Chong Keat Aun's debut feature-length film, The Story of Southern Islet (Nanwu, 2020), takes place in Chong's native Kedah in Peninsula Malaysia. The film was nominated in two categories at Taiwan's Golden Horse Awards, one of East Asia's most prestigious festivals. Before the ceremony, Chong named Hou Hsiao-hsien as a major influence in an interview.1 Both Chong's nomination and his nod to the Taiwanese Hou follow a well-established tradition that has seen Malaysian Chinese filmmakers like him make their way to Taiwan.

This tradition begins with Tsai Ming-liang who went to study in Taiwan in the late 1970s and has based his career there. Recent recruits include Ho Wi-Ding and Lau Kek-huat. This tradition, in turn, can be situated against a broader context in which countless Malaysian Chinese have, for decades, been heading to Taiwan for their college education, with many now enjoying illustrious careers in academia and literary production (among other professions and fields) to the extent that what is known as "Malaysian Chinese literature" (Mahua wenxue) constitutes a prominent and inextricable strand of Taiwanese literature.2

In this essay, I propose a geopolitical approach to the study of transnational cinema. As we have already seen, Taiwan and Malaysia are not hermetically sealed nation-states. Rather, Chineseness as an ethnic and linguistic marker affords a substantial number of Malaysia's Chinese population, a minority there, to imagine, if not make real, the prospect of studying, working, living, and even making films in Taiwan or, like the Malaysia-based Chong, of having one's film recognized in Taiwan. Geopolitical realities govern the world of filmmaking. I map out three geopolitical configurations Malaysia and Thailand; Malaysia and Taiwan; Taiwan and China as they relate to the notion of transnational Chinese cinemas.


Chong Keat Aun hails from Kedah, the northern-most state in Peninsula Malaysia, which borders Thailand. Kedah used to be part of the Kingdom of Siam and many of its current residents are Siamese descendants. Many Siamese in Kedah did not regard themselves as Malaysians when the country gained independence in 1957; their homes were adorned with photographs of the Thai king, and they would have their corpses buried in the southern Thai borderland rather than in Kedah. Today, Thai culture continues to have a strong presence in Kedah. Many in Kedah, including Malaysians, regard Thailand as superior, where not only food and produce are better, but where information flows more freely even across the border. The first time Chong saw Hou's A Time to Live, A Time to Die (Tongnian wangshi, 1985), a major influence on him, was on Thai television, via transmission signals he could receive in Kedah.

Chong's experience of growing up in Kedah illustrates the porosity of national borders. New geographies often fail to erase old histories and transmission signals override physical boundaries. Despite not understanding Thai (into which Hou's and other films were dubbed), Chong came into contact with both art cinema from Taiwan and commercial cinema from Hong Kong. His peculiar location forged the filmmaker he would become, a filmmaker who would make it to Taiwan because he grew up where the notion of "Taiwan" could come into his consciousness across the border that Malaysia shares with Thailand.


Chong's passage to Taiwan has been facilitated by the operation of Chineseness as both an ethnic and linguistic marker. In the past, speakers of Chinese, like Chong, had access to educational opportunities in Taiwan at a time when Malaysia lacked a Chinese-language college, Singapore had closed Nanyang University, and the path to China was unfeasible owing to fears about communism. Meanwhile, the Nationalist (Kuomintang) government in Taiwan was actively luring Sinophone Malaysians to study in Taiwan as a form of "returning to the motherland"; even today, Taiwan remains an "escape route" for Chinese school graduates who occupy a marginal position and face discrimination in Malaysia.3

Chineseness, then, serves as transnational capital that Chinese-speaking Malaysians can trade on to make a new home in Taiwan. Chineseness began to play a role in cinema when the eligibility criteria to compete in the Golden Horse Awards was relaxed, in 1991, to include all filmmakers of Chinese descent who were working in the Taiwanese and Hong Kong film industries. In 1997, the linguistic barrier was abolished to make allowance for the participation of films regardless of the language spoken whose director and half of the main crew is of Chinese ethnic origin.4

Leap ahead to 2019: The Garden of Evening Mist (Xiwu huayuan, directed by Taiwanese Tom Lin), set in Malaysia and featuring dialogue in English, Cantonese, Japanese, and Malay, was nominated in nine categories at the Golden Horse, including Best Leading Actress for Malaysian Lee Sin-je. The winner in that category went to another Malaysian citizen (Yeo Yann Yann) for her performance in a Singaporean film (Wet Season/Redaiyu, dir. Anthony Chen, 2019).5 The geographical distance between Malaysia and Taiwan, in these instances and for Chong, has been bridged by the Golden Horse, which has evolved from a national film award into a transnational soft power tool for Taiwan to forge links with Chinese-speaking communities in East and Southeast Asia, thus helping it to break out of its isolation in international relations.


Chong Keat Aun won Best New Director at the 2020 Golden Horse. Given the impressive track record of emerging PRC filmmakers in recent years, it's reasonable to conclude that Southeast Asian filmmakers have benefited from China's absence.6

The People's Republic of China has boycotted the last two Golden Horse Awards after a speech made at the 2018 ceremony by a Taiwanese documentary filmmaker angered Chinese authorities. The consequences are not restricted to the two rivals, who have been in a political stalemate that dates back to Kuomintang's retreat to the island in 1949 following its defeat in a civil war with the Chinese Communist Party. Hong Kong filmmakers who make their fortunes in China have had to choose sides, and all China-Hong Kong co-produced films are banned from participating in the Golden Horse.

