Category: Taiwan Film

Salute! Sun Yat-Sen (Taiwan 2014)

The four boys with Lefty second from left.

The four boys with Lefty (Zhan Huai-Yun) second from left.

On the surface this is a gentle comedy about young teenage boys in downtown Taipei. It is slow-paced, observational and sometimes very funny. ‘Lefty’ is a gangling schoolboy and the leader of a ‘gang of four’, each of whom is struggling to find the money to pay their school fees. One day he notices a bronze figure in a school store-room, a full-size statue of Sun Yat-Sen, the leader of the Chinese Revolution of 1911. Lefty quickly works out that he could sell the statue and make enough to fund all four boys through school. He plans the ‘heist’ in meticulous detail and the gang is all set – only to discover that someone else in the school leading another group has exactly the same intention. Despite attempts to negotiate a truce, the two gangs eventually compete to steal the statue in a long and engaging set piece. If this was just a heist narrative it would offer standard genre entertainment. But I think there is more to it than that. This isn’t so surprising since the writer-director is Yee Chih-yen whose 2002 film Blue Gate Crossing was both a critical and commercial success.

Throughout the narrative there is a focus on the relative poverty of the boys in the gangs. At one point Lefty and his opposite number (who refuses to give his name until the final reel) compete to show that they are the poorest and therefore the ones who should be allowed to steal the statue. Later, all of the boys claim they are poor because there is a long history of unemployment in their families. This is one aspect of the social commentary of the film. Sun Yat-Sen is known as ‘the father of the state’ in Taiwan and still has a profile as a leader who prepared for the ‘people’s revolution’ in the PRC. The two groups of boys struggle to take the prize for themselves even though by joining forces they would stand a much better chance of success (the statue is actually very heavy and difficult to move). Is it too much of a leap to suggest that this is might be a commentary on the history of ‘two Chinas’ since 1949? When they fight each other they achieve little, but together they could complete the task effectively.

The thieves' disguise . . .

The thieves’ disguise . . .

I enjoyed the film and found Lefty to be an engaging character as played by Zhan Huai-Yun. I was also impressed by Chen Pa-tu’s cinematography, especially the lighting of night-time streets. Why is it that in East Asian films generally, night-time streets seem so much less threatening than in the West?

The original Minnie Mouse

The original Minnie Mouse

The idea of thieves hiding behind joke-shop masks is not new but the ones in this film seem original. They are the cheapest in the store and they make the skin itchy. They appear to be modelled on an anime character – I thought of a Japanese ‘Minnie Mouse’, which seems somehow appropriate. The Japanese influence on Taiwanese school culture is also evident in what looks like a Kendo martial arts school glimpsed in the opening scenes.

Salute! Sun Yat-Sen is one of the films scheduled for VOD and DVD release by a new UK distributor, Facet Film Distribution. The release date is July 27th and the DVD can be pre-ordered from Amazon. The two founders of the company, Victor Huang and Edison Cheng are Londoners with a passion for East Asian films and their website and Facebook pages are useful resources for news and ideas about East Asian cinema. I wonder what chance they have of success. Taiwanese films in the UK have been mostly limited to the arthouse successes of  Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang (and earlier Edward Yang) and even these have often struggled to get UK distribution. Ang Lee’s early Taiwanese films did manage to get some form of release but it has been a real struggle for contemporary popular films. I’ve very much enjoyed the two I’ve been able to see – You Are the Apple of My Eye (Taiwan 2011) and Cape No. 7 (Taiwan 2008). I’m certainly going to look out for new releases from Facet.

Here’s the trailer for Salute: Sun Yat-Sen: 

The Wayward Cloud (Tian bian yi duo yun, Taiwan/France/China 2004)

France / Taiwan / People’s Republic of China, 2004. Colour, with English subtitles.

The screening at the Leeds International Film Festival was accompanied by an introduction from the director and scriptwriter Tsai Ming-Liang [with a translator]. This was an engaging little talk as the filmmaker expressed his pleasure in visiting the Hyde Park Cinema. It reminded him of ‘a special kind of memory’ from his youth.  He also won my approval by saying that he preferred his film to be seen in the 35mm format rather than on DVD. He did warn the audience that the film contains some shocking scenes, dealing with sex and violence. But he promised there would also be the pleasure of some beautiful ‘old Chinese music.’

