Polish Reception of Taiwan and Taiwanese Cinema
(University of Opole, Poland)
To suggest that Polish general public has any deeper awareness of Taiwan would be as disingenuous as the implication that the average Taiwanese person possesses any broader knowledge of Polish affairs. Certainly, the older generation in Poland may dimly associate Taiwan with the aftermath of the Chinese civil war and the subsequent tense cross-strait relations. The epic struggle between Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong (or at least that was how it was presented), the former’s escape to Taiwan and ensuing frictions between the countries, were widely reported and discussed in Poland throughout the 1950s and 1960s. However, what needs to be stressed here, the officially expressed Polish sentiments rested with the other side. In fact, as a prominent member of the communist block during the Cold War, Poland was one of the first countries in the world to formally recognise the People’s Republic of China.
Viewed from amore contemporary perspective, there are three broad areas in whichthe more knowledgeable and inquisitive sections of the Polish society recognise Taiwan’s contribution.The first area is connected with Taiwan’s economic success made evident by the presence of numerous Taiwanese companies and their products in Poland. Another is connected with Taiwan’s unique geopolitical situation, not only for the obviously fraught relationship with the Mainland but also because of its history, in many places analogous to Poland’s efforts to overcome dictatorship and create a modern democracy. The third area in which Taiwan may count on recognition is the country’s arthouse cinema. These are basically the three major sources of Taiwan’s soft power viewed from the Polish perspective.
The very notion of “soft power” gained enormous resonance directly in the wake of the Cold War and the implosion of the Soviet Union. Introduced by an eminent political scientist from Harvard, Joseph Nye, the conceptdraws attention to the significance of the non-coercive means in which political influence is often achieved. According to Nye, soft power is the ability to attract and persuade, to achieve tangible political gains, without resorting to hard measures like military intervention, sanctions, boycotts or bans. In the East-Asian context, one of most prominent examples of harnessing soft-power is Japan. It especially concerns the way in which Japan was able to turn around its demolished international reputation after the disaster of the Second World War. In the twenty-first century, with the growing role of People’s Republic of China on the international stage, soft-power became nothing short of an obsession for the Chinese communist leadership.
What sort of information about Taiwan reaches Polish general public? Predictably, if Taiwan gets any mention in Poland, it is either something perceived as important or negative, like natural disasters, catastrophes, political conflicts or clashes. This works both ways. Mentions of Poland in the Taiwanese media usually concern momentous, unusual or shocking events. Of course, there are sometimes notable exceptions. For instance, in the last couple of months Taiwan appeared in the Polish media in relation to legalisation of gay marriage, the official ban on the consumption of dog meat and Donald Trump’s phone call to President Tsai.
My library search for Polish-language books on Taiwan indicated an overwhelming domination of politics and history (including economic history) among the titles available to Polish readers. One of the few outliers, not matching dominant categories, are two monographs by Juan Ch’ang-rue’s The Traditional Customs of the Taiwanese (orig. title Tradycje i wierzenia na Tajwanie) and Folk Religions of Taiwan (Tradycyjne wierzenia ludowe Tajwanu). Significantly and very revealingly, there is not a single Polish tourist guidebook of Taiwan (there is only one self-published e-book based on a blog). Any translation of Taiwanese literature is also virtually impossible to find. Thus, the broader recognition of Taiwanese arthouse cinema in Poland is undoubtedly a noteworthy phenomenon and an important cultural asset. Naturally this recognition is fairly limited and concentratedarounda relatively narrow – but what needs to be emphasized, very influential – social group. Most devotees of Taiwanese film productions are connected to the academia (either as professors or students), the creative professions (working in the media, advertising and journalism) or the arts community.
Taiwanese films in Poland typically rely on a very specific form of distribution that also enforces specific and unique patterns of reception. They are mostly shown in smaller theatres, during dedicated events, special screenings or (most commonly) film festivals. Undoubtedly, this popularity stems from a larger trend where Taiwan benefits from the sustained fashion for East-Asian movies. It originated from interest in Japanese filmmakers which later spread to other East-Asian directors and their works. Wide appeal of ambitious, auteur cinema is also amplified in Poland by a long and eminent tradition of ambitious and internationally recognised domestic cinema (suffice to mention the names of such directors as Andrzej Wajda or Krzysztof Kieślowski, whose output remains popular throughout Asia).
