Taiwanese identities and Japanese farewells in an extraordinary piece of film history…
Goodbye, Taipei is an amazing film, but the reasons may not be visible from the start. It is definitely not because of gripping film narrative, full of cause-effect blind spots and overly extended blunt slapstick gag scenes that leave the viewer feeling puzzled. But if we get through unmotivated but surprisingly catchy musical pieces and take a look into what the schematic film story actually indicates, it turns out the narrative reflects the same themes that are so prevalent in Taiwan society and culture till this day.
Goodbye, Taipei begins with a dying Chinese millionaire looking for his lost granddaughter, his last living family member. He puts a newspaper announcement about a huge reward for those who will bring her to him. Two money-obsessed street performers decide to look for the girl. At the same time a handsome young stranger, played by Taiwanese pop song star Wen Xia, comes back to Taipei to visit his friends. Accompanied by voracious, mischievous boy, Xiao Wang, the duo of charming underdogs runs into a vagrant shoeshine boy and flower girl who looks exactly like the missing granddaughter whose picture was posted in the newspaper. Then the story involves a lot necessary errors, scams, kidnapping, mud battle, music performances and evident cross-dressing. It sums up to the series of intermissions as Goodbye, Taipei is a package film, with every scene being a separate bit of entertainment that promotes the lead singer-actor, main star and eventually a true auteur of the film. But the popular culture always bears a sign of its time and in this case historical background offers a lot more to the story than it originally might appear.
Goodbye, Taipei is a space-time continuum bender. It offers an image of Taiwan that is contesting its postwar history, while being deeply rooted in prewar realities when the island was still a Japanese colony. The title of the movie is baffling at first, because is directly localizes the film narrative and expresses the sadness upon departure as if Taipei was being abandoned and from now on will never be the same.
Although Chinese nationalist party (Kuomintang) in exile ruled over Taiwan already for 20 years at the time of the film production, Goodbye, Taipei ignores the new government existence and its deep influence on the society. Characters instead of passing through overcrowded, poor, often makeshift nationalist army soldiers villages (juancun), they only roam high-speed roads, broad boulevards alongside modern apartment buildings, dine in high-class hotel restaurants and walk through Ximending entertainment district. The indoor locations depict perfect middle class flat where Japanese and Chinese home decor is mixed with convenient, modern appliances. It is still a rare opportunity to see Taipei as it was almost 50 years ago, even if the picture is partial and utopic. The only scene that defies the offly clean and polished image of the city takes place in the temple, where extras seem to be random street people gathered around the film crew. That’s the only moment when true postwar chaos and diversity gets inside the frame.
In 1960s just as nowadays, Taiwanese love Japan and Japanese love Taiwan. The close bond between past empire and its previous colony is an exception in the world that underwent postcolonial critique.Goodbye, Taipei is the best example of the phenomenon, as shown through the flow of people and pop culture. Wen Xia, writer and lead singer-actor, went to school in Japan, only in the 1960s came back to native Tainan. While speaking Taiwanese, his strong Japanese accent can be heard clearly. Influences are most evident in characters appearance. Male actors make up is reminiscent of Japanese theatre and film tradition. Moreover the clothes Wen Xia and other actors are wearing follow Japanese fashion which is especially visible through the Tokyo Giants baseball cap worn by a gender-bending shoeshine tomboy. Music performances are also influenced by Japanese pop songs, so it turns out that colonialism never really ends. Taiwan was and still is conquered by Japanese soft power – popular music, manga, anime, fashion – that forms a sort of economic and cultural dependency. There are various other examples of such dynamics. Instead of colonising the territory, it is imagination that is being colonised.
Forgotten identity, memory loss, split personalities are some of Cold War’s favourite stories. These especially relate to Taiwan, as after II World War Japan had to give up its precious first colony which in 1949 it involuntarily became “Free China”, the only legitimate heir to Chinese culture in opposition to the communist China. Goodbye, Taipei centres around Taiwanese pop song performances but indirectly it tells the story of this particular handover. Within the film narrative the lost granddaughter embodies Taiwan, that throughout the history it was most neglected of Chinese provinces, as if abandoned and beyond emperor’s interest. Yet after the lost civil war, millionaire grandfather (Chinese nationalists) retreated to the island, claimed it as its own, after getting approval from the U.S. and slowly-forming Capitalist Bloc. During the film it turns out that there are actually two girls who strikingly resemble the granddaughter, but only one has a big birthmark on her back that proves her true heritage. The old millionaire seem not to care about which girl is his real family member and embraces the two of them. It reflects the situation in Taiwan in several ways ways, as the Taiwanese identity is split (not only twice), the bond between Republic of China government and local people is questionable one (in the movie even pictured as quite pervert) and the line between true and false is very thin. In 1960s Taiwan people in the course of education were indoctrinated their motherland is Mainland China and today the continuous influx of fake news and artificial food make the true and false quite hard to differentiate.
Goodbye, Taipei reflects the contrast between new Chinese migrants (waishengren) and Japanese as seen from the perspective of a 1960s Taiwanese local (benshengren). The rich grandfather is the only one who wears traditional clothes which signify his backwardness. Bedridden, he miraculously comes back to health once he finds his alleged granddaughter. As he embraces the girls, dances and smokes cigarettes (negative opium reference never vanishes) it is hard not to view him as an old cheat. Japanese on the other hand is embodied in lead singer-actor Wen Xia – a young, handsome, well-rounded man who wears modern fashionable clothes, plays guitar and sings pop songs. He looks like a perfect potential romantic interest for two girls as the Sayon’s Bell (1943, dir. Hiroshi Shimizu) would play on repeat.
Regardless of its narrative cliches, Goodbye, Taipei is an extraordinary piece of film history because it voices Taiwanese point of view. From 1956 till 1970 the production of Taiwanese dialect cinema was booming, Goodbye, Taipei, the last instalment of Wen Xia’s film series, is a witness of its decline. In the 1970s the young generation of people born after 1949 did not remember Taiwan before the Kuomintang rule. Mandarin Chinese was an official language taught at school, the dialect that was to be eradicated. Nowadays more and more young people are taking Taiwanese language lessons, no matter if the come from families that had been on the island for many generations or migrated just after the civil war. There is one scene in Goodbye, Taipei showing the birthmark on granddaughter’s back resembles the Taiwan’s outline on the map, often compared to the shape of sweet potato. It is hard to predict what will be the island’s future as often it was not for the local people to decide. The restoration of Taiwanese language cinema is priceless chance to take a look in the past and listen to what local people had to say, using their own voice speaking their own language.