The film is set in modern Tapei in Taiwan. Currently there is both a severe water shortage and a glut of watermelons. The former is expensive and rare, the latter ubiquitous. At the start of the film there is a scene with two of the main characters, an unnamed young woman and Hsiao-Kang. They are involved in a fairly explicit sex scene, with a watermelon as a crucial prop. Later I realised that they were actually performing for a pornographic film. Such scenes recur throughout the movie. At times we see the girl and Hsiao-Kang separately trying to achieve a climax: the only time he succeeds is unintentionally, when he has to ‘withdraw’ whilst filming. Presumably it is against porn ‘rules’ for the male protagonist to actually ejaculate in the female. Meanwhile, there is a third main character, another young woman, Shiang-Chyi. She spends much of her time collecting plastic bottles, which she films with water at every available opportunity. It transpires that Shiang-Chyi and Hsiao-Kang are old acquaintances. [It seems that both appeared in earlier films of the director, and apparently this film picks up on these]. When not involved in porn film-making Hsiao-Kang visits Shiang-Chyi’s apartment, but they do not get round to having sex.

Late in the film Shiang-Chyi finds the unconscious girl porn star by the lift in her apartment block. She drags her into the apartment. Unable to rouse her she watches a porn DVD and recognises both the girl and Hsiao-Kang acting in the film. The porn film director appears and Shiang-Chyi helps him carry the still unconscious girl back to the apartment used for filming. Here she watches as Hsiao-Kang has violent sex with the comatosed girl whilst the crew film them. A sudden cut changes the action to Hsaio-Kang having oral sex with Shiang-Chyi through a wooden lattice. He appears to ejaculate into her mouth. The film ends.

The early sex scenes, [which appeared to me to be actual sex] were quite funny to watch. But gradually the recurring scenes became as repetitious and monotonous as actual porn movies. Quite possibly this is a deliberate ploy. However, the final scene, with the limp, unconscious girl being pummelled and pumped by Hsaio-Kang struck me as quite appalling to watch. This also seemed to be the response of the watching Shiang-Chyi. But the sudden cut to oral sex between her and Hsiao-Kang seemed to completely displace that, both in terms of plot and of any critical comment on the action. There is some point made here: Hsiao-Kang achieves the orgasm which he was singularly denied earlier in the film. What that might intend I am not sure?

I struggled to find some sort of salutary point of view in this film. There are possible interpretations that could have the film commenting on pornography, sex as a commodity and even the repressive social situation in which these event occur. But the film’s overall tone and presentation fail to make that point. The interesting context regarding the contradictory rise and fall of water and melons also seemed to fade away in the later stages of the film.

The festival catalogue reproduces comments on the film that run, “a surreal, erotic and outrageous musical drama and one of Tsai’s finest films.” If I can comment on these in turn.

I did not find any surrealist sensibility in this film. The Surrealists saw the world of dreams and the unconscious as an alternative reality. But I failed to discern such an alternative here. I did not even find the film erotic, pornography rarely is. The best surrealist art shocks but it also illuminates issues like sexuality.

And I did not think the film was really a musical. There are a number of musical interludes offering both song and dance, but they are insertions into the film, the songs do not seem to dramatise the characters or their situations. The songs were in Chinese, but they all appeared to be ‘remakes’ of popular North American songs from the 1950s, with new lyrics. The final number, The Wayward Cloud, is actually a version of The Wayward Wind, which I remember from my youth. [The music and original lyrics have been running through my head ever since].

I have not seen any of Tsai Ming-Liang’s other films, so this may indeed be his best work. But I find it really inferior to the films of other major Taiwanese filmmakers. Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (Gu ling jie shao nian sha ren shi jian, 1991, restored to its original version in 2009) deals with youth, sexuality and alienation, and is at times genuinely disturbing. But I found its comment on relationships and violence much more powerful than this film. And if I can refer to a genuine surrealist film, Belle de Jour, (Luis Buñuel, 1967) deals with sex as commodity and fetishism, but subversively.

