The Time that Remains

Shih-Lun Chang

“… one cannot escape time”
             —Chris Marker

“Time … is on my side”
             —The Rolling Stones


Bernd Behr’s video work Chronotopia takes as its starting point the 1975 return home of Attun Palalin Teruo Nakamura Lee Guang-Hui, an indigenous Taiwanese solider who served in the Japanese army during World War II. Jumping between past, present, and future, the work employs methods of media archaeology and imagined travels through space and time to disturb the seemingly irreversible linear logic of modernity.

Like Chris Marker’s classic essay films La Jetée (1962) and Sans Soleil (1983), Bernd Behr's video is narrated by a mysterious traveller in constant motion. This narrator constantly relates to the “I” of the video all manner of speculations on the possibility of crossing, diverting, warping, and comparing “time“ extending from the story of Attun Palalin Teruo Nakamura Lee Guang-Hui, as well as the anxieties born thereof. This “I” can actually be each and every member of the audience viewing the video, just as it resembles the German-Taiwanese artist Behr; the storyteller within the work engages in a dialogue with himself about the idea of historical memory, the measure of time, and the significance of artistic technique.

Colonial Modernity and Homogenous Time

Under Japanese rule (1895-1945), Taiwan witnessed the introduction of various institutions of colonial modernity, one of the most important systems of which was the modern sense of time that aided discipline and governance and raised the efficiency of production. This all new measure of time took Greenwich Mean Time as its basic metric, relying on procedures such as time zones, calendars, clocks, and disciplinary education to gradually homogenize the unique temporal sensibilities of diverse territories, allowing time to be viewed as made up of divisible, measurable, cumulative, and comparable conceptual units. Such a notion of homogeneous time standardized ideas of a week as seven days and a day as 24 hours, thus gradually coming to control the daily fundamentals of food, clothing, domicile, and transportation, in addition to the labor cycles of work and rest.1

This homogeneous modern sense of time not only negates to a certain extent localized and necessarily individualized perceptual experiences of time, but also rigidly transforms past, present, and future into three discrete units that, though continuous, remain distinct portions of an evolutionary model of history that develops only in a linear fashion. By this logic, time marches irreversibly forward under the names of “progress” and “modernity.” In collusion with the Japanese imperialist plot for a Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, this model gradually inculcated Taiwan of the early twentieth-century into the powerful currents of colonial modernity: militarism, fitness, order, and rationality. And indeed, only under the context of such an understanding of time was it possible to comprehend the singularity of the 1975 incident of Attun Palalin Teruo Nakamura Lee Guang-Hui, as Bernd Behr’s Chronotopia has both recounted and reimagined through the politics of artistic practice.

Born in 1919, the Ami indigenous Taiwanese Attun Palalin Teruo Nakamura Lee Guang-Hui was drafted into the Takasago Volunteers unit of the Imperial Japanese Army in 1943 and was shortly thereafter stationed on the Indonesian island of Morotai, where he was ultimately separated from his unit at the height of the fighting of World War II. Not realizing that Japan surrendered in 1945 and afraid of falling prisoner to Allied forces, he relied on the hunting and agricultural knowledge of the indigenous peoples to lead a spartan existence in the primitive forest until the end of 1974, following which he returned to his homeland in Taiwan in early 1975. Under the propagandistic pretexts of colonial modernity, entry into the Imperial Army was glorified as a sign of pursuing progress and strength on behalf of the Taiwanese people, presenting itself as a rare opportunity to be on equal footing with the Japanese. When Attun Palalin Teruo Nakamura Lee Guang-Hui was forced to rely on himself in the forest, however, he seemed to escape the rigid order imposed by the rhythm of days, months, and years in the modern sense of time, instead remaining alive through survival skills coming from the “past” of indigenous societies at a remove from colonial modernity. Only able to rely on this “outmoded” past, he managed to make it through his trying “present” in expectation of the “future” that finally arrived in 1975.

At that point his lengthy period of solitude and miraculous survival aroused a fervor in the media. How can man survive without watches or clocks, as if forgotten by time? It was as if his days in the forest at a remove from society failed to adhere to the logic of the present world, but rather worked under another highly individual and extremely local temporality. In the two most common narratives he is treated as either an Eastern Robinson Crusoe2 or a modern Urashima Tarō3, as if only by placing him within the established literary genre of “fiction“ could his symbolic disturbance of homogeneous time appear somewhat less fantastic or incomprehensible.

