As artists around the world have proven within their respective cultures, a true artist’s function is to comment upon various societal elements from the society he or she functions within. Chinese cinema is no different. From the traditionally-bound (and stifled) women from films such as Yellow Earth and Ju Dou to the overtly (and traditionally) masculine characters in a film such as Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, various facets of cultural views concerning gender and its social function have been consistent aspects of thematic material present throughout modern Chinese cinema. Many Chinese films similarly touch upon such motifs as existential ennui and cultural disconnect as a result of the intense urbanization of China’s once dominantly-traditional population. Various films centered in Taiwan have also commented on progressive gender roles and societal conditions within its populace. Kuo-fu Chen’s 1999 film The Personals explores various elements of traditional relationships versus modern sexual ideals, Ming-ling Tsai’s 1994 film Vive L’Amour paints a modern picture of Taiwan as an urbanized spiritual destroyer, and Ang Lee’s 1994 release Eat Drink Man Woman presents a family’s dysfunction as a result of their progressive function in an urbanized Taiwan. While each of these films presents different views concerning their respective society, a common thread runs through each of them; Each of the films represents the increasingly-commercial, modern, and progressive Taiwanese city as an emotional, mental, or psychological “prison” of some sort.
The Personals presents perhaps the bleakest view of urbanized Taiwan out of the three aforementioned pictures. The film tells the story of a female doctor named Du Jia-zhen whom is helplessly (and hopelessly) searching for a husband amidst the backdrop of a massive urban locale that acts as a stage for which the film to present various facets of Taiwanese city life. Du places a personal ad for the husband she is trying to find. Each of the men (and sometimes women) who respond to her ad collectively reveal the antithesis (and reality) to typical societal norms that is suggested to exist in progressive Taiwan cityscapes.
Du indicates that she receives hundreds upon hundreds of phone calls from men in response to her personal ad, suggesting that the lack of personal connectivity present within a commercialized, busy urban location. The city is painted as a sort of empty shell (as indicated by long shots from the highway surrounding the city, making it look bare and desolate as the sun sets behind it) inhabited by these men and women seeking to bond with another human being in some way so much that they (as well as Du) resort to posting a personal ad instead of going out and meeting someone the “old-fashioned” way. If interpersonal connectivity were not an issue in the city, there would be no need to place or respond to a personal ad in the first place.
The responders also become representative of the progressive side of the urban, modernized Taiwanese populace. Each of the responders represents something very different that showcases the diversity (in terms of “alternate” forms of sexuality, mindset, world and societal views, etc.) that exists and comes out when a large group of people live together in a city. The responders also become indicative of repressed sexuality that exists beyond the false façade of “normalcy” in society. Through this depiction of various men and women responding to an ad that clearly states it is about marriage with their own views and agendas concerning outright sexual desires (because they assume that all personal ads are sexual in nature because a desire for companionship is understood, mutual, and stated outright) the film paints a picture of urban Taiwan as an inhibitor and a vast commercialized entity that stifles true feelings of sexuality and desire, compromising them in order to appear “normal” within society. For example, various characters throughout the film sacrifice a part of themselves to “fit in” within society. The visual element (or how one “appears” to be) plays a large part in being accepted in Taiwanese society, as emphasized by Du’s previous position as an eye doctor. Whatever comes across as appearing normal is generally accepted to be normal within society, and anything deviating from that norm is not considered “normal”. The gender-questioning photographer puts this idea into perspective more clearly, indicating that just because something is not white does not mean it is black. Du has a very hard time accepting that the fact that this person (who appears to be a woman) is actually a man, but the film challenges visual indicators of gender as well as traditional gender roles in society by embodying alternative views regarding the subjects within this photographer. The photographer says that she is a man, yet has the physical characteristics of a woman, and she is ultimately correct because it is her body and mind to make jurisdiction over, not society’s. Du insists that if she is not physically a man then she must be a woman and therefore a lesbian, but the photographer protests. Du does not understand that gender is entirely a societal byproduct also influenced by retail and other commercialized outlets; Men and women are “told” what to wear by fashion lines and retail outlets who indicate clothing departments as being for “men” or for “women”, therefore guiding ones perception about gender instead of leaving it up to the individual to decide what to wear. Since the photographer feels that she is a man and has the mind of a man, it should be accepted that she is in fact a man.
