Washington — ``What is Los Angeles like?'' asks one of the characters in the film ``Taipei Story.'' The answer: ``It's like Taipei.'' That line, and the film it's in, point to one of the vivid reasons for interest in ``Taiwan Stories: More Films from the Newest Wave,'' the semi-exotic festival that's here at the American Film Institute Theater and continuing on an 18-month tour of the States.
Life in the Republic of China on Taiwan, at least on film, is chock-full of Americana: The heroine of ``Daughter of the Nile'' works in a Kentucky Fried Chicken pagoda; US baseball is a national passion; music by Madonna, Huey Lewis and the News, and Tina Turner fills the air in restaurants; outside, there is smog worthy of Los Angeles. And, in this Taiwan, knowing English is a status symbol, and characters talk of emigrating to the US as the Promised Land. Several of these filmmakers have studied in the US.
This affinity for things American may make Taiwanese films relatively accessible to US audiences, which showed extraordinary interest in the first festival of this kind, in 1986. It was booked into 14 museums, film centers, and colleges from Honolulu to Vermont. The AFI is just beginning to book this second Taiwanese film package.
Of course, the films themselves are distinctly nationalistic at the core, and they offer an intriguing glimpse into a culture with its own deep roots. ``When the family is harmonious, all things succeed,'' points out a relative in ``Daughter of the Nile,'' a Hou Hsiao-hsien film. But this failed family is split by a brother's lawlessness and burglary, and a sister's comic-strip fantasies. In Chang Yi's ``Medea''-like ``This Love of Mine,'' a husband's infidelity precipitates a wife's mental collapse, her subsequent murder of their two small children, and the murder-suicide of the couple.
Of the eight films in the festival, the sunniest and funniest is Yu Kan-ping's ``Myth of a City,'' in which an endearing school bus driver named Uncle Sun (Sun Yueh) takes his wayward bus full of kids on a joy ride to the ocean. In ``The Boys from Fengkuei,'' ``Daughter of the Nile'' director Hou Hsiao-hsien shows us teen-agers dying to leave their seaside town for the excitement of the big city but dissatisfied when they reach it.
In Edward Yang's evocative ``Taipei Story,'' the city is the star. The film deals with the dissolving relationship of a Taipei businessman and his childhood friend, a career woman who loses her job. The couple's life in Taipei turns chaotic, and the film ends violently but ambiguously, as several of these films do. The violence accelerates in Yang's fragmented but fascinating later film, ``The Terrorizer,'' ending in gory multiple murders. The plots of some of the films, like this one, done in Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles, are not easy to follow.
Eddie Cockrell, the AFI associate film programmer who put together this Taiwan package, says, ``Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang are filmmakers who represent the two strong points of Taiwan cinema.'' He compares Yang to Michelangelo Antonioni in his ability to create ``indigenous cinema'' and ``to incorporate a city into a film ... in such a way that it's an integral part of the structure.'' He compares Hou Hsiao-hsien's ``The Boys From Fengkuei'' to Fran,cois Truffaut's classic, ``The 400 Blows.''
Among the other films in the festival are Wang Tung's ``Run Away,'' an action film about a gang of brigands in mainland China 700 years ago, and ``The Loser, the Hero,'' a black comedy dealing with cramming for senior high school, made by Mai Ta-chieh (who is know in America as Peter Mak). The festival continues through Feb. 17 at the AFI Theater at Kennedy Center.