Taiwan Film Days 'Bear It' creates comedy from the trauma of teddy bears lost in travel.

Unbound by Genre, Taiwan's Films Travel Unique Paths

Adam Hartzell October 13, 2011

SFFS's Taiwan Film Days turns up surprises.

It could be argued that Taiwanese cinema, best known through the work of three auteurs, Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang, is not tied to audience-generating genres. It’s certainly been able to travel more diverse cinematic avenues than some of its neighbors. San Francisco Film Society's Taiwan Film Days running from October 14–16, however, offers evidence for any number of arguments you’d like to make about Asian cinema and Taiwan in particular. On the docket this year are documentaries (The Coming of Tulku and Taivalu), a romantic drama (You Are the Apple of My Eye, the directorial debut of the hugely popular Taiwanese novelist Giddens), comedies (Bear It and Pinoy Sunday), suspense (Formosa Mambo and Ranger) and the less easy to pin down Honey Pupu.

Pinoy Sunday (Ho Wi-ding, 2009) is simple in its plot—two Filipino migrant workers long for a rooftop sofa—yet anything but simple in theme. For those who don't know, ‘Pinoy’ is a slang term for males from the Philippines, a term at least one of these characters wears with pride, and the ‘Sunday’ refers to the fact that a critical mass of migrant laborers get only Sundays off, many congregating on that day around an area of Taipei called Zhongshan near St. Christopher's Catholic church. A tight 85 minutes, the film touches on touches on the difficult negotiation of long-distance relationships. The documentary Taivalu (Huang Hsin-yao, 2011) offers similarly nuanced view of globalization by connecting the environmental disaster facing the archipelago of Tuvalu with that of the Taiwanese town of Tainan.

At 165 minutes, it’s clear The Coming of Tulku (Cheng Tsun-shing, 2011) will offer a depthed view into the life of 90-year old Taiwanese poet Zhou Meng-die. Born in 1920, Zhou moved to Taiwan with the Nationalist Army in 1949, leaving his family behind in the mainland. The film moves through the poet’s many personal and financial hardships yet does not leave us sad. It’s tempered with a vibrant intellectual camaraderie at Zhou's bookstall in Tapei and other locations. The everyday moments in the documentary, i.e., watching Zhou at the public bath, offer meditative help of a sort—the viewer can stop at a bench to rest for a spell before continuing this longform cinematic journey.

Opening night’s Formosa Mambo (Wong Chi-tsai, 2011) and closing night’s Ranger (Chienn Hsiang, 2010) take different tacts while focusing on the lives in the underworld. Formosa Mambo breaks up the suspense with a little comedy by following a kidnapping ring that itself gets caught up in a wider scheme one could name ‘kidnap derivatives.’ This financial reference is apropos since Formosa Mambo is one of many recent films using elements of the global financial crisis in its plot. Another character in the film is a financially fallen man who finds himself buying into assisting a grade school friend with these acts of corruption in order to regain his self-esteem. He eventually finds his conscience confronted.

Ranger maintains a more serious tone throughout its 80 minutes, following a gangster released back into the world after a long stint in prison for murder. Aware that he might be used as a fall guy immediately upon his release, he is hesitant to return to the fol. Yet his more passive nature has him stumbling into an empathic alliance with the abused child of his gang boss. When the most dangerous thing he can do is maintain connections with the mob, he finds he can't sever his ties and leave this vulnerable child in violent hands.

Unpeggable Honey Pupu (Chen Hung-i, 2011) is art cinema mixed with fantasy; dreamy moments, as in the emergence of butterfly wings on one character, allow for visual play in a coming of age story about a socially networked world. It’s an interesting attempt to sort out and reconcile the worlds we create online and off, and a nice example of the artistic freedom a national cinema has when it has yet to be genre-branded.

Taiwan's freedom from being pigeon-holed into certain genres might change if the local success of its newest blockbuster, and most expensive Taiwanese film to date, Wei Te-sheng's Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale, is any sign of its future production plans. (It surpassed the previous opening box office record holder in Taiwan, and past TFD-featured film Cape No. 7, also directed by Wei.) Co-produced by John Woo and featuring a technical production staff from Japan, Singapore and South Korea along with Taiwan, it includes Japanese actor Ando Masanobu in its cast and was recently picked up by Fortissimo Films—so it obviously intends a global reach. Yet the film maintains Taiwan specificity: It required a large cast of Taiwanese actors of aboriginal descent, depicting the Wushe Incident where 300 Seediq warriors rose up against their Japanese colonizers. Not in this particular package of Taiwanese film, it’s something to possibly look forward to in 2012's Taiwan Film Days, and provides hope that regardless of Taiwan cinema's global ambitions, it will always maintain connections with the intimate experience of those who have called Taiwan home permanently, such as Zheng Ming-die; those, such as the Seediq, who called Taiwan home before it was even called Taiwan; or, in the case of migrant laborers, those who have found themselves in Taiwan as a transitional, liminal space.