Bernd Behr, in looking back on this incident some 30 years later as a platform by which to discuss temporality, cannot avoid mobilizing the idea of “fiction.” One of the key images in his video may be that of Attun Palalin Teruo Nakamura Lee Guang-Hui in Indonesia posing in response to a journalist’s request to turn on a television, a black-and-white static photograph of the “primitive” meeting the “civilized.” This moment, profound in meaning and far from simple, both reveals the traces of deliberate human flourishes in the historical record and gestures subtly and indirectly at elements of mediation in the background of the Lee Guang-Hui incident. Behr’s video refers to time and space travel in the science fiction series Star Trek; as in the time travel genre currently popular in greater China, tension and perceptual stimulation in the scripting of both forms of popular media originate primarily in both the emotional complications and personal displacement resulting from characters appearing in different places and times, and in the mystery and disorientation produced by temporal misunderstandings that cannot be fully overcome. Bernd Behr hints that such texts involving nonlinear temporalities ultimately remain subject to the clear barriers between past, present, and future that characterize modernist logic. Leaps across time in lowbrow science fiction thus do not deliver a liberating, utopian temporality, but rather actually strengthen the conception of time as irreversible.

In order to explore the visual manifestations of temporality, the narrator in Bern Behr’s video searches the National Palace Museum in Taipei for examples of ruin in Chinese art, ultimately finding only a traditional landscape painting of profound and elusive conception that hardly conforms to the Western imagination of the genre.4 The Futuro structures in Wanli on the outskirts of Taipei were modeled after Finnish originals that suggested a futuristic look, representing mankind’s hopes and dreams for the world of tomorrow, but in an inhospitable local environment they have become nothing more than unique exteriors, ruins that testify to the defeats and absences of the future.

Role-Playing and the Absence of Interiority

That Bernd Behr employs the Lee Guang-Hui incident as a point of entry into his investigations of temporality makes for a framing device rich in interest. When Attun Palalin Teruo Nakamura Lee Guang-Hui arrived in Taiwan from Indonesia in 1975, he was proficient only in Japanese and Ami, and had been away from human contact for more than 20 years; although his return inspired fervor in the media, it was absolutely impossible for him to fully, freely, or clearly reveal his “inner” feelings. Under fierce media competition, however, reporters from every newspaper began to make up stories on a daily basis. When they weren’t using moving first-person narratives to fabricate private monologues, they employed the language of adventure fiction (with which he could not possibly have been familiar) to concoct stories of what Attun Palalin Teruo Nakamura Lee Guang-Hui experienced in the forest. The intensity of this strange media phenomenon made the whole of the publishing world eager to join the fray: four books related to the incident were published in rapid succession, the quality and veracity of which inspired widespread skepticism and criticism at that time.5

Scholar Joyce C.H. Liu presents a textual analysis of fiction in her essay “From Difference to Identity: The Reconstruction of the Heart of the Taiwanese Imperial Subject under the Japanese Colonial Period,” stating that, in order for Taiwanese at that time to become imperial subjects through a process of settling down to livelihood followed by a rise in stature, they were instructed to clean and sanitize their “inner hearts,” and to actively temper the self. Only by doing so could they reach a point at which the Taiwanese would be no different from the Japanese, able to serve the Emperor regardless of their backgrounds. Liu calls this process of subjectivation “reconstruction of the heart”.6 Her analysis is largely based on colonial era sources that are the products of obviously, if relatively, pro-Japanese Han Taiwanese authors of literary skill; perhaps it is for this reason that her inference that writing represents the “heart” or psychological interiority appears unproblematic. But for the indigenous Attun Palalin Teruo Nakamura Lee Guang-Hui, who dedicated himself to the Imperial Japanese Army despite his inability to write or even speak this language fluently—and despite the fact that extensive media reports made it seem as if he had “said” much—it cannot be claimed that there is any direct record or sincere reflection of his inner feelings.7

If we appropriate and slightly revise Joyce C.H. Liu’s terminology, the most peculiar side of the Lee Guang-Hui incident may be its “lack of heart.” The clamor of the media surrounding him may have made it seem as if Attun Palalin Teruo Nakamura Lee Guang-Hui had “said” a great deal, but this is mostly dubious information at best and unreliable fabrications at worst; we do not know how he saw his experience of being forgotten by time or how he understood the shifts in his own identity and citizenship. This lack of “heart” or interiority, however, does not imply that Lee Guang-Hui himself is absent. His image appears at a remove from the bustle of discourse, a series of still frames depicting the act of “role-playing” in order to correspond to the logic of the media. He reorganizes his self: trying on suits, making phone calls, chatting with flight attendants, leading members of his ethnic group in paying respects at Chiang Kai-Shek’s memorial, and even cosplaying “himself” during his days in the forest at the Ami Aboriginal Culture Village theme park in Hualian. Such are the amusing images left behind in the papers.

This apparent lack of interiority and constant role-playing of media characters makes the visual record of Attun Palalin Teruo Nakamura Lee Guang-Hui appear as a set of vague and ambiguous still images or silent films, the meaning of which lies in the narrator’s approach, explanation, and new interpretation. Perhaps this is why Bernd Behr, at the end of Chronotopia, uses the figure of bianshi to intervene in and reinvent the idea of temporality.

