At the turn of the century Taiwanese cinema had a moment, albeit a quiet one that the average American filmgoer probably missed. Edward Yang’s magnificent family drama “Yi Yi” was named the best film of 2000, in any language, by the National Society of Film Critics. Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang, Mr. Yang’s compatriots in the movement known as the Taiwanese New Wave or the New Taiwan Cinema, were at or near the peaks of their renown; Mr. Hou’s “Millennium Mambo” and Mr. Tsai’s “What Time Is It Over There?” were both released in 2001. That country was even represented at the multiplex, where “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” from the Taiwan-born Ang Lee, was becoming the highest-grossing foreign-language film in American history. (Unless you count “The Passion of the Christ.”)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Official Trailer
But the moment didn’t linger. Mr. Yang, who died in 2007, never made another movie. Mr. Hou and Mr. Tsai remained famous all over the festival circuit, while Mr. Lee made most of his movies in the United States. A domestic box-office slowdown in Taiwan that began in the mid-1990s lasted well into the new century.
Taiwan Stories, through May 19 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, is an attempt to shine some light on this vital national cinema, which has operated in the shadow of Hong Kong, China, Japan and, more recently, South Korea and Thailand. Of the 20 movies in this series nearly half are from the 1960s and ’70s (including the martial-arts blockbuster “A Touch of Zen,” made in Taiwan by the Hong Kong-based director King Hu), while a handful represent the commercial resurgence of the domestic film industry during the last three to four years. The biggest attraction, though, is the selection from the New Wave filmmakers, which avoids the familiar, benchmark works of Mr. Yang, Mr. Hou and Mr. Tsai in favor of earlier movies that are less known and rarely screened in America. Here you can see them working out a hybrid of kitchen-sink naturalism and moody, romantic melodrama that each would take in his own direction in years to come.