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On Taiwan’s islands of Kinmen, ‘that feeling of being stuck in between’

Oscar-nominated documentary short points to tension and uncertainty in the Taiwan Strait

An abandoned tank stuck in the sand on Oucuo Beach in Kinmen, Taiwan.
An abandoned tank stuck in the sand on Oucuo Beach in Kinmen, Taiwan. (Photo from “Island in Between”/courtesy S. Leo Chiang)

A disembodied hand arranges three documents on a table: a Taiwan passport, a United States passport and a travel permit issued by China.

“More and more, I feel like a kid whose parents are involved in a three-way custody battle — hostile, codependent, manipulative. … They all think they know what’s best for me. They don’t care what I want,” S. Leo Chiang says in a voice-over. 

The director has spent much of his life going back and forth between the three places. While his previous films explore cultures “other than my own,” this one is personal, he says. “Island in Between” takes him to Kinmen, just a few miles off the coast of the Chinese city of Xiamen.

“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,” he says in the film.

A decrepit tank sinks into the sand of the beach and defensive spikes point out to sea, reminders of that history. Things have changed since his childhood, but Kinmen remains a place that “connects Taiwan to China, but also keeps them apart,” as Chiang says. 

Nominated for an Oscar, the New York Times Op-Docs project will compete in the documentary short film category next month. The film points to an uncertain future and rising tension, as China continues its displays of military might in the Taiwan Strait. Meanwhile, in the U.S., Congress is considering a foreign aid package with billions of dollars at stake for Taiwan and the Indo-Pacific region. 

“The big challenge was always, how do I personalize this really complicated geopolitical situation?” Chiang said in an interview earlier this month. “I could explain, I could give you a history lesson. But I think people connect to a story most when you touch them in the heart, in addition to the head.”

This interview has been edited and condensed. For more, listen to the Political Theater podcast

Q: What brought you to this project?

A: I was born and raised in Taiwan, and I moved to the U.S. as a teenager. About seven years ago, I decided to move back to Taipei because my parents were still there and getting older, and I found myself also working more and more in Asia. 

And after moving back there, one of my frustrations was how difficult it is to tell Taiwanese stories for an international audience. People always know Taiwan in the context of China, if at all. The joke for us Taiwanese is that people ask us if we’ve had any great Thai food lately.

In the last couple years, there has been more interest in Taiwan. I think it’s a combination of how Taiwan has managed COVID really well, definitely the chip wars between the U.S. and China, and also [then-Speaker Nancy] Pelosi’s visit [in 2022]. With the tension escalating, it felt like there was a window to tell a Taiwanese story.

Q: Some of the images you show are really striking, like an old military tank sinking into the beach. 

A: We had to take these really rich layers of history and try to pare that down into something that feels spare. And Kinmen is such a fascinating place, it really is. 

In terms of American involvement, if you Google the Old English name for Kinmen, which is Quemoy, you’ll find this portion of a 1960 presidential debate between Nixon and Kennedy, when the two of them talked about Kinmen and Matsu, which is another set of islands in a similar situation. Kennedy says it’s really dumb for Americans to help the Chinese nationalist army defend these two islands that are strategically poorly positioned, and the military should retreat and just defend the Taiwan Strait, which is a more natural barrier between Taiwan and China. And then Nixon comes out and says, you know, we’re not giving those commies a single inch. 

So I think that’s the difficult part. Even though the U.S. has been involved — and not just involved, but integrally involved — Americans have very little knowledge of the situation there. 

Q: Things have changed since the 1960s. Around 24 million people live in Taiwan, and many think of themselves as Taiwanese first, and not the party of nationalist China after World War II.

A: I think you’re describing the transition from Taiwan being the quote-unquote free China, because of it being run by the losing side of the Chinese Civil War for so many years, to now where the younger generation don’t know the war at all, and they just fully embrace this Taiwanese identity. And they’re really confused about why Taiwan is not seen as a country, because we have a president, we have a legislature, we have mayors, down through the neighborhood association head. 

We have a fully functioning democratic government that consistently has a 70 to 80 percent voting rate — I mean, that’s unthinkable in the U.S. And we’re not a country because our neighborhood bully says, well, that’s not a person over there, even though it looks like a person and acts like a person. So when you have that, it sort of messes with the heads of the people who live in Taiwan. 

Q: You’ve spent time in China and worked in China. You say you went there expecting it to be a “sad and scary communist wasteland,” and instead it was this incredibly vibrant place. 

A: I look at what China’s doing in terms of its policy outwards and its policy inwards, and I think the government is just doing a terrible job. But at the same time, I have such fondness for the people and for the place. And I know a lot of my friends in China, or my friends who are Chinese in diaspora, they feel the same way about the Taiwanese people. And so when we’re reading about the tension and the fact that China might be militarily threatening Taiwan, it’s just hard for us to process. 

It’s hard for us to find a way to critique China without painting it as this evil monolith, which is the issue with some of the international coverage — you know, people are all drones, and they believe in what Xi Jinping says, and they do all these terrible things. But that simply is not the case. People have thoughts and ideas, and they’re not allowed to express themselves, perhaps, or they’re trying to express themselves in more underground ways. But there’s a whole diverse population and diverse opinions in China, as there is in Taiwan.

Q: Are people also worried because they saw what happened with the crackdown in Hong Kong?

A: Well, if China is trying to convince Taiwan to accept this sort of “one nation, two systems” arrangement, I think what they did in Hong Kong just ruins that deal. I mean, there’s no way the Taiwanese people are going to believe China now when they say we’ll all get together and you get to do your own thing for the next however many years. 

People are worried, but I don’t want to paint this picture of them sitting all day long fretting and thinking about this, because in Taiwan, people are going about their lives. Maybe it’s a little bit more tense than 10 years ago, but it’s still not the way that outsiders in the international press are painting it.

The Chinese government, the way they make decisions, is so opaque and unpredictable, it’s not like there’s a pattern where you could figure out what they’re going to do next. And that’s kind of what I wanted to present in this film: that feeling of being in limbo, and that feeling of being stuck in between.

Q: You’re part of this very vibrant film culture in Taiwan. What is that like?

A: Well, I think folks know the New Taiwanese Cinema, with Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang. And even more people know about Ang Lee, though I guess maybe they don’t know he’s Taiwanese.

And the documentary community is also very much growing. I mean, there have been really incredible documentaries that domestically grossed more than a lot of the Hollywood films, but not as many that are accepted or celebrated internationally. So that’s what we’re hoping to change. We’re hoping we can be a part of this movement to get more Taiwanese nonfiction out in the world.

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