The Story of Wu Fong

Original title
Gijin Goho
Japanese title
  • 義人呉鳳
Running time
42 minutes
2 June 2009
The Story of Wu Fong


Ceded to the Japanese after their victory in the first Sino-Japanese war in 1895, Taiwan marked the first stages of the country's imperial ambitions, which came to an abrupt end with her surrender to the Allies fifty years later in 1945. Early films distributed on the island (then known as Formosa), both Japanese and Western (many from France's Pathé company), all came by way of Japan, and were exhibited on touring programs until the first permanent cinema was opened in Taipei in 1911. Initial exhibition practices, such as the use of the benshi, were derived from Japanese traditions, as well as the mandatory inclusion of Japanese subtitles; unsurprisingly as the first theatres were all Japanese owned and catered for speakers of the language. When the first theatre with a Taiwanese benshi opened in the 1920s, it was closely monitored by the authorities, though exhibition for Taiwanese audiences throughout the country continued predominantly on an itinerant basis. During this period, the number of Chinese films exhibited grew, while the films imported from America were usually B-movies or worn copies that had already passed many times through Japanese projectors. (For a more in-depth history of early film practices in Taiwan, I refer you to an excellent article by Jeanne Deslandes entitled Dancing Shadows of Film Exhibition: Taiwan and the Japanese Influence, published in the online journal Screening the Past, which can be found here.)

As well as controlling all aspects of exhibition, Japan played a crucial role in establishing production on the island, with the first documentary footage shot by the Japanese there in 1907. The title regarded as Taiwan's first feature film, Da Fo De Tong Kong (The Eyes of Buddha), was directed by Tanaka King in 1922 for the Japanese mobile film production unit, and is described as typifying subsequent productions of this early period, shot with local casts and finance from Taipei, yet with an entirely Japanese crew. However, the colonial administration was relatively tolerant of Taiwan's indigenous culture and stories, until the increased nationalism of the latter half of the 1930s led to Japan imposing her identity far more firmly over all her territories.

Few of the films produced by the Japanese within Taiwan survive, and what does survive predominantly consists of documentary and newsreel footage. Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival screened a number of such films as part of a retrospective held in 1997 entitled 'Imperial Japan at the Movies', including The Story of Wu Fong, the film under the microscope here, and for anyone further interested in the subject, I strongly advise getting hold of the YIDFF's catalogue for that year. Along with the watered-down propaganda of Sayon's Bell (Sayon no Kane, 1943) directed by Hiroshi Shimizu for Shochiku, this film represents one of the few extant narrative features produced during this period, though the print survives in a pretty tatty condition and I'm not even entirely sure if it is complete - one certainly can't imagine anyone rushing to put out this historical curio on DVD at any point. Nevertheless, it provides a fascinating snapshot of the type of colonial films being produced during the 1930s by the Japanese, and one can only assume it must have been fairly typical in terms of its notably short length and for being silent at a time when Japan was slowly switching over to the new sound technology.

Set during the Ching era (1644-1911), the story concerns the government magistrate Wu Fong sent to a rural province where the native tribe of the Zou still practice headhunting. In trying to abolish the tradition, he bargains with the village chief, allowing them to keep their collection of preserved heads from previous headhunting seasons, and to continue with the ceremonial offering of one further head a year. The agreement is maintained until an epidemic sweeps through the village, threatening to take the life of the chief's son. However, Wu Fong manages to suppress demands to resume headhunting fully as a purification rite for the village when he cures the sick son using modern medicine.

Forty years of peace ensue before a harsh famine descends upon the area. This time the Zou tribe is adamant that the only solution is to take up their tribal custom once more. Wu Fong agrees on the condition that the sacrifice is a man in a red hat who will be crossing a nearby mountain pass the following day. When the natives spear the man to death, the corpse is revealed to be that of Wu Fong himself. From that day on, the Zou tribe renounce headhunting. The film ends with the image of a shrine to Wu Fong built by the villagers.

There is some dispute as to whether the plot of The Story of Wu Fong comes from a true story passed down through Taiwanese folklore, or was created by the Japanese colonisers in order to propagate in their citizens values of sacrifice for the greater good of the community (the tale was included in a pre-war Japanese textbook entitled "Bravely Volunteer Yourself for Justice"). At any rate, the account was dropped from school textbooks in Taiwan during the 1980s, and a bronze statue in front of a major train station was torn down in 1988, although it should be noted that the story was filmed on two further occasions by the Taiwanese themselves: in Storm Cloud Over Alishan (Alishan Fengyun, dirs. Zhang Tse and Zhang Ying, 1949) and Wu Fong (dir. Pu Wangcang, 1962).

It's probably worth ending with a few words about one of the film's two credited directors, Yasuki Chiba (the other, Taro Ando appears to have been rather less prolific). Chiba is one of those names that seems to pop up in all sorts of contexts in Japanese film history. He certainly seemed to get around a lot, though the eclectic nature of his output seems to have kept him shielded him from any serious study in the English language (I should note that Chiba does get his own entry in Alexander Jacoby's highly useful A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors, which gives the opinion that "the breadth of his subject matter and his high reputation in his day suggest he merits reappraisal.")

Born in 1910 in Changchung, China, Chiba made a number of films for the obscure, relatively minor studio Kawai Pictures from 1930 onwards. After this title for Taiwan Productions, he worked at Nikkatsu's Tamagawa studios from 1933 to 1939, then at various other studios including Daiei, where he was responsible for what may or may not have been Japanese cinema's first onscreen kiss, in A Certain Night's Kiss (Aru Yoru no Seppun, 1946), before going freelance in 1947. His 1954 film Temptation of Pleasure (Aku no Anoshisa, 1954) was also something of a succès de scandale in its day, prompting the censorship body Eirin to introduce its 'seijin', or adult category.

Chiba signed an exclusive contract with Toho in 1956, with whom he made titles such as The Happy Pilgrimage (Yajikita Dochu Sugoroku) in 1958, an entry in the popular Yaji and Kita On the Road comical jidai geki series. It would be fruitful to investigate Chiba's postwar period with Toho in further detail, as it saw him once again shooting films on the Asian mainland, with a number of co-productions with Hong Kong's Cathay Organisation: A Night in Hong Kong (Hon Kon no Yoru / Xiang Gang Zhi Xing, 1961), Star of Hong Kong (Hon Kon no Hoshi / Xiang Gang Zhi Ye, 1962), and Honolulu-Tokyo-Hong Kong (Xiang Gang Dong Jing Xia Wei Yi, 1963), all of which starred Japanese actor Akira Takarada alongside local actress Yu Ming. Taiwanese interests were also involved, in Chiba's last pan-Asian co-production A Night in Bangkok (Bankoku no Yoru / Man Gu Zhi Ye, 1966), although his final film saw Chiba returning to traditional subject matter, in a film about the Japanese historical figure Mita Komon entitled Record of Mita Komon's Pleasure Trip (Mita Komon Man'yuki) in 1969. He died September 18, 1985.