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Untold Herstory reveals hardship of women imprisoned for thought crimes

Untold Herstory
Herb Hsu (徐麗雯) plays nurse Shui-hsia Yen, who resists capitulating to her captors in Untold Herstory.

Imagine a remote island where dozens of women are imprisoned for saying the wrong words or simply knowing the wrong person. Imagine that they must swear allegiance in blood to a heartless government and become its propagandists. And refusing to do so means facing further hardship and longer incarceration. Then imagine that a military ruler in the faraway national capital personally decides who gets to live and who will be executed for refusing to undergo re-education.

That’s the premise of the film Untold Herstory, which depicts what life was like for the women who were imprisoned on Green Island during Taiwan’s notorious White Terror era.

Under martial law, which was imposed by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. his Kuomintang government scooped up women and men and shipped them to this island off Taiwan’s southeast coast. Inmates performed hard labour and endured atrocities at the hands of their captors. Some continued to resist.

According to Taipei Times reviewer Han Cheung, official records reveal that 26 women were executed. Many believe that the real number is much higher.

LNY Splash, LunarFest Vancouver, and VIFF will present Untold Herstory at 7 p.m. Saturday (February 17) at the VIFF Centre in Vancouver. Director and co-writer Zero Chou’s (周美玲) captivating drama is set in 1953 and revolves around three fictitious characters.

There’s the young, gentle, yet surprisingly tough artist named Kyoko (Pei-Jen Yu, 余佩真). She befriends an elegant dancer from China, Chen Ping (Cindy Yu-Ha Lien, 連俞涵), and a principled Christian nurse, Shui-hsia Yen (Herb Hsu, 徐麗雯).

Untold Herstory
Pei-Jen Yu plays Kyoko, a gentle artist imprisoned on Green Island.

Herstory actors deliver compelling performances

After arriving on the island by boat, the women suffer indignities while disembarking. Next, they must march to their barracks to receive numbers as new inmates. Despite these humiliations, meagre rations, and danger of execution, they still create a community.

Yu, Lien, and Hsu are compelling, credible, and often gripping actors. The same is true of several supporting actors. As a result, cast members put human faces on Taiwan’s painful post-Second World War history.  In 2022, Chou told the Taipei Times that actors needed to deliver lines in their characters’ native dialects.

“Hopefully, this film will become an important testament to the age of transitional justice,” Chou told the newspaper.

Meanwhile, the director reinforces the bleak mood in several ways. She shows gloomy and crowded sleeping quarters. In addition, inmates express their sorrow—and, on occasion, resistance—when forced to do hard labour outside. They endure cruel interrogations in darkened rooms. Yet the central characters retain their humanity.

Untold Herstory

White Terror comes to life on-screen

In 1949, the dictator, Chiang, imposed martial law, which terrorized the population for decades. It continued under the ruthless rule of his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, who died in 1988. The government only lifted the “anti-state activities” law, under which so many were imprisoned, in 1991.

Seeing the repression depicted on-screen helps the world fully absorb the impact of this national trauma for the freedom-loving people of Taiwan. Chiang Ching-kuo even makes a visit to Green Island in Untold Herstory, uttering meaningless platitudes.

Chou and co-writer Min-Hsuan Wu adapted the screenplay from the book Bonfire Island: Untold Herstory by Tsao Chin-jung (曹欽榮), who served as a consultant on the film. The producers had to raise money through a crowdfunding campaign. Perhaps that’s because this story is still too controversial for conventional film funding in a country where the Kuomintang is still a major political party.

Watch the trailer for Untold Herstory.

LNY Splash, LunarFest Vancouver, and VIFF will present Untold Herstory at the VIFF Centre at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday (February 17). For tickets and more information, visit the VIFF website.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.