The film also challenges the audience’s perceptions of what is “normal” within Taiwanese society, seeing as each of the men are generally viewed as “creeps” or “perverts” by audiences who watch the film, yet those very labels become far too judgmental for the message the film is trying to convey. To lie and say that each person does not have a sexual fetish such as some of the men who respond to the ad is an outright denial of basic human instinct; each of us have sexual desires and things that turn us on, and the men and women who respond to the personal ad each have their own that results in their specific reasoning for responding to the ad. Simply because they represent the alternative to what is generally socially accepted they are often viewed as being “creeps” when in fact they are simply being true to themselves. In a certain sense, Du, whom the audience is to believe is actually “normal” in this situation, also has a fetish of some sort (the “ideal” husband to fit into her lifestyle). But because Du’s fetish is socially-acceptable and commonplace within Taiwanese society, it is viewed as “normal”. Despite each of the men being true to themselves and revealing hidden sexual desires (such as the man who wishes to make a porn with Du and the man who has a shoe fetish) each of them still revert to embodying the traditional sexual objectification (and therefore implied inferiority) of Du simply because she is a woman.
The most perplexing thing about the film and Du’s quest for a man lies within the fact that she still seeks out the perfect marriage and relationship despite being indirectly presented with evidence that suggests this is the direction she should not be taking on the path of life. She was previously having an affair with a married man, many of the men who respond to her personal ad are similarly cheating on their wives or looking to cheat on their wives, and even her close personal friend (Luo) is in a false marriage (he is gay and only married for a “normal” life). Du should be able to see that relationships based on false pretenses are not substantial enough to last. Each of the relationships within the film is seen as broken. The “face” of normalcy is the desire of these men and women in the film upon entering a marriage or relationship, yet the film ultimately suggests that these social norms are in fact not normal at all and result in behavior that is viewed as socially unacceptable.
A similarly bleak film regarding Taiwanese society is 1994’s Vive L’Amour, which utilizes the backdrop of a Taiwan city as well as various elements of gender and its social roles to highlight emotional imprisonment within an urban center. Director Tsai Ming-liang depicts Taiwanese society as commercialized and populous yet ultimately an empty prison of emotion and love. The city is scrutinized for its emotionally-inhibiting, stifling society in the midst of commercial and urban progression. This commercial and urban progressions results in emotional and interpersonal regression, seeing as the central characters each choose to escape from their daily lives into an apartment that facilitates the “release” of their personal demons they could not normally do in public.
At least on a visual level, the film represents Taiwan as an overly-populated epicenter of commerce heavily influenced from outside sources (primarily America). When May Lin is walking around the city towards the beginning of the film, carefully-placed shots indicate the American influence on Taiwan, particularly evident in a shot where May Lin is dominated by posters for American films (of note is a poster with Julia Roberts on it, whose face completely dwarfs May Lin’s figure). Retail fashion is also seen as becoming influenced by American culture, seeing as May Lin’s hairstyle and clothing is representative of a woman from mid-90s America instead of more uniquely Taiwanese attire.
May Lin is followed around the city by a man named Ah-jung, framing the typical, traditionally-represented female endurance of the “male gaze”. May Lin is followed all the way back to an apartment she is in charge of selling (she is a real-estate agent) in a scene which almost implies that May Lin understands she is being followed and “allows” herself to fall into the desires of the male who is pursuing her. The scene of passion that ensues in particular indicates the progression of feminine sexuality within Taiwanese society. May Lin undresses Ah-jung, yet when he goes to undress her she brushes him off and undresses herself, indicating that she is taking control of the sexual situation and will only do things on her terms, in stark contrast to a film such as Ju Dou where the female was entirely at the mercy of her male sexual partner. There is also a scene in which May Lin is sucking the nipples of Ah-jung without Ah-jung’s face even in the frame, reversing the traditionally-accepted notion that males are turned on by a female’s breasts, reversing the roles as May Lin (seen as the “dominant” one in this sexual encounter) sexually objectifies a faceless male figure in a scene where a male would typically be doing this to her. This harnessing of feminine sexuality is seen as progression towards more female empowerment (at least on individualized terms) within Taiwanese society. The film also indicates that despite the progression of female sexuality in Taiwan that May Lin embodies, she is still objectified as a sexual object when in public. This is indicated by the way in which the camera frames May Lin as she hangs up flyers for the real estate properties she is trying to sell. The camera frames her legs and behind as she climbs on top of things to place the flyers on trees or light posts and in a later scene she is seen using the restroom with her pants down. This choice in framing her in such a way indicates that females are still under scrutiny and on the end of objectification in the eyes of males in Taiwanese society.
