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Taiwan in Time: The First Taiwanese Feature Film

Premiered on September 11, 1925 at the Eirakuza Theater in Taipei, ‘Whose Fault?’ was produced entirely by the Taiwan Film Research Association, founded in April

  • By Han Cheung / Staff Reporter

September 5 to September 11

Liu Hsi-yang (劉喜陽) was fired from his job at Niitaka Bank for starring in the first feature film set in Taiwan, Eye of the Buddha. Back then, it was considered inappropriate for him to work as an entertainer, which was considered a lower-class profession.

However, Liu caught the movie bug. A year after the film’s release in April 1924, he co-founded the Taiwan Film Research Association (臺灣映畫研究會) to further his interests and update his screenplay titled Whose Fault? (誰之過).

Photo courtesy of Lafayette Digital Repository

Liu’s dream came true on September 11, 1925, when the association published a small advertisement in the Taiwan Daily News (台灣日日新報) announcing, “The first purely Taiwanese film is born!”

Whose fault is it? it ran for three days at the spacious Eirakuza Theater (永樂座) in the Dadaocheng area of ​​Taipei.

Shot in Beitou, Yuanshan and New Park (now 228 Memorial Park), it tells the story of spoiled good-for-nothing playboy Lee Shih-chih (李勢至), who tries all kinds of underhanded tactics to marry Lin Pei. lan (林珮蘭), a modern lady who advocates for women’s issues. But Pei-lan has a crush on coal mining technician Liu Ke-shan (劉克善), who later saves the day when Lee’s plans go awry.

Photo courtesy of the National Central Library

It was a box office flop and the partnership was dissolved soon after. The only trace of the film’s existence is the advertisement and a short article introducing the film. Fortunately for historians, the article provides a full plot synopsis containing major spoilers, including the ending.

Local enthusiasts continued to try their hand at cinema over the years, but according to the late historian Chuang Yung-ming (莊永明), the first commercially successful venture would not come until 1938 with Longing for the Spring Breeze (望春風), which also premiered at Eirakuza.

FIRST FEATURES

Photo courtesy of the Taiwan Film Institute

Chuang writes that the colonial government began developing a local film industry around 1921 to promote Japanese values ​​and culture.

Prior to this, the Japanese had produced several documentaries about Taiwan to introduce the colony to the motherland and foreigners, most notably a 1907 series that covered the entire island.

Eye of the Buddha was the first attempt at a feature film, which began filming in 1922. Directed by Kaneyuki Tanaka, the story was set in Dadaocheng and, although the lead actors were Japanese, featured a significant Taiwanese supporting cast.

Again, the synopsis of the movie in the local paper gave away the entire plot, which would be a big no-no nowadays. The article on the Eye of the Buddha was so detailed that it was divided into two parts and published on consecutive days. In short, a rich and powerful official tries to force a beautiful young woman to marry, the genius sculptor comes to her rescue, and the official finally repents in front of a huge Buddha statue and commits suicide. It’s not hard to see where Liu drew inspiration for Whose Fault Is It?

The next movie set in Taiwan, The Skies Are Cruel (老天無情), premiered at the four-story, 1,500-seat Eirakuza theater, which opened in February 1924 on present-day Dihua Street to much fanfare. The best known of its co-owners was the tea tycoon Chen Tian-lai (陳天來).

Taiwanese intellectuals living under Japanese rule often regarded China as their homeland, and the theater invited a Peking Opera company from Shanghai to perform on its opening day.

The space mainly showed traditional Taiwanese and Chinese performances and plays, and only screened an occasional movie. He also had a western-style house band.

Eirakuza was also a popular place for Taiwanese political activists to make speeches and hold rallies, and the funeral of democracy pioneer Chiang Wei-shui (蔣謂水) was held here.

Hitting the big screen in September 1924, The Heavens are Cruel was financed by the Taiwan Daily News. It was a mostly Japanese production with only one Taiwanese actor, but one of the producers was Lee Shu (李書), who would serve as director of photography on Whose Fault Is it?

BOX OFFICE FLIP

The Taiwan Film Research Association had about 30 founding members, including some Japanese and two women, and tea tycoon Lee Chun-sheng’s (李春生) grandson Lee Yan-shu (李延旭) was elected president in the first meeting. Ironically, Lee Yan-shu’s older brother, Lee Yan-shi (李延禧), was the director of Niitaka Bank who had fired Liu for acting.

The group met regularly at Lee Yan-shu’s office, focusing on bringing Liu’s script for Whose Fault Is It? They studied films imported from China, and Lee Shu even traveled to Shanghai to hone his film developing skills. Liu and several members took the director’s seat.

“The men and women of the Taiwan Film Research Association have been enthusiastically investigating [the art of filmmaking] …and our actors’ expressions have become quite natural,” the Taiwan Daily News article states. “We are pleased with the results of our on-location shoot and the lighting on the film is brilliant.”

He particularly mentions lead actress Lien Yun-hsien (連雲仙): “She’s agile and graceful, and she has a wide variety of facial expressions. Every one of her moves is convincingly real, and her skills are comparable to actresses in China. In fact, she may be even better.”

It is unclear what happened to Liu after the disappointing reception of Whose Fault Is it?, and there would only be three more films produced in Taiwan during the rest of the Japanese era, according to a document from the National Library of Taiwan. This was also Lien’s only film credit.

Eirakuza continued to function as a multi-purpose performance space after World War II, particularly for the Peking Opera.

In 1954, it began showing movies regularly, first showing the Hollywood blockbuster King Richard and the Crusaders, which was also a critical disappointment.

However, the old theater could no longer keep up with the state-of-the-art movie theaters that sprung up in Taipei over the years, and closed its doors in May 1960.

Taiwan in Time, a Taiwan history column published every Sunday, highlights important or interesting events across the country that have anniversaries this week or are related to current events.

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