Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Untold Herstory: The brutal film that you must see

Imagine a Taiwanese crowdfunded film about female prisoners on Green Island making it into Vieshow Cinemas. So central was crowdfunding that donor were thanked at the end (though some had simple nicknames and others cheeky handles like "1450"). 

Although it was reviewed by the Taipei Times, I hadn't heard of Untold Herstory until a very close friend with a connection to the film sent seven free-ticket vouchers.

Imagine, then, that this friend had offered similar vouchers to other people she knew and was rebuffed. "Let the past be the past," they said. Of course, this attitude only protects the villains of history: the same people who call Untold Herstory "the past" which we should "move beyond" probably lose their minds when removing Chiang Kai-shek's statue from Dead Dictator Memorial Hall is discussed. They so often only want to let some history stay in the past. 

The group I went with included people whose families either were touched by the White Terror, or came close to it. They of course have a rather different take on whether The events of Untold Herstory can be considered history at all, seeing as it hasn't even been a century and the party that committed all those atrocities still exists and runs in elections. Chiang Ching-kuo makes an appearance in the film, though they don't show his face presumably because they couldn't find any actor ugly enough to play him. 

His so-called grandson who is Maury Poviching the hell out of that purported family connection might be the mayor of Taipei in a few weeks. 

Is that really ancient history, or is it relevant right now?


That's the background. On to the movie. 

The Taipei Times covers the way Untold Herstory pays meticulous detail to language use: people speak in various dialects of Mandarin (you can tell which characters don't speak it natively), Taiwanese, Atayal and Japanese. The guards all spoke Cantonese. As such, the film has both Mandarin and English subtitles, which also make it more accessible to an international audience. If your Mandarin subtitle-reading isn't so hot, catch this movie now: it's one of the rare films of this genre to offer English.

I'm not sure that the prisoners of Green Island would have been allowed to speak that much Taiwanese and Japanese without more severe punishment, but then they also said at the beginning that the inmates were all now numbers, not names. Then they continued to use names, because clearly some rules matter more than others, even back in authoritarian Taiwan.

The plotting and general mood is very Taiwanese. I appreciated the nonlinear scenes which set a certain mood of tension, depression, tragedy and chaos. The opening scenes are slightly disorienting, which does a good job portraying what it likely felt to have your world torn asunder as you land on Green Island for a stint in prison.

The overall effect is one of an agglomeration of memories that come together to tell a whole story, but are experienced somewhat out of order, they way you might encounter it in nightmares and PTSD flashbacks. 

Other details lend authenticity: the fact that some of the inmates were indeed refugees from China themselves -- not everyone was from Taiwan, and not everyone was a leftist or home-rule advocate. The authorities running the prison slept with whatever female inmates took their fancy. That the guards were usually but not always cruel. Most people executed were chosen for political reasons, none got a fair trial, and many were hand-picked by Chiang Kai-shek to die.

Upside-down shots from the viewpoint of characters strung up by their legs also imply how justice was absolutely turned on its head: some (though not all) of the characters are actually guilty of the "crimes" they've been sent to Green Island for. The problem is, in any free country they would not be crimes at all. These "crimes" include being a member of a socialist organization, passing newspaper clippings to one another, and merely thinking Taiwan might be better off as an independent state. That they were crimes as defined by a monstrous government only means that justice had been turned asunder. Those that recognized this and suffered mental breakdowns over it were called "crazy". But of course, they were right.

Untold Herstory isn't exactly subtle on the imagery, but I didn't mind that. Every time some KMT officer was unusually cruel or hypocritical, an ROC flag, a picture of Sun Yat-sen or Chiang Kai-shek was prominently displayed in the frame. The music drove home the point. Sone lines -- "I'm not a Communist bandit, I'm just a Taiwanese ox!", "You are a spy if the Commander says you are a spy!" and the double-edged "how can a flag be just a rag?" were heartbreaking. 

And speaking of smiling in the photograph taken of you just before your execution as a form of rebellion? Well, that just broke me. It broke me. This did, too.

The scene at the end is all the more heartbreaking for being out of context and highly metaphorical: I won't spoil it, but someone in our group recognized scenes like these as a trope borrowed from Japanese films.

It was difficult to make Untold Herstory, and friends pointed out that it probably wouldn't have been made at all even 20 years ago. This was not just because society was perhaps not ready for it, but because the real women who lived these experiences did not want to talk about them, with reasonable justification. It's never easy to talk about that kind of pain.

This is why films like Untold Herstory and the book it's based on do need to be discussed in the present. They exist in living memory. They still affect society. And, after all, only those who want to protect the truly guilty -- the people who committed the White Terror which saw these women and so many others tortured and killed -- seem to think it should be "left in the past". 

They are wrong, so prove them wrong. Go see Untold Herstory. Learn about exactly what the KMT did in Taiwan, and why justice was never served, as those criminals were never truly punished for what they did to the people they imprisoned, both Taiwanese and Chinese. That those perpetrators of crimes against humanity -- and now their sons and grandsons, or "grandsons" -- are even still a political party disgusts me. The DPP needs meaningful opposition, but it shouldn't be a gaggle of mass murderers and their descendents.

Then get a drink afterward, because I promise you will not want to go directly home and stew in your thoughts. 

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