The Mountain

10/12/2016

Taiwan / 2015 / Chinese, Japanese & Truku

Directed by Su Hong-en

Still from 'The Mountain'

His body wound tight from a lifetime of labor/hunting/farming – like a spool of wire with a tough membrane of skin seemingly melted on – the old man walks on his haunches plucking weeds in a vegetable patch. Behind him sits a vast jungle, a dense screen of leaves whose invisible paths he knows intimately. One can almost visualize the similarly deep and formidable immensity of time rising behind him, even as he looks down at the plants in the sodden earth. While it is the land he has always known, it has gone through several changes of identity over the years, which could explain the frequently distressed look we see on his face, not one of puzzlement or the confusion of senility, but a sort of harrowing sadness, like someone powerlessly watching his house burn to the ground in slow motion. Of course it could also be the chronic pain in his shoulder; director Su does not do much to psychoanalyze his grandfather, Teymu Teylung, but he follows. He focuses.

This is at once an engrossing de senectute and a non-narrative, encompassing family portrait. Although the old Truku man is portrayed as solitary much of the time, occasionally his memories emerge as though littering the ground around him. He appears both delicate and waterproof, diminutive but all strength. He walks through the jungle setting traps, repairs a brick henhouse, and sears the hairs off of a dead piglet with a blowtorch. The most dramatic parts of the animal sacrifices in the film happen at the bottom of the screen or offscreen entirely, and instead we are generally level with his face, his quiet equanimity. While the land has changed owners many times, he always has the jungle and the mountain of the title, both of which defy the political tumults that pummel the great island.

Teylung walks through a cemetery to visit relatives who died in their youth. Hardly anyone interred there, he observes, reached old age. It must resonate with Su that short lifespans being the norm was only a generation ago; the young men whose graves sit in a row would be cousins of his parents. Like elderly people do, he is there to reminisce, but also to ready himself, wistful for both life and death.

Still from 'The Mountain'He has community, scattered around: the odd family members living here and there help him out, but he, at least partly voluntarily it must be, lives the life of a hunter. He goes to the clinic but steroid injections can’t undo decades of toil. He goes to church and looks insensate to the congregation’s singing. He sits in the shack of a couple close in age to him, and they talk about the costs of young people getting married, the necessary animal sacrifices therein, and the difficulties with land deeds. The rain hits the tin roof so loudly that hardly anything besides it can be heard. These aboriginal people of Taiwan still have a few customs but the way of life has been altered many times. There is, for instance, no sign of any Truku orthodoxy; animist beliefs seem peppered over the Christianity, and the language is still alive.

Under the tarp of his lean-to in the jungle, head bowed and afloat in memories, rain and embers crackling before him, his place in the mountain is so far from the changes that he’s lived through. The film is periodically punctuated by newsreel clips from a succession of eras, all relating to the aborigines of Taiwan. We see how, in the 1930s, the Japanese administration provided them with schoolhouses and education. Then, in a later era, the Kuomintang are seen building them modern houses. The aborigines always appear happy, their lives uncomplicated.

Finally in more recent times the broadcasts start to show signs of complications. Police drag out ridiculous amounts of barbed wire to enclose the aboriginal protestors demanding rights, while the military surrounds their sit-in. Through the television accounts, it’s revealed that in 1994 their official name was changed from “Comrades in the Mountains” to “Aboriginal People”. At first it seems somewhat trivial, that there must be more profound and important changes made to the way aborigines are treated. But connecting the dots of the points in Taiwan’s history, one does recognize the integrity of a name, and how, for these original inhabitants of the island, variously moved around, rehoused, renamed and partially erased, finding an identity they can really hold onto is one of the foremost tools for reaching back and finding what they once were.

The political struggle of the aboriginal people of Taiwan becomes foregrounded as these framing narratives reach the 1990s. Like in Uruphong Raksasad’s film Agrarian Utopia (2009), big social upheaval seems like background noise to the rural farmer. It’s hard to know what the old man in The Mountain saw or heard when these things went on, or if his tough resignation causes them to deflect or wash over him. He seems to be treading the ground of his youth enclosed in a tunnel of memories – of his wife, of his brothers, of the Japanese people he knew who disappeared from the island.