The Golden Horse tension between China and Taiwan is symptomatic of the wider cross-Strait turbulence, fueled by the staggering rise of China in the world. In Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen responded to China's growing dominance by inaugurating a "New Go South Policy" in 2016 to reorient the island's focus to Southeast Asia. The policy's official website acknowledges cinema's soft power insofar as it features an interview with Midi Z, a Yunnanese Chinese born in Burma, who started making films in Taiwan and took up Taiwanese citizenship in 2011.7 In both the real world and the reel world, Taiwan has used Southeast Asia as a leverage against China to open up greater scope from the economic to the cinematic for itself.


The three geopolitical configurations I have sketched Malaysia and Thailand; Malaysia and Taiwan; Taiwan and China can be used as a model for the interplay between any nation and its transnational complications, as well as its possible escape routes. The Malaysia-Thai border where Chong grew up and the Myanmar-China border where Midi Z was born are the kind of highland regions that resist governance by any single nation-state and where cross-border activities are a quotidian reality.8 The Taiwan-Malaysia connection, facilitated by Chineseness, attests to the enduring currency of ethnicity and language as transnational capital even as it is entangled with notions of nationhood and diaspora. The China-Taiwan tug-of-war over the Golden Horse Awards reminds us of the censorious operation of state apparatuses in the name of patriotism, whose precedents include the House Un-American Activities Committee in the United States during the Cold War.9

Taken together, these sketches reveal the arbitrariness of mapping, always rooted in geopolitics, often shrouded in the myth of the nation, and at once policed and porous. Cinema can both reinforce and question such mappings, not just through the stories it tells on-screen but also via the off-screen activities of making and watching films often across borders.

By calling for a geopolitical approach to the study of transnational cinema in this short essay, I am less interested in how film narratives might "reflect, reify, explain, author, support, undermine, and challenge hegemonic geopolitical discourses,"10 and more invested in bringing to the fore geopolitical dynamics that make possible (or impossible) the making and watching of films across borders, the means by which new filmic geographies can take shape, and the alternative routes that actors can embark upon in both the real world and the reel world. We can shift our focus to material conditions. Let's turn to the liminal spaces between the national and the transnational, governed by geopolitical dynamics, which render transnationality a default premise rather than occasional occurrence in these new filmic geographies.

Song Hwee Lim is Professor of Cultural Studies at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of Tsai Ming-liang and a Cinema of Slowness (2014) and Celluloid Comrades: Representations of Male Homosexuality in Contemporary Chinese Cinemas (2006). He is the founding editor of the Journal of Chinese Cinemas, and co-editor of Remapping World Cinema: Identity, Culture and Politics in Film (2006) and The Chinese Cinema Book (2011; second edition 2020). His latest book on the soft power of Taiwan cinema is forthcoming with Oxford University Press.


  1. For those who read Chinese the interview can be accessed here: (accessed 20 January 2021). I will paraphrase in and translate into English Chong's statements below without repeating the source.[]
  2. See Alison Groppe's book Sinophone Malaysian Literature: Not Made in China (Amherst, New York: Cambria Press, 2013) for a study of the literary works of Malaysian Chinese writers, many of whom have based their careers in Taiwan. []
  3. On the Nationalist government's policy to lure overseas Chinese, see Kim Tong Tee, "Sinophone Malaysian Literature: An Overview," in Shu-mei Shih, Chien-Hsin Tsai, and Brian Bernards (eds.), Sinophone Studies: A Critical Reader (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), pp. 304-314. For more recent experiences of Sinophone Malaysians in Taiwan, see Keng We Koh, "A Chinese Malaysian in Taiwan: Negarakuku and a Song of Exile in the Diaspora," Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 8, no. 1 (2008): 50-79. []
  4. I discuss the Golden Horse Awards more extensively in a forthcoming book, Taiwan Cinema as Soft Power: Authorship, Transnationality, Historiography (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022).[]
  5. I do not have space here to bring in Peninsula Malaysia's other cross-border relationship, this time with Singapore, on cinematic and other fronts, which Chong also talked about in his interview.[]
  6. To list some examples, Zhang Dalei clinched the Best Feature Film award for The Summer is Gone (Bayue, 2016) in 2016; in 2018, An Elephant Sitting Still (Daxiang xidi er zuo, 2018) by Hu Bo won the Best Feature Film and Best Adapted Screenplay, and Wen Muye won the Best New Director award for Dying to Survive (Wo bushi yaoshen, 2018) and the film also won Best Original Screenplay. []
  7. For more on Midi Z's filmmaking, see Song Hwee Lim, "Towards a Poor Cinema: Ubiquitous Trafficking and Poverty as Problematic in Midi Z's Films", Transnational Cinemas 9, no. 2 (2018): 131-146.[]
  8. See James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009). []
  9. Marcus Power and Andrew Crampton, "Reel Geopolitics: Cinemato-graphing Political Space," Geopolitics 10 (2005): 194.[]
  10. Ibid., 195.[]