Some way into Hung Chun-hsiu’s documentary Remember Me (金門留念) a woman takes part in a military reenactment firing large scale artillery from a now disused military base. What’s ironic is both that what was once a frightening reality of ongoing warfare has now been commercialised as an attraction for tourists, and the fact that the woman firing the gun pointed at China on this technically Taiwanese island is herself Chinese. As the opening graphics point out, the island of Quemoy (also known as Kinmen) is geographically closer to Mainland China though governed by Taiwan and for much of its mid-20th century history at the front line of an ongoing ideological battle between communists and nationalists.
In the stock footage often employed by Hung, newsreaders can be heard uttering phrases about “vile communists” and eliminating communist “scum” along with impassioned sloganeering about taking back the “motherland” and freeing its people from the yoke of communism. The island was under near constant shelling until as recently as 1979 and consequently largely populated by the military many of whom were ordinary young men conscripted for national service. The island has obviously changed a great deal since then, though one unexpected casualty has been the gradual decline of the island’s photo studios. Less due to technological than demographic change, the first of Huang’s subjects explains that given the precarity of life in Quemoy soldiers would have their pictures taken as often as once a week, often full body portraits they would send home to their families as evidence that they had not been severely injured. Kuo-ming has been operating his photo studio for 46 years now one of only two still operating on the island. Like the gun show, the military portraits have also become a kind of costume play, Kuo-ming handing out army uniforms and prop weapons for people to pose with often against a painted matte backdrop of a local lake or else Japan’s Mount Fuji.
Meanwhile, the photographs taken at the time hint at the loneliness felt by the men who were dispatched to the island, many of them opting to have pictures of their wives or girlfriends inset alongside them. Those who had no girlfriends sometimes used a picture of a famous model or actress as a personal keepsake though one photo which goes unexplained is inset with the photo of another man in uniform. It has to be said that many of these photos have a homoerotic quality, especially the ones featuring shirtless well-built men striking muscle poses, while others are unexpectedly feminine in nature featuring the soldier in soft focus and surrounded by flowers. The ones from later years are also sometimes playful, featuring soldiers sitting in a model speedboat in or in more relaxed, artistic poses. A man who had his photos taken there while on his military service reads a letter he wrote to a woman he loved promising a photo, one in which he later inset her portrait, little knowing that she did not return his feelings and only kept the correspondence up in fear he might harm himself if she turned him down. Though he discovered on his return she had married someone else, the couple found each other decades later and decided to have a “real” photo taken together at Kuo-ming’s shop dressed in faux army uniforms.
Having married a local woman and decided to stay on Quemoy, former solder Shan-yung also used to have his picture taken at Kuo-ming’s to send back to his mother. He joined the army voluntarily as his family was poor and was shocked to be sent effectively to the front line. After leaving the service, he and his wife opened a karaoke bar largely catering to military personnel and though his business still seems to be doing well, bears out Kuo-ming’s description of the economic changes brought about by decreasing militarisation. Even so he feels a sense of guilt that his life has taken him so far away from his family that he is no longer able to care for his parents in their old age while taking care of his in-laws on Quemoy.
Chen-mei, the woman staging the live reenactment of firing the artillery gun, expresses something similar while explaining that she came to the island from the Mainland for an arranged marriage and now works as a civil servant. She concedes that it’s a little awkward for some of the Chinese visitors realising that their nation had been firing shells at the island for three decades, but suggests that it’s all in the past while espousing a well-meaning but possibility reductive One China philosophy that they are all one Chinese family who no longer need to care about labels like “communist” or “nationalist” because they live in an era of peace. The gun, and the remaining military garrison, may be a reminder it might be dangerous to take that for granted given the rising rhetoric on the Mainland in response to the desire for a recognition of Taiwanese independence. A father explains to his son that the artillery gun was a loan from the Americans to help resist communism, but when the boy asks him how long is left on the lease the man can only look confused and reply that he doesn’t really know. In any case, Remember Me seems to be keener on remembering the rosier side of life on Quemoy under fire as old soldiers look back on their youth if grateful that goats now roam their barracks and the only shells to be found are the ones commemorating a war that for now at least has ended.
Remember Me screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)