This nonlinear documentary looks at the lives of 16 overlooked female poets in four countries, but it tries to do too much and lacks an engaging narrative
By Han Cheung / Staff reporter
It’s a cool idea to make a documentary that completely gives the voice to its all-female subjects without any context, structure or much editorializing, but a feature-length film still needs a narrative to engage the audience.
Deep Uprising doesn’t have one. It basically shows for 78 minutes a succession of 16 female poets in Taiwan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and India performing daily tasks, speaking about issues they care about and reading their work. Many speak of the marginalization of female literary figures in their respective patriarchal societies, but at the end of the film we still don’t know much about who these poets are, why they were chosen and why the film was shot in these four countries in particular.
It’s a worthy experiment by a male director to break from the traditional format and let the passionate and provocative words of these women drive the film. Men feature in the documentary, but none of them are heard speaking — there’s even a scene where a Sri Lankan poet’s male companion stares silently at the camera for a few seconds after her reading.
Photo courtest of Joint Entertainment
One can see what director Huang Ming-chuan (黃明川) is trying to do, but the resulting product ends up being rather unfocused, presenting a monotonous cadence from beginning to end. Having far too many subjects is one of the main issues. They’re all fascinating in their own right, and some do stand out more than others, but overall it’s hard to keep track of them while new subjects keep getting introduced. Additionally, it’s impossible to really get a feel of who they are in the brief screen time they’re allotted. The format is meant to return the power to the subjects, to the women, but instead it somehow further obfuscates their individuality.
Huang has spent most of his career documenting Taiwanese creative types, and his sensibilities in balancing the subject’s work, life and motivation are well-honed. He spent an entire decade from 1999 to 2009 filming 100 Taiwanese poets, and the low proportion of notable female poets inspired him to make this film. As he had already spent so much time on Taiwanese poets, he decided to expand his horizons to other Asian countries.
There are some apparent affinities between the four selected countries. They’re all patriarchal societies with a history of colonization and oppression, and much of the work by these poets touches on related themes. The Taiwanese poets talk about the long history of colonization and how it affected their identities, most notably Sakizaya activist Sayum Vurow, whose people were destroyed in a 1878 conflict with the Qing Dynasty army and went into hiding for over a century, while the Sri Lankan women muse about ethnic and religious conflicts that have ravaged the country for decades.
Photo courtest of Joint Entertainment
Each country has its distinct current issues and tragic histories, but at times they’re also blended into each other in this film as the scenes jump from place to place without transitions. Sometimes the scenery is eerily similar, and the viewer has to guess where it’s showing. It’s quite interesting to see the juxtaposition, but it doesn’t help with the confusion.
There seems to be more similarities between the other three countries than Taiwan, but by putting them together, viewers get a better sense of how their society, history and their female poets compares internationally.
Despite the already packed roster, Huang initially wanted to visit poets in other places where women are oppressed such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, but gave up because it was too dangerous. In fact, it would probably have made more sense to do a deeper-dive on one or two countries, as although there are recurring themes in all the poets’ work, the connections just don’t seem strong enough to weave it all into a coherent piece.
The doc is an intriguing attempt that presents new possibilities for local filmmaking and for Taiwan to connect with the rest of the world — and not the countries we usually think about, but others that share more with us than we think.
Deepest Uprising 波濤最深處
Directed By: Huang Ming-chuan (黃明川)
Language: Nine languages including Mandarin, Taiwanese and English with Chinese and English subtitles
Running Time: 78 Minutes
TAIWAN Release: In theaters
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