Chen Chieh-Jen: Reverberations at the Tate Modern – a thoughtful, provocative couple of nights
Chen Chieh-Jen: Reverberations saw Taiwan Film Festival return once more to the Tate Modern after their wonderful Tsai Ming Liang retrospective last year. Screening four of the director’s works over two days, as well as squeezing in a filmmaking masterclass, Reverberations presented the chance for a UK audience to engage with an exciting, exceedingly political artist who lacks a strong Western presence.
On the first evening, we were shown two silent works – Factory (2003) and The Route (2006). Both pieces were excellently curated given their similar themes, although the moderator’s attempt to analogise the latter film to the current NSS pension strike was misguided and eyebrow-raisingly inaccurate. Factory’s 31-minute length in complete silence, in addition to its rather one-note examination of a factory closure due to rising costs, does make it a rather punishing watch, and one suspects it would play better as a gallery installation that could be dipped in and out of. That said, Chen Chieh-jen’s grasp of aesthetics and framing is consistently wonderful, and the length really gives the observer time to reflect in a manner Paul Schrader would likely call transcendental.
The much shorter The Route was a more successful piece of work – a fantastic combination of activism and art that saw a reimagining of the 1995 Liverpool dockworkers strikes transported to Taipei in a global display of solidarity. In a combination of striking black and white and luscious colour, The Route is a thoughtful, poetic and beautiful film that exists in a unique space between protest and art perhaps underexplored.
Disappointingly these works – shot in 16mm and 35mm respectively – were screened to us in digital at what seemed to be pretty low resolution (especially the former). In addition, the discussion moderator seemed ill-prepared to deal for the event, and struggled to keep the conversation under control – allowing Chen Chieh-Jen to ramble on for more than 25 minutes in response to one question, although most of his statements, separated by breaks for translation, felt like non-sequiturs.
Saturday night’s screening of Realm of Reverberations (2014)and Wind Songs (2015)fared much better. The former film, originally a four-channel video installation, has here been split up and reassembled as an hour-long experimental documentary that’s almost architectural in its construction. Forcing anything that moves at speed into slow motion so that the work proceeds at a hypnotic, glacial piece that feels like it’s almost outside of time itself, Chen Chieh-Jen charts the last remaining residents of a crumbling mountainside leper colony as it’s demolished to make way for a transport depot. The film intertwines personal stories, sometimes harrowing, with fantasy and politics to build a powerful, provocative, and completely dreamlike experience combined with a stark dosage of brutalist, angular cinematography.
Wind Songs reimagines Realm of Reverberations in the context of a screening at the colony itself, attended by those who are in the film as well as local residents. In this way, it somewhat strangely invites comparisons to Tsai Ming Liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn which we saw in this very cinema last year. The film, thoughtful and peaceful, combines shots of lush tropical vegetation with stark, geometric images from the earlier film and the faces of those watching it. Again, there was some confusion in the room when the moderator returned to the stage to discuss a film she proclaimed as incredibly emotional, when a lot of the discussion related to just how non-emotional the film was.
It was at least somewhat controversial that last year’s Tsai Ming Liang retrospective was held at the Tate, given that the director’s work straddles the cinema and the gallery in equal measure. Whilst it was certainly good to have a chance to engage with the films of Chen Chieh-Jen, it didn’t feel quite as momentous or stimulating as last year’s offering – all four films screened in the series are most certainly ‘video art’ as opposed to arthouse cinema. There were certainly ups and downs to this series, with poor-quality video and a somewhat-bafflingly amateurish moderator threatening to derail the event at several points, but overall it was fantastic to get the opportunity to engage with the work of a unique, highly political artist. In particular, the recontextualised hour-long version of Realm of Reverberations was a real sensory treat, with Wind Songs providing the perfect epilogue to a thoughtful, provocative couple of nights. Taiwan Film Festival continues to be an exciting force on the festival scene here in the UK, with its rich focus on experimental and art films setting it apart from a lot of other events – bring on September!
Taiwan Film Festival London runs in September