Bianshi as Storyteller and Time Traveler

Film, a technique of colonial modernity not unlike the modern idea of temporality, was formally introduced into Taiwan during the period of Japanese rule. In order to aid explanations of plot during silent film screenings of that time, a bianshi would be responsible for a live accompaniment to the development of the story. The bianshi was often eloquent in speech and lively in movement, able to take a rote or commonplace story and convince live audiences to lose themselves through a silver-tongued torrent of words and localized extemporaneous reactions. Despite the suppression of the colonial government, bianshi under Japanese rule could smuggle subversive anti-colonial messages through gaps and seams in the stories by using secret street jargon and in-group codewords, containing a certain degree of progressive symbols for the common people.8

Bianshi responsible for the explication of silent films theoretically lost their raison d’être with the invention of sound film, so it is surprising that Bernd Behr is able to record in his video a bianshi still practicing in Taiwan. This bianshi, who originally provided his services for the blind, continues to attract a certain number of sighted people in his audiences willing to listen and appreciate his improvised interpretations and live explanations of the moving image. This bianshi, appearing out of place in time, seems to be deftly poking secret holes in the fabric of time that otherwise blankets us so seamlessly. Not many people, perhaps, will see these hidden patterns and opaque traces, but those attentive enough, like Behr, will always be able to remind us that our crude demarcation of time into an irreversible march of past, present, and future under the names of “progress” and “evolution” is not the only way to experience, understand, and interpret the world around us.

The bianshi, as a storyteller seemingly out of place in time, continues to employ traditional skills to interpret moving images, a perfect metaphor for artistic practice. The image, with its ambiguities and multiple meanings, here again enjoys affirmation and active différance as the “truth” or “fiction” of the image loses its relevance: under the active mobilization and intervention of the bianshi or artist, this imagery may result in the forcible disruption, adjustment, or even reconstruction of “reality,” no matter how trivial it may appear.

“One cannot escape time,” as Chris Marker cautions us at the end of La Jetée. But perhaps, through the leaps of imagination wrought by historical memory and the techniques of artistic practice, there are times when it is possible to say: “Time … is on my side.”

translated by Robin Peckham


  1. For historical investigations of how the Japanese colonial government introduced a modern notion of temporality to Taiwan, see Lu Shao-li, The Whistle is Sounding: Rhythms of Social Life Under the Japanese Rule (Taipei: Yuanliu, 1998).
  2. In a far-reaching example of the former, the bestselling Taiwanese children’s publication 漢聲小百科 (Hansheng Xiaobaike) introduces outdoor survival skills with a chapter dedicated to a somewhat absurd description of Lee Guang-Hui as a “Chinese Robinson Crusoe” even though, as a soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army at the time, he could only have seen China, as an Allied power, as an enemy. See 漢聲小百科:一月的故事 (Taipei: Echo Publishing, 1984).
  3. For the best-known example of Urashima Tarō, see Ryōtarō Shiba, 台灣紀行:街道漫步 (Taipei: Tohan, 1995), 407-418.
  4. In fact the Chinese artistic tradition did not contain an equivalent of the Western genre of ruins until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the arrival of colonial modernity and the invasion of imperial power led to the gradual development of a degree of national consciousness and the visual aesthetics of ruins. On this period in history, see Wu Hung, A Story of Ruins: Presence and Absence in Chinese Art and Visual Culture (London: Reaktion Books, 2012).
  5. For some of the many examples of this kind of criticism and skepticism, see 智若愚, “李光輝傳記的版權與著作權,” Publishers’ Magazine (March issue, 1975), 2-4; 辜旺炎, “李光輝的文學修養,” Review and Bibliography (March issue, 1975), 28-29. The unreasonable conduct in fabricating newspaper stories at the time aroused the concern of the Press Council; see “檢討有關李光輝報導 新聞評議會籲遵守信條,” Central Daily News (23 January 1975), 6.
  6. Joyce C.H. Liu, “From Difference to Identity: The Reconstruction of the Heart of the Taiwanese Imperial Subject under the Japanese Colonial Period,” in The Perverted Heart: The Psychic Forms of Modernity (Taipei: Ryefield, 2004), 233-269.
  7. Contradictory reports about Lee Guang-Hui’s thoughts and aspirations appeared in local and Japanese media reports of his return to Taiwan, regarding, for example, Japanese militarism or indigenous Taiwanese perceptions of the period under Japanese colonial rule. There were also differing and even opposite accounts. On such reports in the Japanese media, see Beatrice Trefalt, Japanese Army Stragglers and Memories of the War in Japan, 1950-1975 (London: Routledge, 2003), 163-167.
  8. On the cultural status of the bianshi during Japanese rule, see Yeh Lung-yen, The History of Taiwanese Movies During the Japanese Colonization (Taipei: Interminds, 1998), 184-200. On anti-colonial subversion and imagination of the benshi, see Chen Chieh-jen, “談影像與聲音從翻轉到質變的行動,” Contemporary Art and Investment (August issue, 2011), 36-45.