Lai Shen-chon

A Glow of Art That Transcends the Floating World

Huang Yu-Shan's Film “The Strait Story” or “Chronicle of the
Southern Light of The Floating World [Ukiyo]” (Nánfang jìshì zhi Fúshì guangying)*

[Zìyóu shíbào / Freedom Times] Editor’s note: Many a soul of rare beauty has been lost in time or has been forgotten. Directed by Huang Yushan, the film tells the story of the Taiwanese artist Huang Qing-chéng [Huang Ching-cheng] and of Li Guixiang, expounded in the article of the scholar Lai Shen-chon, but it also depicts the life of artists at the time and their situation in a foreign land.

The film’s language that is artfully employed displays great similarities with the stream of consciousness technique of contemporary literature and with reliance on such artistic devices as ‘point of view’. A deep relationship links existence, time and the world, as Martin Heidegger explained in his Sein und Zeit [Being and Time].

The freedom pertaining to time, this singular ability of those who truly master the artistic devices of cinema as an art, can effect on the screen the interruption of the time that an event takes, it can shorten and extended it, it can give us different moments of time in alternation, interspersed with each other, it can rewind time or reverse it. Film is more flexible in this regard and it can therefore  feature the use of stream of consciousness, as in contemporary literature, and it knows the skills related to ‘point of view’. All of this is due to the magic of artistic power, and it lends meaning to human existence.

Moreover,  the film is based on found objects, it finds images for the perception of these objects, witnessed road deposits that directly touch; and literature that expresses everything through words is, after all, one step removed. This movie is for you to directly see, and literature means only to feel that you are thinking, so the poetic power of the film is more direct, it reveals the more magical power of art.

Cultural Reflections: from realism to poetry  

Huang Yushan directs the The Strait Story – or Chronicle of Southern Light of The Floating World”  on the one hand with the force of realism, for Taiwan's cultural history is fully reflected. On the other hand, this is also melted in a poetic atmosphere. And thus, in the bitter history of Taiwan, a very poetic in mood is present. But this is not cheap poetic, sentimental self-pity. Instead, through  the suffering, its muddy lands, we arrive at the sublime and poetic!

The whole film shows Li Guixiang and Huang Qing-chéng [Huang Ching-cheng] in Japan and Taiwan, engaging in the pursuit of their artistic ideals. And it presents a love story of great beauty, employing the first-person perspective for the presentation of their experiences,  with strong feelings of self-expression, and yet implicitly poetic in its atmosphere and mood.

On the other hand, we learn more from Xiu Xiu’s experience with restauring  paintings and from her experience in field research,  for it is her careful painting work that lets Huang Qing-chéng's face of [a] beauty resurface: an experience that is rendered possible thanks to the third-person view, which lets people be moved by the art of  Huang Qing-chéng, and this in the real world of authenticity.

In this way, the director relies on cross-use of a third-person and first-person point of view, so that the art world, Huang Qing-chéng’s and our’s, becomes ambiguous, and what we experience is full of mysteries of life and art.

At the same time, the implications of the “Chronicle of the Southern Light of The Floating World” are rich and deep. At the end, the Takachiho Maru is torpedoed by a U.S. submarine. Huang Qing-chéng and Li Guixang who are both aboard the Japanese ship  jump into the sea. When I see this I cannot help feeling aghast, struck by horror. Is this the so-called  “light of the floating world” – and the relentless waves, are they? Did the competitive conflict between the United States and Japan in Taiwan's waters swallow the illusion of light and shade it?

Today, our society is awash with American and Japanese pop culture. Where is Taiwan's own cultural identity; the cultural foundation in Taiwan -  where is it?
The Film The Strait Story / Or: Chronicle of the Southern Light of the Floating World, gives its answer: Xiu Xiu will dedicate herself with perseverance to her chosen task – to find traces of this Huang Qing-chéng and thus, of a part of Taiwan’s art history that has been lost. As the film ends, we follow Xiu Xiu and return with her to the fireflies. Back to the resumption of the pure Southern Taiwan plains, to Heianzhiguang, farmers’ land: Heianzhiguang, let her go there: there one can  enjoy Huang Qing-chéng,  the mysterious painting, “Black Woman”, the original, the source, in such a plain, Heianzhiguang in Southern Taiwan.  Xiu Xiu seems to see them in the near future, she will be committed to Taiwan's land, where Huang lies buried, a land of dreams forever.

The so-called “world of floating shadows” is therefore not the illusion of light waves biting the people. Instead it exists in the dust of the land and as the positive force of light. Through such a comprehension, fate has received another name: Dedication has a metaphysical brilliance which transcends the floating world!