Another important scene which (similar to the photographer’s scene in The Personals) questions societal gender roles occurs towards the end of the film in which another unofficial inhabitant of the apartment, Hsiao-kang, brings a dress and high heels to the apartment and puts them on. This scene questions the importance of visual gender identifiers within the larger picture of society. Hsiao-kang is perhaps only experimenting with his visual image (seeing as he is clearly tired of his stagnant self so much that he attempts suicide in an earlier scene) that he has long since grown tired of. His daily routine of selling chambers for memorial urns is a clockwork process that reflects the typical 9 to 5 jobs many in Taiwanese society endure on a daily basis. There is no diversity to his life and nothing that piques his interest, so he figures that experimenting with something vastly different from how he is “supposed” to look (as signified by his physical makeup/gender) will bring him a much-needed sense of diversity. Despite visually appearing different, the thought of violating social norms of gender-relegated fashion eventually creeps into Hsiao-kang’s mind as he is wearing the dress, prompting him to immediately revert to doing something he feels is “masculine” by doing countless push-ups on the floor in the dress. The film’s stance on an urban Taiwanese city as an inhibitor of individual emotions comes to a head in a scene towards the end of the film in which Hsiao-kang hides under a bed while May Lin and Ah-jung have sex. He masturbates as the bed above him jostles, indirectly joining in on a sexual act he knows he is not capable of initiating by himself. Hsiao-kang spent the entire first portion of the film forming a bond with Ah-jung, one that was structured on Ah-jung’s assertiveness over Hsiao-kang in an attempt to feel superior. Hsiao-kang simply envies the confidence, attractiveness, and seemingly free-spirited nature of Ah-jung, prompting him to kiss him as he sleeps in an act that does not indicate sexual attraction but rather desire to be what one cannot.
The actual apartment the three focal characters sporadically inhabit acts as an antithesis to typical Taiwanese society. The space is dark, empty, and clutter-free (in stark contrast to the streets below), yet the apartment functions as a void for personal demons to break free from the stifling emotional prison the city and society places its inhabitants within. The inhabitants of the apartment ultimately become indicative of the larger picture of urbanized Taiwan in the sense that they technically coexist yet fail to really “see” each other both literally and metaphorically in certain scenes (various characters evade detection by the others by climbing out of windows, hiding under beds, etc.), as is the case with citizens in the broader social context of a Taiwanese city. In contrast to the urban scene which exists outside the apartment walls, however, lies the fact that the personal exploration that occurs within the apartment is not under as much scrutiny as it would be if displayed in public. Hsiao-kang would most likely not have kissed Ah-jung in public and May Lin would most definitely not have paraded her sexuality around in the streets, indicating that the apartment functions as the only place the characters feel comfortable enough to truly express themselves; an empty void. When May Lin finally feels comfortable enough to showcase genuine emotion as a result of her existential ennui (catalyzed by the urban environment around her) on a park bench, no one comforts or consoles her even though a man sits literally directly in front of her and undoubtedly hears her whimpering. This idea that the modern Taiwanese city functions as an emotionless, uncaring entity is consistently represented throughout the film. The reality of a populated space in Taiwan is equated to the tiny compartments Hsiao-kang sells to people for placement of crematorial urns; countless inhabitants coexisting next to each other yet ultimately “dead” on the inside and incapable of true interpersonal connection.
Ang Lee’s 1994 film Eat Drink Man Woman is perhaps the most optimistic of the three films, presenting familial imprisonment within an urban and societal repression, yet breaks free from those notions to give hope for its characters in the larger context of Taiwanese society. The film utilizes the art of cooking to highlight its comments about tradition, gender, and society in modern Taiwan. Chu is a master chef who utilizes his talents to prepare elaborate and intricately-detailed meals for his family that consists of three daughters. The idea that Chu delicately crafts this massive Sunday dinner for this family indicates that tradition is still alive within the urbanized, fast-moving Taiwanese city although it exists at a painstakingly difficult manner (as preparing food such as this is not easy). This tradition of preparing food is seemingly deep-seated in the cultural history of Taiwan and is consistently viewed as a means for Chu to bring his family together in a central place despite their fast-moving, chaotic lives that include careers, love, and other personal distractions that seek to deter them (particularly his middle daughter, Jia-Chen) from their traditional familial foundation. The food Chu prepares and the time the family spends together to eat the food codifies the traditional preparation as natural and connective, catalyzing the family’s revelations of personal secrets (in the form of “announcements”) that come to light only at the dinner table.
