Edmond WONG (Jury member of TIDF Outstanding Contribution Award)

If I recall correctly, the early 1970s was when I went from first knowing about Chang Chao-tang to gaining massive respect for him. It all began when I leafed through an early issue of Theatre Quarterly in 1967, where I read about Huang Hua-cheng and Chang Chao-tang's experimental photography and short films. Later on, I discovered Chang's photographic works, which left a lasting impression on me with their forward-looking melancholic conceptualism and rejection of salon-style portraiture.


A Lonesome Lens in the Cold War

A number of notable cultural figures and critics, such as the choreographer Lin Hwai-min and scholar Kuo Li-hsin, have noted that Chang's work exemplifies the despondency of those coming of age under the political oppression of the 1960s. While I agree with this view, in the absurdist realism of his works, I see a disillusionment tied to the uncertainties pervading life at the time, leading to affection, empathy, and resigned compassion as one comes to terms with all the hardships in life. In Chang's own words, he didn't know how to draw with a pen, so his only choice for expression was photography. I believe his documentary style was heavily influenced by the aesthetics in his photographic works.

I particularly like what the former director of National Central University Art Center, Tseng Shao-chien has said, 'Chang Chao-tang's photography treads the grey zone between good and evil, beauty and ugliness, and happiness and sorrow, subtly yet forcefully conveying the brutal and farcical in life, as well as the yearning for compassion'.

Whether it's his iconic portrait of his newborn second son Chang Shih-lun titled 49 Days, or his series of close-up facial portraits, Chang Chao-tang has continued to show his fascination with the human face, where each wrinkle signifies the trials of life. Other works feature bleak, endless abysses drawn through roads, skylines, seashores, or boulders, or have large portions of the image blocked out by the back of a massive pig, or groups of children who seem both happy and sad at the same time, or headless silhouettes seen through silk screens or glass panes. Or the snapshot of the backstage during a traditional opera performance—two singers, one seated, the other lying down, engaged in small talk. In all of these photos, the camera seeks to engage while keeping out of the way. From the early joint modern photography exhibition with nine artists, to his farewell exhibition in 1974, we see a respectful eye behind the lens capturing the sorrows felt by all in the age.

I am reminded of Huang Han-di's remarks in his essay 'Addendum to "How to combat loneliness"': 'I still remember the novels by Qi Deng-sheng, Wang Wen-hsing, Huang Chun-ming, and Chen Ying-chen, and the plays by Wang Chen-ho. All these works from that era must have had a shared connection'.


Whether in the absurd or the realistic, his photography conveys a contemplative solicitude reminiscent of intellectuals of the time in search of a path. We see this in his exhibitions, such as Human Grace and Forgiveness (1983) and Moments in Time (2010): as representatives of their respective times, artists unreservedly speak for their age.


'Fragrant Formosa' and Breakthroughs in Television

After completing his military service and a short stint in the ad industry, Chang Chao-tang began working for the China Television Company (CTV) in 1968, during which he helped produce 'News Digest', in which local Taiwanese customs and ceremonies set to Western music. His 'Fragrant Formosa' series (broadcast 1975–1980), co-produced with Huang Chun-ming, became classics in the early history of Taiwanese documentaries, in particular the episode The Homecoming Pilgrimage of Dajia Mazu (1975), which documented the 1974 journey of nearly half a million pilgrims travelling 250 km on foot from Dajia in Taichung to Beigang in Yunlin and back again. This set the scene for the future documentary The Boat-Burning Festival (1979), a purer record of folk ceremonies and festivals.


A Distorted Veil

Awkward moments are unavoidable when rewatching Chang Chao-tang's early documentaries today, since the choice of language and narration served as a political cover in an age full of taboos, and one had to hide behind layer after layer of reluctant veils to conceal messages. A good example is the '60 Minutes' series for CTV beginning in 1976: the feature on violinist Isaac Stern was wrapped within a strong anti-communist message, while the programme on Japanese musician Kitaro centred on his pursuit of oriental styles.

Although documentary features had become more widely recognised by the time of 'Unending Beauty' (1981) and 'The Journey of Image' (1981-1982), both documentary series broadcast on all three terrestrial television channels at the time, the award-winning Journey into the Mines (1982) still had to convey messages stressing the safety of underground operations. In the programme, the 43-year-old miner Hu Chuan-sheng was cast as an 'underground warrior' who transformed into a clean-cut gentleman after shedding his blackened mining attire, while mining waste was dumped in distant valleys, and wastewater was chemically dredged and released directly into the Keelung River. How could any of this be environmentally friendly? As the camera pans to a dwindling mining village, the inevitable message is finally spoken: 'Only emptiness remains'.


