Our Youth in Taiwan
Chen Wei-ting, Cai Boyi
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…emotional… its complexity in reckoning with failure and recognisably human disappointments… sets Our Youth in Taiwan apart.
After a decade of Beijing exerting its seemingly inexorable gravitational pull, China’s peripheries – Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet – are renewing their pushback against the centre. Nowhere is this unequal struggle more acute than in Taiwan, the self-ruling, democratic island still officially called the Republic of China, neither under the actual control of the People’s Republic nor recognised as an independent state. Our Youth in Taiwan, a documentary on 2014’s Sunflower Movement – a student-led push that successfully overturned a trade pact with mainland China – gains an extra frisson of resonance in light of the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.
This documentary’s director, Fu Yue, wears her political convictions on her sleeve: Our Youth in Taiwan builds on a short film she contributed to the anthology Sunflower Occupation, released in the year of the demonstrations. And at November’s Golden Horse Awards, the Oscars of Chinese-language cinema, she sparked her own controversy when she called for Taiwanese independence.
This is a documentary crafted unmistakably from within its movement. Fu provides little background on the Sunflower Movement for international viewers, and never steps outside of the protest crowd for an alternative opinion. It’s the sort of embedded filmmaking that observes events as they develop and offers real-time commentary. Eventually, Fu directs her focus on two individuals, a young Taiwanese activist (Chen Wei-ting) and a mainland Chinese student and writer (Cai Boyi), subjects she follows for the rest of the film.
Our Youth in Taiwan is shaggy, exhaustive and arguably overlong, but it’s also as immediate and of-the-moment as you could hope for in a snapshot of China’s turbulent relations with the polities and peoples of its outlying regions in 2019. Fu adopts a lo-fi approach; the camerawork is grainy, footage is recycled and there is no soundtrack. She muses about ‘mutual understanding’ (between Taiwan and mainland China), and the eternal friction between ideals and politics is a theme in the film, yet its substance is more about how a protest movement lives and breathes, what drives its participants on a personal level.
Fu is also, despite her obvious political leanings, a sympathetic filmmaker, able to elicit openness from Chen and Cai and capture them in all their human complexity. The film, in following their abortive attempts at political careers, sidesteps the common inclination in documentaries to heroize its subjects: Chen is brought down by personal shortcomings, while Cai discovers that Taiwan’s democratic politics are as cruel and unsparing as everywhere else.
This collage of events leads to an uncertain resolution in which Fu grapples onscreen with her own expectations and emotions as a filmmaker. It’s unexpected, a violation of documentary convention that the director should remain at a distance, but in fusing the structural and the personal to seek closure outside the traditional form of a documentary, it’s a minor revelation. It’s that emotional core, and its complexity in reckoning with failure and recognisably human disappointments, that sets Our Youth in Taiwan apart.