The idea that Chu is consistently at home preparing food also challenges traditional gender roles in the household, seeing as cooking is generally viewed as “women’s work”. Interestingly enough, Chu prohibited Jia-Chen from pursuing a culinary career because he wanted her to do something more “useful” with her life, so he made her go to college. Even though Jia-Chen is a talented chef, the idea that Chu forces her to go to school indicates the declining importance of traditional values as marketable in a commercially-dominated world of a Taiwanese city. The older generation harnesses tradition yet is hesitant to pass it down to their children because it is not feasible to market oneself as a female chef in an expanding commercial market such as Taiwan. Jia-Chen’s resulting life is one of independence and success not many other women (at least within the context of the film) experience in their lives. Her life is not static like Jia-Jen’s, nor is it wild and impulsively-driven like Jia-Ning’s. Her life is the picture of typical urbanized success within a commercial fortress (the Taiwanese city). However, Jia-Chen’s inferiority as woman is still touched upon, particularly evident in the way in which her boss talks to her about a possible promotion, telling her that even though she is a woman he feels as if she will succeed in the position. His superiority is assumedly accepted by Jia-Chen seeing as she does not say anything in opposition to his comments, further solidifying the idea that women (while gaining a greater independence in Taiwanese society) are still seen as inferior in certain facets of city life.
The film, similar to both The Personals and Vive L’Amour, presents an urbanized Taiwan as a commercial epicenter overwhelmed by its populace. The Wendy’s restaurant Jia-Ning works for is shown in stark contrast to the traditionally-prepared food her father makes on a daily basis. The food has become a byproduct of American influence around the world, the furthest thing from traditional Taiwanese cuisine possible. The food quality has also become compromised as a result of commercialization, seeing as one man even complains that what he was given by Jia-Ning is not chicken when in fact it is. This idea of food becoming unrecognizable is a clear comment on the compromised standards of food that come with American commercialization.
The film also chooses to comment upon feminine sexuality by presenting each of Chu’s daughters as chronological representatives of the evolution of feminine sexuality within Taiwanese society. Jia-Ning (the youngest) represents an active sexuality of free-will and pursuit on the end of the female that goes hand in hand with modern, progressive views of feminine sexuality and independence. Jia-Jen (the eldest) represents a more traditional form of feminine sexuality seeing as she shuts herself off from sexual encounters and relationships and allows herself to be pursued instead of taking it upon herself to harness her sexuality and truly understand it (although this changes by the end of the film). Jia-Chen is sort of a meeting in the middle of the two; she knows what she wants and is willing to express that, yet she ultimately settles for a familial relationship and a more traditional role near the end of the film.
The culmination of the film’s condemnation of living by typical societal standards is comes in the form of a scene in which Chu (surrounded by his family at the dinner table) expresses his love for Jin-Rong, a woman who is countless years younger than he. The family immediately protests, with Jin-Rong’s mother fainting and assuming that the union is only one of pure lust and exploitation on the end of Chu. Despite the characters’ initial opposition to the union, at least within the context of the film the pairing is seen as traditional heterosexual love and the “key” to happiness for both Chu and Jin-Rong. Chu is now able to “taste” again as he eats Jia-Chen’s soup, indicating that the relationship with Jin-Rong is a natural reconnection to the happiness he once had with his wife and children, indicating that it is possible to place oneself above the pitfalls of urban life and reconnect with tradition, family, and self.
Despite differences concerning the social outlook for their characters, the films The Personals, Vive L’Amour, and Eat Drink Man Woman all showcase various corrosive aspects of urbanized Taiwanese society. From the bleak emotional prison framed in Vive L’Amour to the debilitating and fruitless search for interpersonal connection and closure amidst a commercialized urban backdrop in The Personals, these films represent urban Taiwan as an inhibitor of basic human functions in the name of adhering to societal norms. Only the film Eat Drink Man Woman provides its audience with an optimistic outlook concerning the increasingly distant social mentality of Taiwanese urban dwellers through connection to familial customs and traditions that, as evidenced by The Personals and Vive L’Amour, are becoming overshadowed and forgotten in the midst of commercialization and urbanization in Taiwan.