Friday, March 19, 2004

Thoughts on the Presidential Election in Taiwan

The atmosphere in the United States has been so sharply polarized that I've stopped talking politics with the few Republicans I know in LA for fear of popping that protruding vein that throbs near my temple. It's almost impossible to even assume good faith anymore. Until the present administration took power, I've never thought of any of our country's leaders as unredeemable scumbags. But here are these guys campaigning and governing under a cloud of lies, wrecking fiscal havoc on the country and fermenting hatred of our country throughout the world. And to top it off, they get their rocks off demonizing secularists, urban dwellers, and educated types everywhere.

Yet the US is freaking Lothlorien compared to Taiwan. My mother, for example, refuses to get into a taxi that has a green flag (representing the DPP -- the ruling party). Political rants abuzz. Only place you might escape wingnut diatribes is a smoke filled pool hall, or maybe a movie theater. And here in the United States, my relatives, like other immigrants ultimately more concerned with politics of their native country than their adopted one, are more nutty and obsessive about Taiwanese politics than I am about American politics.

The Taiwanese presidential election is on March 20. Like Israel and maybe a few other small, endangered, and highly polarized countries, the election will offer two genuinely opposed visions. The incumbent, President Chen Shui-bian of the DPP, wants to take dramatic steps to Taiwanese independence. His support comes largely from native Taiwanese in rural areas. His opponent, Lien Chan of the KMT, supported by mainlander population and the economic elite, wants to take a more moderate, reconciliatory approach with China. With 500 short-ranged missles aimed at Taiwan and $400 billion dollars worth of Taiwanese private investment in China, the stakes are awfully high. Life and death -- and Taiwan's economic well-being -- hangs in the balance.

Framed in that way, voting for Lien seems to be a no brainer. And riding a wave of voter discontent with the economy and Chinese relations, Lien seemed poised for a strong win against Chen. That was before Chen got shot last night. Now, with hours before the election, it's anyone's call. If the election in Spain is any guide, never underestimate last minute violence to alter election outcomes.

However, the election is as much about national and economic security as it is about identity and the island's troubled history. President Chen is a folk hero to the native Taiwanese population who were historically oppressed by the ruling Nationalist (KMT) party. Led by incompetent "Generalissimo" Chiang Kai-shek, the KMT party installed an alternative "Chinese" government in Taiwan after their defeat by the Communists in 1949, with the official goal of "re-taking China" from the Commies. Beyond such fantasies, the KMT were a brutal, corrupt authoritarian regime that snuffed out political opponents and attempted to wipe out the native Taiwanese dialect. The native Taiwanese, composing of 90% of the population, were disenfranchised as a result.

But Chiang's regime, propped up by the US (as part of their anti-Red China containment policy) also ushered in their tremendously successful export-oriented industrial strategy. By the 1980s, Taiwan was one of the "Four Dragons" -- an East Asian powerhouse which held the second largest foreign reserve in the world. But when the country finally became democratic in the 1990s, the Taiwanese elected a leader who spoke about Taiwanese national identity rather than economics. The native Taiwanese dialect, not Mandarin, became widely used. The old mainlander CEOs and political leaders were ousted, replaced by native Taiwanese. And most provocatively, the Taiwanese began to seriously talk about themselves as a nationally if not ethnically distinct people from the Chinese.

Both of my grandfathers were mainlanders who fled to China after Chiang's defeat. They were also major figures in Taiwan. My paternal grandfather was a deputy commissioner of police under the KMT. My maternal grandfather started one of the major government contracting firms, and he was one of the Chairmans ousted by the DPP in their mainlander purge. So my family is stridently pro-KMT and anti-Taiwanese, which has always made me uncomfortable, given that they're on the wrong side of history. But Chen has proven to be a rank ideologue, putting nationalist identity above national and economic security. So I'm hoping for a Lien win. My mom's and my grandfather's lives may be at stake. Heck the world order may be at stake. (I have little doubt that China would fire missles at Taiwan if Chen were to declare independence; that would lead to either a major war or embargoes that will lead to a major world recession.)

Election update!: Bush v. Gore redux. Lien, the candidate of the internationalists and urbanites, lose by a razor-thin margin and refuses to concede, demanding a recount. Less than 30,000 votes separate the two candidates out of about 15 million cast. Lien's party is insinuating that Chen staged a late-hour shooting of himself to generate sympathy votes, a story that everyone in my family has bought into.

Notes on movies seen in Taiwan in December

Like a lot of what I write for this blog, my travel journals from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan from December 2003 were never completed. I figured I might as well tack on some quick notes on some of the films I caught in Taiwan while the iron's still kinda warm.

As luck would have it, the complete Ozu series came to Taiwan with much help from Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose movie house/noodle joint The Spot is probably my favorite place in Taipei. I was able to catch three films in the series. An Inn in Tokyo (1935) is my first Ozu silent. Ozu's style of quiet devastation hasn't been fully formed yet, so's this well-acted neo-realist melodrama never reached the level of the sublime, like the later Ozus. On a lark, I also caught Tokyo Twilight (1957), a late Ozu with almost no rep to speak of. Allegedly overly dark and melodramatic, I found the Sirkian story compelling from beginning to end. And of course Setsuko Hara is a goddess.

Lastly, there was Mikio Naruse's Floating Clouds (1955), which my slothful pal Sally made me miss when it played in LA. This time, playing as part of the Ozu (and associates) retrospective, it was sold out. As I rued my bad luck a kind usher snuck me into the theater so I got my chance to watch this near-masterpiece sitting on the floor. Phillip Lopate wrote the definitive Naruse piece, to which I don't have much to add except that his films feel like Japanese versions of Fassbinder melodramas as directed by Rohmer. Utterly unsentimental and materialist, this sad tale about a lilly-livered, selfish man indifferent to his headstrong but emotionally dependent mistress leaves the viewer no room for catharsis.

The other movie I saw was the godawful Purple Butterfly (Lou) C. In Toronto, some of my movie pals warned me of this Zhang Ziyi spy picture of utter vapidity. My response? Continue to proclaim it a masterpiece even as I did my best to avoid actually watching it. My obnoxious shtick was only half-serious, but hey, here's a lavishly mounted spy movie set in decadent 30s Shanghai. How can it go wrong? Nearly everything, as it turned out. (Sorry for doubting, buds.) Purple Butterfly is the flipside to another Chinese debacle, the wildly overrated Platform (2000). That interminable film consisted entirely of ugly Chinamen standing around while framed in carefully composed mastershots (full of rectangular frame-within-frames for that cineaste-approved "rigor"). Purple Butterfly consists entirely of tight close-ups of pretty Asians brooding impassively. It's more fun to look at, I suppose, but ultimately the formal rigor felt just as empty and impenetrable as Platform's. Lou's fatal error is to ask Zhang, a limited actress, to convey 15 different emotions with her face; she's able to do about three (determination, anxiety, sadness). So there's no emotional throughline to carry this otherwise trite double agent tale. Maybe the "exotic" setting and period carries some weight, but as someone who grew up watching anti-Japanese soap operas set in 20s/30s Shanghai, this was barely passable as TV dreck.

I should've known not to expect too much. This was, after all, made by the same guy who brought us "Vertigo as made by Wong Kar-wai". And if anything ever sounded awesome on paper, it was that one.