Film Club: ‘Island in Between’

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Film Club: ‘Island in Between’

Growing up in Taiwan, I heard a lot about Kinmen. “We hope you have enjoyed the flight, and we are looking forward to serving you again in the near future. Thank you, and goodbye.” Like most Taiwanese, I had never been to these islands so close to China until I came with my parents a couple of years ago. [GUNSHOT] [APPLAUSE] I knew that Kinmen had been the front line for Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War. But it was still a shock to see that China is literally right there. [MUSIC PLAYING] I sang this song all the time as a kid. We were taught that we Taiwanese were Chinese in exile. And, one day, with help from the U.S., we would retake China, freeing the mainland from the evil Communists. And Kinmen would be the launching pad. “About 100 miles across open water from Taiwan, Kinmen is surrounded on three sides by the mainland and has frequently been shelled by red artillery. Kinmen is, in effect, a cork in the Communist invasion bottle, performing much the same role for Asia as does Berlin in Europe.” This was my dad in 1968. When he drew Kinmen for his mandatory military service, my grandmother cried. She was afraid that he might not make it back alive. As I got older, politicians on TV stopped trying to convince us to take back China at all costs. But the folks in Kinmen were still expected to defend Taiwan, even though they have family and history just on the other side of the divide. As for my family, like most ethnic Chinese in Taiwan, we’ve been here for generations and have no connections to China. Instead, my father dreamed of going to the U.S., which is where I have spent most of my adult life, until I moved back to Taipei a few years ago. After so many years away, I’m still figuring out my own relationship to Taiwan and China. Kinmen connects Taiwan to China but also keeps them apart. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to this place. I want to make sense of it. Growing up, this channel of water was the edge of our universe, separating good from evil. Then, one day, we were suddenly allowed to cross to the other side. And all it took was a half-hour ferry ride. On my very first trip to China, I used my Taiwanese compatriot permit. It’s basically a separate passport issued by the Chinese government — the same government that considers my Taiwanese passport illegal. But when I began working in China, it was actually easier to travel with my American passport. The China I saw was not the sad and scary Communist wasteland that I learned about in school. It was an exhilarating place, bursting with colors and possibilities. [CHEERING] I wanted to be a part of it, with whichever passport I needed to use. I was last in China in 2018. I had a hard time getting a film I made to pass through the censors so we could show it there. Then China’s crackdown on Hong Kong happened. And the pandemic shut down everything, including the Kinmen ferry, in 2020. I’m not sure I’ll go to China again anytime soon. When Covid broke out, I moved back to Taipei after several decades in the U.S. There you go. I’ve spent more time with my parents in the last three years than in the past 30 years combined. This place is feeling like home again, though I can’t help but wonder how long this will last. I have split the last 15 years of my life going between Taiwan, China and the U.S. More and more, I feel like a kid whose parents are involved in a three-way custody battle — hostile, codependent, manipulative, each pair with their own dysfunctions. They all think they know what’s best for me. They don’t care what I want. Many in Kinmen think that China will never attack Taiwan, and the U.S. should stop interfering. We’ll be reunified peacefully, they said, because, after all, we’re all one big family. At dinner recently, my mother casually reminded me that I should have a plan if China invades — that they intend to stay in Taiwan. We’re going to be too old to leave, she told me. “Hello, hello, hello.” [GUNSHOTS] Starting in 2024, Taiwanese compulsory military service will be extended to one year for all eligible men. When these young men arrive in Kinmen, will they be surprised, like I am, by the peaceful sunsets — the same ones that my father must have seen when he served here all those years ago — and by the kindness of the people here who are forever caught in between? [PIANO MUSIC]