinful secrets. Here, however, they do not remain unexposed. Private detective Tenn Kong-Hui doesn’t operate like a usual private eye is supposed to. Instead of working on commission for assignments, he snoops around until he finds out personal secrets that people don’t want exposed, and then blackmails them. He actually only starts doing this after he started investigating his ex-girlfriend, secretary Tai-Giok, and discovers a whole network of dirty secrets of the people in her life.
The first half of Six Suspects consists of him telling all this to her, including her own secret, with lengthy flashbacks detailing all the blackmailable behaviour, trying to both blackmail her and/or entice her into resuming their relationship. Not only does that fail, later that night Tenn gets killed and the film turns into another kind of detective altogether. Two police detectives start an investigation into his murder, triggering a new set of flashbacks. In both halves of the film combined there are more twists, turns and revelations than you can find in an average Agatha Christie novel.
This plot, the crisp black & white images, the lighting, the dynamic cinematography with lots of pans and the jazzy score all make Six Suspects quite reminiscent of Japanese crime cinema of the time, even more so than The Husband’s Secret. Nevertheless, what Six Suspects most has in common with Lin’s other film, is a critical view of Taiwanese society. It opens with a title card disclaimer which states that while the film is fictional, it is also educational with its ‘crime doesn’t pay’ message. Both the blackmailer and the murderer are made to pay dearly (one with his life) for their crimes. Yet the rot in society they’re both a product of continues unabated, especially now that the murderer prevents everybody else’s secrets from getting out, and even though the cops figure everything out, they keep it all under wraps. While this moralistic portrayal of Taiwan is fascinating from a cultural and formal level, in neither cases it’s very dramatically or emotionally engaging, despite the genres used to slyly convey Lin’s message.
Hsin Chi’s The Bride Who Has Returned From Hell is more directly engaging on an emotional and dramatic level, while it also provides an interesting image of the time and place in which it was made. From the clothes and the cars to smoking on trains and a lack of dental care. Although, only the working class servants of the richer, golf playing protagonists have bad teeth. And some of them have trouble speaking Hokkien, suggesting that perhaps they’re either poor immigrants who came from the mainland or are indigenous Taiwanese.
This class divide is most clear in the two girls who live in the mansion in which most of the story takes place. The daughter of the owner gets lavish gifts, while the daughter of one of the servants has to look on emptyhanded. Still, she is the one who notices the two things that will, in the end, unmask the murderer who has set the story in motion. A story based on the gothic horror romance novel The Mistress from Melynn, which is set in 19th century Cornwall. Despite being transplanted to 1960s Taiwan to make it more contemporary, the shadowy cinematography is befitting of the film’s literary origins.
The added musical numbers, mostly sung by a children’s choir, however, are not. The emotions conveyed by these songs are quite singular: either extremely sad or enormously happy. The near false singing by the children makes them even more jarring. An odd choice for an otherwise conventional thriller, that is slightly reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) – though that resemblance is mostly in the plot, not in the style or in how exciting it is. Another strange musical choice is the use of the James Bond theme song to score the climax of the film.
While The Bride Who Has Returned From Hell does not provide as much horror as the title (or the alternative title Bride in Hell) promises, it’s a decent thriller served up with some social commentary and painful musical numbers on the side.