Coming out from a succession of colonial rulers, and with a serious threat posed by mainland China, the search for identity among Taiwanese has been a primary issue for a long time now. Political parties have been formed around it, and people have been forced to spend their childhood attending rallies about it. Thus it overshadows what once were the identities of the groups the Taiwanese (originally immigrants from Southern China) themselves subsumed. The aborigines not only have to figure out what it means to be Taiwanese, but then what it means to be aboriginal in Taiwan, all from underneath an oppressive narrative, wherein they are always far from the center of the discourse.

Still from 'The Mountain'As if to illustrate this marginality visually, we see so many scenes of Teylung toiling at the edge of the jungle. The modern houses provided by the nationalist government, who were intent on diluting the aborigine’s lifestyles and customs with modernity, now sit disheveled or completely ruined. Just as the Truku people live in the detritus of different waves of occupation, they also have to sift through layers of introduced culture to reach a lost and atrophied autonomy.

In an essay called “‘Identity’ in Taiwanese Documentary Film”, Wang Mo-lin discusses this effort to situate oneself and one’s culture as a foremost concern. He writes about documentaries’ “modern usage by the new generation to write a social history in which they themselves are established as central actors.” He adds that this is “the process of re-invention of the search for the history of self-identity in Taiwan.” Having an identity that is manifest, a fully recognized and realized thing, is not a given in a place that has changed hands – and dominant narratives – so much. And so the continual interruption that Wang talks about, has happened at nearly all levels and territories of Taiwanese society. Thus teasing it out in various ways has become something of a ritual with documentaries of Taiwan.

It’s not so much a search with a conclusion, but a perennial theme that can be drawn on richly, not to be resolved. The essay doesn’t mention aborigines or aboriginal filmmakers at all, but Su could also be said to be engaging in this type of self-ethnography. He doesn’t even appear in or narrate the film, but his relation to his grandfather – his connection and disconnection (both of which give a sense of growing and extending during the film) – come into focus. The grandfather is a mirror, and also a reminder of things that cannot be recaptured.

Still from 'The Mountain'People privilege and ascribe lots of meaning to identity as though it were some total expression of the self. But since so much of it relies on how people are defined by others – by the family, the community, and the world. The Truku people seem to have had definitions thrust upon them for time immemorial, ever since other ethnic groups took hold of Taiwan. Director Su is also credited at the end by his Truku name, Ungan Mehan. This seems an important statement of his alignment with his family history, with which his grandfather is a living connection. The filmmaker is placing himself not entirely as a distant observer, but as a hybrid of viewer and subject.

Occasional orange light-leaks at the start of a roll remind us that we are watching a film shot on 16mm – itself becoming a ghost, a memory – and not just amped-up digital. Su and producer Li Jia-ling find an effective method of deepening the poignancy of the images by way of subtly intensified coloring. The perpetual rain of the coastal setting makes the essential pallet a stormy gray, with saturated colors sitting atop it like impasto.

Possibly the longest shot in the film, its off-center centerpiece, is when Teylung sits down at his encampment in the forest to skin a boar he has just trapped. The only things that stand out from the gloom are the old man and the orange licks of campfire behind him, and the forest is quite dark. Gradually, realizing the scene isn’t going to peel away to b-roll, or suddenly meet Teylung at another activity, our concentration gels with his. He is mentally connecting with his origins, to a time before blowtorches and chainsaws. Vanishing in the totality of the activity, he sees, in the blood of the animal, people who have come before and whom he has outlived. This is his true church, not the sparse Christian one he attends half-heartedly. Before he finishes the task the frame has faded out.

Teylung becomes not just a collection of memories, but a conduit of a collective pool of memories. This seeps into the film, mostly implicitly, but Su refuses to represent his grandfather in a simplistic way. There is little narration from Teylung, and we don’t know how certain things have affected him. That lack of outward reflection complicates any notion of the old man as a keeper of memories, since he isn’t there to communicate them. But the film expresses a powerful feeling – more a feeling than an argument – that looking to the elders who are still around, is equally vital to realizing one’s self as an aborigine as the recertification movement was. The feeling that this man shouldn’t be lost altogether, even though he seems beyond irrelevant to a complicated world where young people live in cities and towns and don’t know much of their background. While the aborigines no doubt need legitimacy for their human rights and to uphold their cultural practices in the outside world, they also need the introspection that The Mountain handles sadly, delicately, and – in its quiet way – urgently.

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