Mosquito Cinema Revival on the Streets of Tainan

The projectionist watching intently for her cue to change reel - notice the gloves - these machines run hot!
The projectionist watching intently for her cue to change reel - notice the gloves - these machines run hot!

Given the film industry’s rapid mutation to digital these days, I was pleasantly surprised to come across a decently sized crowd gathered on Jùnxī Road 郡西街 in Tainan City 臺南市, engrossed in the early 90s Hong-Kong fantasy flick, Devil’s Vendetta 妖魔道1; being projected old-school style on celluloid, through a couple of steadily smoking carbon-arc projectors, and a matte screen mounted on a minivan.

Pull up a chair (or scooter) for a cheesy early 90s Hong Kong fantasy flick.
Pull up a chair (or scooter) for a cheesy early 90s Hong Kong fantasy flick.

Taiwan was once home to hundreds of small-town movie theatres in its cinematic golden-age during the 1960s and 70s, most of them nowadays in various stages of disrepair and disarray2 – their obsolescence a natural consequence of the rise of a new age of home media and the introduction of more modern multiplexes in the larger cities. I’m sure there are other factors as well – rural flight perhaps, but that’s a little deeper than I wanted to go into the issue for this short post.

This open-air event in Tainan was put on by Gāo Púyuán 高璞元 with help from his father Gāo Xiángqíng 高慧懿 – the third and second generations in a family line of projectionists, in an attempt to revive both the screening of the now antiquated 35mm film format, and the outdoor cinema experience itself (often playfully referred to as ‘Mosquito Cinema 蚊子電影’ on account of the clouds of bugs drawn in by the pretty lights). These makeshift outdoor theatres were once commonplace in the agreeable climates of Central and Southern Taiwan, but gradually declined alongside their more static brethren, now only really featuring at the odd Temple Fair which usually now employ the use of cheaper and more convenient digital projectors.

Each reel is around 20 minutes in length, so the average movie necessitates changing them around 6 times.
Each reel is around 20 minutes in length, so the average movie necessitates changing them around 6 times.

Over the years, both Púyuán and his father have amassed a stable of ageing vintage projectors that must be kept in good order, alongside a large collection of 35mm movies that they plan on touring around the country if their proposal to the Ministry of Culture for their support in staging an open-air film festival are granted – with an additional long-term goal of creating new prints for digital releases – until then though, these regular screenings in Tainan are as good as it gets.

The high intensity bulb illuminates the  smoky exhaust from the burning carbon rods.
The high intensity bulb illuminates the smoky exhaust from the burning carbon rods.

As you can see in the photos, the movie itself had an interesting ethereal Blue/Orange tint to it that isn’t really present in the original from what I can see, which makes me wonder if it degraded in storage, or was perhaps printed with a colour profile more suited for the later Xenon-arc lamps that it was probably designed for3 It did look suitably trippy though in any scenes that featured cheesy magic special effects (a lot of them). When it came time to change reels I also noticed a good few cells get stood on in in the process which may also contribute to the funky picture quality – that’s all part of the fun though.

For more information on Púyuán and his father’s endeavour, see this Taiwan Panorama article from which I sourced a few bits for the above piece, and his company’s website: Bear Men Studios 熊南人電影映像工作室, who organise these screenings.

  1. Or, as the broken English of the movie’s title card actually proclaims: ‘Devil’s Vindata’
  2. If you’re interested in what’s become of them, Taiwan based blogger Alexander Synaptic has been busy documenting what (if anything) remains of these old haunts. I highly recommend checking out what he’s uncovered so far, here
  3. Carbon-arc projectors were mostly replaced by xenon due to their much greater longevity.
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