‘Invisible Nation’ Review: Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen Fights For Her Country’s Survival in Vanessa Hope’s Compelling Documentary

Taiwan’s transformation from an authoritarian state to a flourishing democracy determined to decide its own future is charted in the engrossing and highly informative documentary “Invisible Nation.” Centered on President Tsai Ing-wen as she promotes her country’s case for ongoing autonomy in the face of mounting political isolation, as well as China’s claim that Taiwan is part of its territory and must unite with the mainland, Vanessa Hope’s skilfully assembled film delivers a compelling picture of Taiwan’s increasingly precarious position in the region and on the world stage.

Currently enjoying a substantial festival run, “Invisible Nation” has gained an extra note of urgency and its visibility should only increase in the wake of Taiwan’s elections on January 13, 2024. After becoming Taiwan’s first female president in 2016, Tsai will formally complete the two terms permitted under Taiwanese law on May 20. Voters have elected her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) nominee and current vice-president, Lai Ching-te to succeed Tsai. As things currently stand it seems that tensions between Taiwan and China could intensify even further.

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The paradox interrogated in “Invisible Nation” is how such a vibrant, multi-party democracy now finds itself so diplomatically isolated, fighting for its future as a self-ruled country. With a large and impressive roster of Taiwanese and international interviewees surrounding the central footage of Tsai at home and rallying support abroad, Hope and her editors guide viewers clearly through major historical and contemporary events that have made Taiwan such a political hotspot.

Colonized by European and Imperial Chinese powers from the 17th to 19th centuries, Taiwan existed briefly as the Republic of Formosa before being occupied by Japan from 1895 to 1945. The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) retreated to the island in 1949 following defeat by in the Chinese Civil War. Known then (and still officially calling itself) the Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan was ruled under strict authoritarian control by the KMT until reforms it undertook in the 1980s paved the way for fully-fledged democracy in the 1990s.

At the heart of the matter is an apparently irreconcilable dispute between Taiwan and China that is viewed in some quarters as the trigger for possible military conflict. Taiwan maintains that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has never exercised sovereignty over Taiwan and therefore it has the right to follow its own path. “We don’t have a need to declare ourselves an independent state — we are an independent nation,” says Tsai. This position is countered by Chinese leader Xi Jinping in footage of major speeches in 2019 and 2021. “Taiwan is part of China,” he says. “That the two states belong to China is an historical and legal fact. No one and no force can ever change that.”

During footage of Taiwanese military exercises Tsai says, “This is not directed at having war with China. It’s getting ourselves prepared in case there is a Chinese invasion.” Her calm and controlled methods of speech here and everywhere else is similar to Hope’s clear and direct filmmaking approach. There are no fancy flourishes in “Invisible Nation.” This is strong, effective observational documentary filmmaking that does not employ voiceover or text narration, and allows viewers to form their own views.

Smartly cutting between archive and contemporary footage, Hope shows how a tension simmering since 1949 has heated up dramatically since Tsai’s DPP and its pro-sovereignty policy was decisively supported by voters in its victory over the KMT government led by Ma Ying-jeou. In 1971 Taiwan was expelled from the United Nations in favor of China. With China demanding that no country can have diplomatic relations with both China and Taiwan, an overwhelming majority of nations (including the U.S. in 1979) have since chosen to cut official ties with Taiwan and opt for China instead. In the days following the 2024 election, Nauru also switched to China.

The risks associated with any formal government-to-government contact with Taiwan are illustrated by Taiwanese-America author Shawna Yang Ryan’s (“Green Island”) description of the brief phone call between Tsai and U.S. President Trump in 2016. Viewed by China as a violation of its “One China” policy, the incident resulted in no less a person than 93 year-old Henry Kissinger flying to Beijing to smooth things out with President Xi. Hope’s gaze extends to the corporate world, though it might have expanded a little on the world’s critical reliance on Taiwan’s semiconductor industry. Former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi puts it plainly when she says, “The business community in the United States, or wherever, has always tried to kowtow to China and that’s why we’re in the situation we’re in now.”

Today, Taiwan is denied representation at forums such as WHO conferences during the pandemic and must change its name to Chinese Taipei when engaging with international trade and economic bodies or competing at events such as the Olympic Games. Champion athlete Chen Cheng, whose 1968 Olympic medal has Taiwan clearly inscribed on it, appears here to indignantly ask the question: “Is Chinese Taipei a country’s name? It is not.” Such confusion and ambiguity about the name and status of Taiwan are part of what interviewee Andrew J. Nathan, political science professor at Columbia University, describes as China’s ‘strategy to reduce the international personality of Taiwan.’

Details of the enormous challenges facing Taiwan are in sharp contrast with the film’s upbeat coverage of major social, cultural and political changes it has embraced in the past 30 years. Since the dark days of the KMT’s “White Terror” suppression of anti-government voices, Taiwan has made huge strides in areas such as gender equality, personal freedom and recognition of indigenous culture. Long-serving DPP politician and diplomat Hsiao Bi-khim, who is now vice president-elect, proudly tells the story tells the story of how, in 2019, Taiwan became the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage.

Chen Chu, now the head of Taiwan’s National Human Rights Commission and once a pro-democracy dissident jailed by the KMT from 1979-86, movingly sums up the transformation of Taiwan during her lifetime. “At that time our demands were ‘treason.’ But now they have become an important part of Taiwan’s democracy,” she says. The film gets a terrific burst of energy from the testimony of Freddy Lim, charismatic singer with heavy metal rock band Cththonic (“Only justice will bring you peace,” he screams before an excited crowd). Lim co-founded the progressive New Power Party (NPP) in 2015 and has since served two terms as an elected member of  Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan (unicameral parliament).

Hope, whose long history of making films in China includes “The Story of Ermei” (2004) and her first feature documentary “All Eyes and Ears” (2015), brings this project to a powerful, thought-provoking conclusion. After several commentators have drawn parallels between the state of things in Taiwan and recent events in Ukraine and Hong Kong, we are shown images of Taiwanese citizens attending civil defense classes. With all the information that has preceded this footage it is bound to make many viewers deeply concerned about how the next chapters in Taiwan’s story might unfold.

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