New Taiwanese Cinema and National Philosophy :
An essay on Angie Pai’s short film Listen to Mama

 

Words by: James J. Robinson (Film maker & Photographer)


Asian cinema is often described in relation to Western screens. Rather than always existing within its own parameters, critics and essayists tend to describe the way Asian filmmakers will either differ from, or aspire to, the Hollywood or European cinematic lexicon. However, investigating Asian cinema from a philosophical and cultural context, instead of a cinematic one, provides a much more fruitful understanding of life and values in each country; still closely married to its own national history. 

Taiwanese cinema found international attention in the 1980s after it’s New Wave movement found voices in young filmmakers such as Hou-Hsaio Hsien and Tsai-Ming Liang. In response to the rapidly growing Hong Kong film industry, this movement focused on realism before anything else. To these filmmakers, a film that accurately captures quotidian life without glamour or standard dramatic beats, captured their world view more than any art created purely for cinematic engagement could.

In many ways, Angie Pai’s Listen to Mama belongs to this school. As a short documentary examining the life of her mother, Pai’s focus is much less on the significant turning points of her mother’s life, but more on the smaller details of her childhood, her marriage and family — ultimately building an image of everyday Taiwanese life in synecdoche.

Visiting Taiwan in late 2018 to help Angie create this film, my assistance wasn’t only in technical training, but introducing her to films by Hirokazu Kore-eda and Edward Yang. After each film we’d stay up for hours discussing the philosophy behind each shot and language behind camera work. When filming, Angie was less focused on perfecting each shot, but instead ensuring they all accurately reflect her emotional, poetic perspective. A shot need not be in focus to accurately capture the essence of its subject.

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New Taiwanese Cinema, like most national cinema in Asia, has a particular focus on familial themes. In Listen to Mama, Angie’s mother describes filial piety as the most important virtue; that without the respect and responsibility towards your elders, all other virtues fall through. This film exists not only as a musing on Taiwanese life, but also in service to recognizing the sacrifices a mother had to make for her family’s health and security.

Through examining the relationships her mother has with family members around her, Angie builds a complex portrait of Taiwanese family values. One that supports each other, puts family before all else and goes to extraneous lengths to protect. But as we see in her mother’s narration, this desire to keep other family members out of pain can sometimes lead to the opposite. 

Her mother discusses how she has to lie to her own mother about living overseas, and even does the same to Angie herself in light of her father’s declining health. In the attempt to protect the family, she burdens herself exclusively with pain out of filial piety, unintentionally causing more pain to those she was trying to protect. It’s these complex, Asian family values that we don’t always see on Western screens — where putting family first isn’t always the primary concern.

Cinema from this era of Taiwan, and arguably all since, is closely tied to its national philosophy. You’ll find that these films closely mirror both Confucian and Lao Tzuian doctrine. Where Confucian principles tends to sway towards social character, cultural refinement and politics, Lao Tzu questioned authority and conventional wisdom in focus of individual freedom and nature. While traditional Western study draws a line between these two schools of thought, these opposing beliefs should not mutually exclude one another, rather, at times strengthening in unison to broaden sentiments.

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When asked how Chinese characters have influenced her, Angie’s mother replies with ‘It’s part of our veins and runs in our blood.’ Inherently because of Angie’s upbringing, the same can be said of the film, which so naturally captures her world view. We witness a mother’s effort to always do the right thing, to find her modest place in a wider political context — all which closely reflect a moral, Confucian struggle. But Angie’s filmmaking style frames this with a focus more on emotion and simplicity. In the energy of Taiwanese cinema that rejects authoritative control over the medium, Angie breaks these traditional cinematic rules in favour of realism; in the process, marrying the film closer to Lao Tzu scholarship.

Whether you see this film as Angie’s service to filial piety, a film on middle-class Taiwan, a film that pays respect to the history of national Taiwanese cinema, or even as a musing on Chinese philosophy — the film above all exists as a love letter to Angie’s mother. 

It is both a recognition and a thank you to the woman whose struggles allowed Angie to live in a world where making a film like this were even possible.

It seems, through this film, Angie irrevocably understands the importance of her upbringing in forming an artistic and philosophical vision; that above all — We need to listen to mama.