Taiwanese films are rarely presented solely on their own, but rather served in the larger East-Asian packages.Most typically, Polish audiences see productions from Taiwan during cyclical events dedicated to East-Asian cinema, along films from Japan, South Korea, China, Hong Kong and Vietnam. By far the most important springboard forAsian cinemas is the Five Flavours Film Festival. Launched in 2007, it is held annually in Warsaw with festival “replicas” organised in other Polish cities. Films from Taiwan feature practically every year in the Five Flavours, nevertheless, the 5th edition in 2011, was specifically dedicated to Taiwan. The festival opened with Hsiao Ya-chuan’s Taipei Exchanges (第36個故事, 2010) and included retrospectives of Hou Hsiao-hsien and the Taiwanese New Wave. A year earlier, the biggest Polish film event, the New Horizons Festival in Wrocław, put up the retrospective of Tsai Ming-liang. Other instances of presentation offilms from Taiwan include special events usually organised in campuses, museums or cultural centres. They are typically accompanied by panel discussions, lectures and exhibitions.
Such way of distribution profoundly affects critical reception and writing on Taiwanese cinema in Polish. As it is the case with the festivals, Taiwanese films are rarely discussed in individual publications. More typically, a chapter or section on Taiwan’s motion pictures (or a particular director) is included in a larger book on East Asian cinemas. Another characteristic feature is that almost all articles or chapters, rather than focusing exclusively on discussing particular works of art, provide extensive introductions of the social and historical context against which Taiwanese cinema evolved. That is usually done at the expense of a more complex interpretation of individual films. Despite its relative popularity, there is still no separate monographon Taiwan’s cinema in Polish. However, there are two fairly recent books dedicated to a single Taiwanese director. Surprisingly it is not Ang Lee, but Tsai Ming-liang. Characteristically, these books also include lengthy sections on the historical background of cinema in Taiwan.
Occasionally, Taiwan-related or Taiwan-themed films make it into the mainstream distribution in Polish multiplexes. For instance, Ang Lee remains fairly popular and his Taiwanese roots are routinely mentioned in reviews. Also, the fact that his Life of Pi (2012), hugely successful in Poland, was partly made in Taiwan did not go unnoticed. The latest, interesting example of the success of the Taiwanese production is Hou Xiao Xiens’ Assassin (2015). Although it was received rather coolly in Taiwan, Polish critical reaction was noticeably different. For instance,Sebastian Smoliński, are viewer in Poland’s most prestigious film journal Kino, praised Hou’s slow pace, careful composition of photography and what he described as “the aesthetics of meaningful emptiness”. Without any doubt, Hou’s latest motion picture reaffirmed the high regard for Taiwanese cinema.
In this essay, I attempted to indicated that although movies do not have the same cultural significance they used to have before the advent of the Internet and social media, they remain crucial for the formation of collective imagination. One thing I would like to state clearly here is that Taiwanese cinema has a dedicated audience in Poland which eagerly awaits new productions from the “Beautiful Island”. In some cases, this affection may just be a manifestation of snobbery. As I would argue, however, even in such instances it is worth cultivating, because it is often motivated by a genuine and respectful interest in other cultures.
In April 2018, I am planning to organise a short festival of Taiwanese cinema at my university in Opole. The list of films I intend to show is still in preparation and will be strongly dependent on the availability of legal distribution copies.
Kwiatkowska, Paulina, and Michał Mikruda. Nie Chcę Spać Sam: Kino Tsai Ming-Lianga. Kraków: Korporacja Ha!art, 2009.
Murczyńska, Jagoda, ed. Cicha Eksplozja: Nowe Kino Azji Wschodniej i Południowo-Wschodniej. Kraków: Korporacja Ha!art, 2016.
Nye, Joseph S. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. New York: Public Affairs, 2004.
Sławomir Bobowski, ed. Kino Azji. Studia Filmoznawcze 28. Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego, 2007.
Smoliński, Sebastian. ‘Zabójczyni’. Kino, no. 3 (2016): 71–72.
Wasiński, Sławomir. Buntownik neonowego Boga: o kinowej i telewizyjnej twórczości Tsai Ming-lianga. Kraków: Nomos, 2013.