As a student in Taipei in the late 70s, I was amazed to find that Fukienese—the mother tongue of more than 80 percent of the Taiwanese—could not be heard on TV or in films. At Taipei Normal University, a fine was even levied for speaking it in class.
Yes, language is political. So it’s refreshing to see that the unspoken ban on non-Han languages in Chinese cinema has clearly ended. In Taiwan, Seediq Bale—shot entirely in Seediq—was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2012 Oscars. On the mainland, Pema Tseden’s Old Dog in Tibetan has also won international acclaim.
Now it’s the turn of the Yi (彝), who number eight million and live primarily in rural and mountainous areas of Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi (Wikipedia). The first-ever film shot entirely in their language, which belongs to the Tibeto-Burman family, premiered Nov 11 at Chengdu’s Southwest University for Nationalities.
<布阿诗嘎薇> (pronounced Bù ā shī gā wēi in Mandarin) is based on a traditional Yi folk tale with a plotline that reminds one a bit of the Iliad: The lovely and virtuous Bu a shi ga wei is kidnapped by the local tusi (chieftain); along the way her brother and father are killed, and her lover Lada sets out with a crew of braves on horseback to battle the evil tusi’s forces and bring her back to her home village.