Smoke and mirrors: Doze Niu Chen-zer's cinéma vérité-styled showbiz mockumentary "What on Earth Have I Done Wrong?" trades in Taiwanese pop and political references. (Photo courtesy SFFS)

A Tour Through the 2009 Taiwan Film Days

Adam Hartzell November 5, 2009

For the regular film festival attendee, Taiwanese Cinema has been associated with three names: Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang and the late Edward Yang. But for three days starting November 6, the San Francisco Film Society offers a chance to see contemporary Taiwanese cinema beyond the work of those three masters.

Two of the films screening in Taiwan Film Days were official Oscar entries for the Best Foreign Language film from Taiwan. Opening-nighter Cape No. 7 (Wei Te-sheng, 2008) was 2009’s submission; it follows an unlikely rock band—unlikely in that the ages of the members range from about that of the Jonas Brothers to about the Rolling Stones. Formed for reasons of local pride as a counterpoint to the headlining act from Japan, the band ebbs and flows towards becoming a solid unit while dealing with an obstinate band leader, sporadic infighting and, of course, a love interest. Not only does the film fulfill genre requirements, it clearly sated the needs of its Taiwanese audience, who, shortly after its release, made it the highest grossing domestic film in Taiwanese history. Perhaps this can be credited to the wide age range the film reached with its multigenerational cast, particularly the comedic "Old Mao." His self-assessment of his musical skills, "Shit, I’m a national treasure," still makes me laugh.

The other Oscar submission on the bill, the country’s nomination for 2010, No Puedo Vivir sin Ti (Leon Dai, 2009), appears low budget, but is rich in narrative and pacing. Based on a true story, No Peudo Vivir sin Ti is a tale of man against system. Li Wu-hsiung, as we are introduced to him, has a young girl clinging to him as he threatens to jump from a bridge, screaming that society is unfair. Unraveling in just which ways it’s unfair, the black-and-white film offers an arduous path through bureaucracy. The images of Wu-hsiung looking up toward his daughter from beneath the sea are as affecting as any film ten times its budget.

Yang Li-chou’s Beyond the Arctic (2008) is an entertaining documentary following the three-man Taiwanese team taking part in the 2008 Polar Challenge, a grueling trek to the North Pole. The constant daylight hours probably provided a sense of delirium that spawned much of the film’s humor. How much of the trek Lang and his crew participated in themselves, and whether they had respites the three-man team did not will be interesting questions to have answered at the screening, where director Yang Li-chou and producer Michelle Chu are expected to be in attendance.

In God Man Dog (Singing Chen, 2007), several characters’ lives become intertwined by an accident. The parties whose lives come crashing together are a couple struggling with post-partum depression, a disabled war veteran trying to raise money for a new prosthesis through participating as a god in religious festivals and transporting a neon god on a truck bed, and an aboriginal family seeking reconciliation between an alcoholic father and kick-boxing daughter. For those who aren’t aware of Taiwan’s aboriginal history, there are presently 14 officially recognized aboriginal tribes. Most are related to the same peoples indigenous to the Philippines. (And you may be more aware of them than you realize since the one-hit wonder Enigma utilized a chant from the Taiwanese Ami aborigines as a key sample for the song "Return to Innocence." This resulted in a court case that has provided significant debate regarding proper compensation of indigenous people for the commodification of their cultures and traditions.) God Man Dog demonstrates multicultural cinema is not just a Western affair.

And there’s more Taiwanese multiculturalism beyond God Man Dog in Yang Yang (Chen Yu-chieh, 2009), which focuses on a college student whose former rocker mother is Taiwanese and whose father is said to be French, though we are led to believe that’s only a guess. The film begins at the wedding of her mother to Yang Yang’s Taiwanese running coach. Thanks to this union, one of her teammates becomes her sister. Soon it’s revealed that their competition extends beyond the track and into to the game of love, or possibly just lust. Eventually Yang Yang ventures on her own away from the family in order to find her own way within a society that marks her as different.

My personal favorite from the selection is Fu Tien-yu’s debut Somewhere I Have Never Traveled (2009). Ah-guei (played wonderfully by both the child actress Lee Yun-yun and older teenage actress Yu Shin) is a color-blind girl in a world full of color. Her friendship with a young gay man opens her up to a world un-discussed by those around her, furthering her disconnect with her family and schoolmates. Like Yang Yang, Ah-guei has to find her own path, which includes trying to negotiate a trip to "The Island of Color Blind," where she hopes she’ll feel more connected than she does to the island where she presently resides. Fans of the slow-paced film that one absorbs rather than has fed to them will have much to appreciate in this confident debut. Director Fu will be in person to discuss her film, so I hope she gets the audience this lovely film deserves.

Doze Niu Chen-zer’s cinéma vérité-styled What on Earth Have I Done Wrong? (2007) is the film that may require the most outside research before viewing; it’s tied up with real-life characters in the Taiwan’s politics and film industry, including Doze himself. He plays a director named… Doze…. negotiating funding for a new film, and the negotiations involve drugs, prostitutes and the mob. The political commentary and celebrity gossip may be initially impenetrable to the audience member unfamiliar with Taiwan, but I promise an anchor-able arc reveals itself. The film becomes a soul-search, one without the pat resolution we might be led to believe will arise. It’s the kind of film that leaves me wanting to know more about its political and cultural references, which are not interpreted for the international audience. Yet it’s just this sort of refusal to diminish the local nature of the story in order to enhance its global profile that makes it admirable; it’s exactly the kind of film that finds its appropriate international forum in a film showcase like this one.

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