A film-screening event held by Bitai Thoan, exact date unknown. Courtesy Lin Chang-feng and Chen Chieh-jen Studio, Taipei. 

Chen Chieh-jen on Bitai Thoan

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The Taiwanese Cultural Association, in operation between the years 1921 and 1931, was established during the period when Taiwan was under Japanese colonial rule (1895–1945) by members of the resistance, educator Lu Ping-ting and intellectual Chiang Wei-shui. During that time, in 1925, the association launched Bitai Thoan (美台團), a traveling team of projectionists and silent-film narrators that organized screenings across the country. Taiwan didn’t have the resources to produce its own movies yet and so these screenings were of foreign short films. These short films were not the entertaining narratives or pithy documentaries that we have come to expect in the 21st century; instead, they were elementary, neutral pieces—a news segment on agricultural development in Denmark, for example. Though Bitai Thoan was a short-lived initiative (its operations ceased by 1927), it has been a tremendous source of inspiration for my creative practice.

During those colonial years, it was common for Japanese policemen or firemen to chaperone all movie showings at cinemas operated by local Taiwanese. Always seated in the very last row of the theater, these Japanese officers—who knew some basic Chinese or were accompanied by translators—would monitor the silent-film narrators (辯士 or benzi), ensuring that there were no anticolonial sentiments expressed or embedded in their explanation or narration. However, the narrators of Bitai Thoan would employ a host of slang, idioms or Taiwanese dialect in their delivery, using phrases and expressions that only the local audience would understand to deliberately impose anticolonial readings onto innocuous, apolitical plotlines. In response to such mis-interpretations, the audience would laugh, applaud, whistle and even cheer. Though the activities of Bitai Thoan lasted only two years, its legacy became an early prototype for effective strategies of cultural protest or art-based resistance.

The interactions between the silent-film narrators of Bitai Thoan and their audiences were mediated by film, yet, to me, their interactivity extended far beyond just moving image—it was practically a performance. Once the Japanese officers vacated their seats in the back of the theater, stepped away (or down) from their positions of surveillance and entered the crowds of moviegoers and film narrators in order to bring a halt to the ruckus, they—the colonizers—became “the monitored,” under the gaze of the colonized. And regardless of whether the Japanese policemen’s attempts to thwart the interactions were successful, they had assumed a double role: colonial oppressor as well as subject of scrutiny. The space in which the silent film was screened became the site of a power exchange between the oppressor and the oppressed, as well as a site where sound, dialogue, theater and other forms of cultural expression would collide.

Perhaps it is under this phenomenon that yaoyan movies (謠言電影) proliferated. Historically, the Chinese term yaoyan referred to prose or sayings critical of the government that circulated among society or the common people. Just as the colonizers made moving-image propaganda in order to “educate” and “enlighten” the colonized, the people had the power to deliberately misinterpret it. In the manner of the Bitai Thoan team, they simply threw in a dash of imagination, then allowed for the rumors to ferment, magnify and disseminate. In the end, the colonial film became a beacon for anticolonial resistance: a yaoyan movie.

Translated by Denise Chu.