A fascinating, contemplative documentary on 1930s Taiwanese modernist poets.
If you thought that it might be a tad painful to watch a nearly three-hour documentary on an obscure Taiwanese pre-war, avant-garde group of poets determined to bring a modernist agenda to the cultural table – think again.
The Moulin concentrates its eye on seven literary men who heroically formed a poets’ collective, ‘Le Moulin Poetry Society’, in 1933 in order to introduce the spirit of surrealism, and especially the ideas of André Breton and Jean Cocteau, to a Taiwan that had already been occupied by the Japanese for 40 years. Protest at this colonial occupation was a linked purpose of the group. Their chosen vehicle – in common with many proselytising artistic avant-garde movements of the modernist period – was the production of an advocacy journal, which in reference to its French intellectual affiliations and to its surrealist intentions, they named The Moulin. The intentions of ‘Le Moulin Poetry Society’ were clear: to lob a bomb into the body of historical Taiwanese (and by extension Japanese) artistic forms and to attempt to re-configure the poetic and artistic agenda. The seven were to be bitterly disappointed, however, as their journal and their aspirations met with incomprehension and failure, and The Moulin only survived for four issues.
Their hitherto forgotten story is revived in this fascinating slice of cultural history, which mixes old film clips, radio programmes and re-enacted scenes with spoken lines of poetry, on-screen imaging of the original texts and the incorporation of traditional songs, to paint an imaginative portrait of the group and provide a fulsome context for its understanding. The film interestingly notes a visit in May 1936 by Jean Cocteau, who enthusiastically showed his admiration for the Eastern culture that provided direct inspiration for the group.
The recounting of their story covers a turbulent time span in Taiwanese history, from the Japanese occupation, through the war years and to the 1950s annexation by China, all of which reflect the cultural struggle that the country endured. Utilising the dictum that ‘things are good to think with’, director Huang has chosen to reveal key aspects of the story not through facial close-ups but through his preference instead of close-focusing upon human interactions with objects of significance: the lighting of cigarettes, reading of texts, leafing through pages, gazing at photographs. This creates a poem-like reverie that takes its time to unfold and demands a contemplative response from the viewer to project meaning upon these ‘small’ gestures.
Huang Ya-li’s moving and expressive film essay is a revealing and memorable account of this forgotten slice of modernist history – a history that all too often relies on Eurocentric narratives and ignores the larger international moments that occurred elsewhere. This is a very welcome antidote to that centrist tendency.
James B. Evans