Poetic realism of photography, linked  with that which is ‘within’ us

In G. Betton's Film Aesthetics  we read: “You can say that all  films are realistic, or in  Delacroix's words: : "All works of art are the expression of an ideal, but for a realistic artist, this ideal is almost the same as the moment of contact with the birth of the real."”  In the Chronicle of the Southern Light of the Floating World,  Huang Yushan  makes use of a considerable number of  devices: stream of consciousness, dreams, newspaper clippings, and the figure of Xiu Xiu.  Shooting with the camera, I think the director creates real emotion, an expression of the relationship between man and land, a poetic realism and inner realism.

If we talk about the aesthetic nature of the film, we talk about the relationship between film and literature.  Walter Benjamin, in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction  [Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit] talked about film aesthetics.  I, the aesthetic model (work production, aesthetic perception, the work flow) of the Revolution, II, montage, collage, juxtaposition, etc. Emphasis on the relationship with the film, III, Benjamin’s criticism and awareness of reality and film realism.

Huang Yushan is a film director who is rooted in Taiwan’s society and history from the start, and she has been shooting a lot of documentaries, including those on  such Taiwanese artists as  Zhu Míng [Ju Ming], Cài Ruìyuè [Tsai Jui-Yueh], Huang Qing-chéng and others. But she is also Taiwan's major feminist director. Her attention as a filmmaker is focused particularly on Taiwanese art history and on the cognitive as well as creative consciousness of women.

The Chronicle of the Southern Light of the Floating World is one example. It uses  montage, collage, and juxtaposition, to subvert our usual understanding, and it awakens our memory of a lost history. The homeland of this film is found in the magnolia field of women; women are present in the mysterious paintings and in the life of the male protagonist,  but they are vivid, powerful women, and Li Guixiang, Xiu Xiu are fully conscious women, they stick to their values.

The protagonist  of The Chronicle of Southern Light of the Floating World,Huang Qing-chéng, as well as Chen Dewang [Chen De-wang] , Hóng Ruìlín [Hong Rui-lin], Zhang Wan-chuan [Chang Wan-chuan] and other Taiwanese artist had founded  the Action Art Group (MOUVE Art Association) in 1938. The MOUVE artists engaged in advanced studies in Tokyo. Then, the young artists came back to Taiwan.  They formed artists’ groups and they were passionate and young, and engaged in artistic research. With their clear and innovative spirit, their pre-war paintings tended to be anti-establishment. We wonder whether Taiwan's art history and the theme of the artist will also take an important position in the future film projects of the filmmaker Huang Yushan.

Presumably her work will focus on Taiwan’s culture and the film audience would like to know the answer to the problem. Hong Ruilin’s famous painting of miners, for example,  is full of uniquely local sentiments and humane concerns. Like Huang Ching-cheng, he belonged to the  MOUVE Art Association.  And with the ups and downs of his unconventional life, this subject matter in itself is very attractive. There is also Chen De-Wang with his unique style and  artistic achievements, and the paintings he left us reveal the aesthetics of a generation which formed an artistic elite.

First published in: Zìyóu shíbào (Freedom  Times) supplement, Nov. 9, 2005
Translated by Andreas Weiland.

The author of this film review, Prof. LAI Shen-chon, is Chairman of the Dept. of Chinese Literature at the National Taipei University. He specializes on Heidegger, Buddhism and the philosophy of art. He obtained his Ph.D. from Munich University, Germany.

Lai Shen-chon, Bibliography (A short selection)

Translator’s note: The alternative title of  The Strait Story has also been rendered as “Chronicle of the Southern Light of Ukiyo”.  The Japanese word  ukiyo,  in Chinese fú  shì,  means  floating world.  The term can remind us of  Edo, later on renamed Tokyo, and its art known as  ukiyo-e  or  pictures of the floating world.

This art originated in the late 17th century, as a result of the formation of a proto-bourgeoisie or incipient middle class.  Flourishing especially in the 18th and 19th century, before it declined in the 20th century, this art is best represented by the marvellous woodcuts of such artists as Hokusai. It featured landscapes or related to historical tales, folk tales and mythical figures. But it was also fascinated by the world of the theater and the ‘pleasure quarters.’ 

Originally, the term “fú shì” respectively “ukiyo” reflects a philosophical concept of Buddhism which implies the fleeting character and “mere appearance” of our existence and of the world we inhabit. 

Thanks to a later semantic shift, this skeptical (or ‘negative’) meaning of “ukiyo” or “floating world” is pushed into the background and superseded, in a new social context, by an affirmative meaning: a gradual process that culminated in the early 20th century when a decadent and nihilistic attitude became prevalent among sections of the educated middle class, both in the West and in Japan. 

It is now that “ukiyo” refers to the life and world of the boheme,  the urban cosmos inhabited by beautiful women, by dancers, theater actors, playwrights, poets, and painters in a big city like Tokyo…

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