It’s a movie cliché. The hero is midway through a prepared speech but something snaps inside. They go off piste, forget the script, speak from the heart. Suddenly it’s truth bombs everywhere and their audience goes wild.
We don’t know how the audience reacted back in Taiwan, November 1926. But, according to Professor Kuei-fen Chiu, we do know that such a moment really occurred.
To set the scene, you have to understand the tradition of a benshi. This was a Japanese innovation. When Western silent movies began to be shown in Japan towards the end of the 19th century, local audiences didn’t necessarily understand what was going on. There were too many cultural gaps, not to mention those title cards written in English. They needed an interpreter who could speak throughout the movie, replacing the honky-tonk or orchestra in the Western tradition. These interpreters were known as benshi and back in the day they could command celebrity, fame and salaries on a par with top movie actors.
The practice continued in colonial Taiwan. A Taiwanese benshi would reinterpret Western or Japanese films for the local audience.
Back to November 1926 and the movie in question concerned an expedition to the North Pole. The script was pre-approved by the authorities. But the benshi had the floor and other ideas. So when polar bear babies came onto the screen, he seized the moment to deliver an impassioned appeal for a better Taiwan.
“Little cubs are nurtured by their mothers when they are still young. They begin to feed themselves when they become adult animals. So do humans. Isn’t it a shame that a society cannot provide a good nurturing environment for its people? Or, an environment not good enough for the people to support their families? If we don’t try to do something about this kind of society, it will eventually become a dark and hopeless place.”Taiwan People’s Newspapers (Taiwan Xin Minpao), November 21 1926 (Chiu).
A pretty impressive segue, though the Japanese police were less than amused as they swept down on the renegade speaker.
For more on the topic of benshi and cinema in colonial Taiwan, check out Kuei-fen Chiu’s fascinating paper, The Question of Translation in Taiwanese Colonial Cinematic Space, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 70, No.1 (February) 2011: 77-97.