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Invisible Nation Review: Illuminating Taiwan Doc

Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen addresses the nation in a speech in the film Invisible Nation

With unprecedented access to Taiwan’s first female president, Invisible Nation explores the history and future of a country fighting for its right to exist.

Director: Vanessa Hope
Genre: Documentary
Run Time: 85′
US Release: May 31, 2024
UK Release: TBA
Where to watch Invisible Nation: in select US theaters

After centuries of colonisation and dictatorship, Taiwan faces a new battle in its fight for self-determination, and you probably barely know about it. As its vast neighbour China grows in economic and geopolitical might, the island nation’s very right to exist has been eroded significantly, with the international community turning its back. So if your knowledge of Taiwanese history and culture is somewhat lacking, it’s by design.

Thankfully, Vanessa Hope’s Invisible Nation is the ideal primer on the subject and a moving record of modern Taiwanese life to boot.

The film balances two intersecting stories: Taiwan’s difficult history as the possession of successive imperial powers, and the more recent rise of its first female president, Tsai Ing-wen, and her Democratic Progressive Party. The former is well executed; we learn from native and foreign experts about the island’s history of colonisation, stretching back to the Dutch via Spain, Japan and several Chinese regimes.

We then meet a generous number of journalists, academics, human rights lawyers and high-ranking international politicians, who give us the present context: despite a healthy economy and a successful transition to democracy in the 1980s, Taiwanese identity and autonomy are still very much under threat. The UN has kicked them out, the International Olympic Committee refers to them as ‘Chinese Taipei’, and several major powers have cut diplomatic ties with the country, all to appease rising superpower China, which claims sovereignty over the island.

Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen makes a gesture of prayer in front of a microphone in the film Invisible Nation
Invisible Nation (Abramorama)

Telling a story as long and complicated as Taiwan’s in an 85-minute film is no mean feat, and Hope rises to the challenge. It’s visually engaging and draws from several sources to paint as comprehensive a picture as possible, though anyone well-versed on the subject may find it somewhat rudimentary. What stands out as a unique angle is the focus on the US, the third person in the troubled relationship between the two Asian nations, and how its actions, or lack thereof, can tip the scales when it comes to Taiwan’s recognition and prosperity as a country.

Most interesting, though, are the personal accounts of the people of Taiwan. Front and centre is Tsai Ing-wen, who discusses her philosophy, career and potential legacy as she prepares to step down ahead of the January 2024 election, through a series of disarmingly personal conversations. Her passion for her country and her humility despite the adoration of millions of young Taiwanese are touching, and our face time with Tsai is often interrupted by her attention-seeking ginger cat, who renders the politician all the more genial. Alongside the ex-premier are countless testimonies from the everyday people of modern Taiwan; a journey with an elderly pro-democracy activist to her former prison is without doubt the film’s most emotionally affecting scene. Meanwhile, the voices of today’s generation are represented by artists and musicians, who face varying degrees of censorship and intimidation from Beijing.

The value of Invisible Nation as educational content is indisputable, but Hope rarely flexes her filmmaking muscles, and at times the film can feel frustratingly conventional. It relies too heavily on its admittedly impressive roster of talking heads, and the more pensive moments, exploring Taiwan’s urban and rural landscapes and telling its human stories, can sometimes take a backseat. Few scenes go without the narration of one or several experts, and any opportunity to fully immerse oneself in the film’s location is scuppered by the excessive commentary. With such a powerful story at its heart, a bit more ‘show’ and a little less ‘tell’ might have elevated this to a truly special documentary.

Invisible Nation: Trailer (Abramorama)

Excellently researched and with a rich lineup of authorities on the subject, Invisible Nation is a solid, if sometimes unambitious, political documentary. Vanessa Hope’s film is enlightening, enraging and a lot to take in in under an hour and a half. Notwithstanding any misgivings about its creative decisions, as an introduction to the complex history and present condition of Taiwan, and the fascinating characters at its heart, this really is an important work.

Invisible Nation will be released in select US theaters from May 31, 2024.

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