From Documenting to Documentary Style

The combined 57 episodes of 'The Journey of Image' and 'Unending Beauty', which Chang Chao-tang produced under the moniker 'Kao Shang-tu' with Lay Hsiang, Christopher Doyle, and Juan I-jong, can be seen as a precursor to Chi Po-lin's Beyond Beauty: Taiwan from Above (2013). The two series recorded sights and sounds from all around Taiwan, serving as time capsules of the 1980s: Island Journey (1981) captured the distinct characteristics of the outlying islands of Wang'an, Xiyu, and Jiangjun Islet in Penghu County; Tribal Journey (1982) recorded the daily lives of the Atayal people, replete with the sounds of love songs and mouth harps; and the ancestral Chen family residence, built in 1826 in Xiushui Township, Changhua County, was documented in the episode Old House. The style exemplified in these programmes was especially poignant in Homage to Chen Da, re-edited in 2000: traversing from country roads and houses in the far south of Pingtung County, to boats on the river in Tamsui and a cafe in Taipei in northern Taiwan, we experience lost spaces through a realistic yet evocative lens, highlighting the paradoxical existence of the 59-year-old Taiwanese soldier who once fought for Japan.

The Boat-Burning Festival marked a further breakthrough in aesthetics: the film features no narration, with visuals accompanied only by music. After a child with a red balloon appears, we then see scenes conjured in surreal slow motion: a Taoist priest on a horse leading the way, spirit mediums trembling as gods possess them amid gongs and drums, pilgrims hoisting sedan chairs carrying the gods, the twirling parasols sheltering the gods, all captured on film through the thick smoke of incense and firecrackers.

And a distinctive style of documentary automatically arises!

Chang was also behind the camera in many feature films, such as Woman of Wrath (1984): the bleak landscapes and houses of Wang' an helped highlight the primal emotions of the film, a reminder that Chang showed his intensely distinctive style not just in the medium of documentary films.

Recent discourse related to documentary filmmaking in Taiwan has mostly revolved around realism, political discussion, and social commentary. The lack of discourse on non-realistic styles may indeed be a blind spot, since great art has often sought to subvert form and aesthetics.


Teaching Positions, Culture, and Film Festivals

Taiwan's documentary filmmaking culture began to mature in the late 1990s, with the Council for Cultural Affairs (now the Ministry of Culture), the National Culture and Arts Foundation, and the UDN Culture Foundation lending substantial support, the new Public Television Service (PTS) offering a public broadcasting platform, and civic and political leaders increasingly recognising the importance of the genre. In 1997, Chang became the chairman of the Graduate Institute of Documentary and Film Archiving at the Tainan National University of the Arts, and later director of the university's multimedia centre. In this capacity, he helped educate a generation of talented aspiring documentary filmmakers, and further cultural developments in Taiwan.

Hsiang Jia-hung, at the time an assistant to writer and then-legislator Wang Tuoh, was particularly interested in documentaries, an enthusiasm shared by his always energetic boss. Because I had previously helped organise the Golden Horse Film Festival, and was in the middle of organising the Taipei Film Festival, Hsiang invited me along with Chang Chao-tang, film critic Chang Chang-yan, editor-in-chief of Aesthetic Documents Taiwan Li Ji, writer and journalist Shi Jing-wen, and curator Jane Yu to form the core of the Taiwan International Documentary Festival; the film selection committee later went on to include prominent writers, critics, and filmmakers such as Shaudi Wang, Weitsy Wang, Chang Hsiao-hung, Jiing Yng-ruey, Nanfang Shuo, Ping Lu, and Wu Yi-feng. The Taiwan Documentary Development Association was also established, and we would often hold high-spirited meetings at the Aesthetics Documents Taiwan offices; Wang Tuoh was elected as chairman (later association founder), and Chang Chao-tang was chosen as vice chairman (later chairman). We believed that since documentary filmmaking was still in its infancy in Taiwan, the film festival should start out as a biennial exhibition rather than an international competition. However, our first festival was successful beyond our imagination.

Because of the enthusiastic response we received from our first festival, we decided to include a competitive element for the second one, which led to an exploratory visit to the 1999 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (YIDFF) by our organisational team. This then eventually led to a dedicated Taiwan segment at YIDFF, forming a close bond between YIDFF and TIDF. We were incredibly grateful to the YIDFF team, who kindly met with us in a joint meeting after the festival to share their experiences. Led by Chang Chao-tang, Chang Chang-yan and I dutifully noted all sorts of minutiae, such as how to allocate initial funds, organise a judging panel and information centre, and how to organise newsletters and other associated events. It was this selfless sharing by our friends at YIDFF that allowed TIDF to find its foundations.

I had immense joy working with Chang Chao-tang, not just because we shared the same ideals, but even more so of his personality—warm, steady, and free. His personality found a natural anchor in the festival. We would often see him solve all sorts of issues, cigarette in hand, listening to everyone with an open heart. This is why the biennial TIDF has sustained itself to this day.

Those really were the good old days, when we were pursuing our dreams just as support began to come in earnest, and everyone was considerate toward everyone else. Oh, the memories! And Chang Chao-tang has been active throughout, his steadfast yet free spirit shining through the years.



Edmond Wong served as director of the Chinese Taipei Film Archive (now the Taiwan Film and Audiovisual Institute), and was instrumental in the establishment and organisation of the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival, the Taipei Film Festival, and the Taiwan International Documentary Festival. He has held teaching positions at the Taipei National University of the Arts and Tainan National University of the Arts, specialising in film history and criticism, while also working tirelessly to promote new cinema from Taiwan and other cultures from around the world.


Translated by Kevin WANG