The director is quoted in the catalogue on his work and film; “sex has prominently featured in my films. I am the first Chinese director to shoot masturbation . . . Sex to me is completely normal thing, but in Chinese communities it is a taboo . . . When I was making The Wayward Cloud, I felt that society’s attitude to sex had matured thanks to video, cable TV, the Internet, where porn is in abundance.”* Whilst I can sympathise with objections to sexual taboos, I do not think that easily available pornography is a step forward. The director does not explain what was the function of ‘shooting masturbation’. And I remain unclear as to why there was so much explicit pornographic material in The Wayward Cloud. I find it disturbing that the film’s conclusion offers the transition from effective rape to what appears to be consensual oral sex. My response presumably sounds moralistic. I note that pornography tends to present itself as amoral, and that this film [perhaps not intentionally] appears to do the same. The filmmaker’s comments suggest that he believes that merely revealing what was forbidden offers a critical stance. I would suggest that the presentation and the context are crucial to a critical standpoint. The presentation in this film does not seem very different from actual pornography and the context fades away as the film develops.

Millennium Mambo (France/Taiwan 2001)

Vicki and Hao-hao. Note the colour palette with the 'glowing' white bra and the shallow focus.

I first got interested in the ‘New Taiwanese Cinema’ director Hou Hsiao-hsien back in the 1980s when he was making films that explored the recent political history of the island through a series of family melodramas. I remember taking a friend to the NFT to see a new film by Hou in the London Film Festival. I think it must have been Daughter of the Nile (1987) which tells a tale about young people in Taipei. I remember that my friend was not impressed and I found it difficult to defend the film. I thought about that experience again when I saw Millennium Mambo. I realise now that I was unprepared for Daughter of the Nile which in some way was a precursor of Millennium Mambo.

As the title suggests, this is a film set around the millennium, told by a young woman from ten years in the future so it’s a bit weird to watch it now. There is little plot. Vicki (Shi Qi) is a stunningly beautiful young woman who appears to have drifted into a slacker mode living with her boyfriend Hao-Hao in Taipei. They fall out and she has a relationship with Jack, an older man who is some kind of criminal, works in a bar as a hostess and at one point travels to Hokkaido with two brothers who have a Japanese mother.

The film has four formal elements that are perhaps more important than the narrative content itself. Firstly, the experience of watching the film is ‘disturbed’ and perhaps made more dream-like, through a dislocation of the voiceover and the image track. The narrator tells us about events which are not on screen at that moment but which will appear some time later. This sense of confusion is compounded by a camera that is fixed much of the time and peers into the couple’s apartment, into bars and restaurants etc. so that much of the ‘action’ is in long shot unless characters move up close to the camera. Further confusion comes from the deliberate lack of focus at the start of some scenes so that the screen shows only shimmering colours which move behind a distorting lens. Even within scenes, the field of focus is so shallow that characters seem trapped in a woozy environment.

The shimmering colours are also present through deliberate design of costumes, lighting and interior decor. The camera shoots through flimsy curtains, hanging mobiles of reds and greens and blues, window frames and doorways. Vicky wears bright reds or white. The lighting in clubs and bars (and seemingly the apartment) uses ultraviolet (?) so that, for instance, Vicky wears a white bra or tee-shirt that literally glows in the dim surroundings. Finally, running throughout much of the film is a music track of ambient/techno music, mainly by Lim Giong. As you can tell, this isn’t my scene and I don’t know quite how to describe it!

This clip from the opening of the film demonstrates the hypnotic quality of the camerawork, setting, voiceover and music:

We do learn a little about Vicky’s past – she and Hao-hao came to Taipei from Keelung – and Vicky makes a second visit to Japan when Jack travels there attempting to solve a problem in his criminal activities. The Japanese sequences are visually different, mainly because the camera strays outside onto the streets (and peers at the rushing trains – an Ozu moment perhaps?). The town in Hokkaido is holding a film festival and there are many beautiful posters of classic and not-so-classic films (Jean Gabin v. Charles Bronson?). In Taiwan all the ‘action’ is claustrophobic and every shot is of an interior – or perhaps the balcony of the apartment.

I guess that Hou’s films are the ultimate test of cinephilia. Whereas in his earlier historical melodramas there was something for the average art cinema fan to chew on, in these films the pleasures on offer are limited to formal questions and teases about questions of narration and narrativity. The film seems to be a challenge to viewers. Does it have a metaphorical purpose? I’m not sure. (Hou himself has commented that young people, especially young women, seem to live their lives much faster now. Perhaps the film is a reflection on time – as the young woman sees it?)  At times I was bored and frustrated and then angry with the abusive Hao-hao. Vicky is a seductive creation (seemingly on the verge of smoking herself to death) and I probably enjoyed the scenes with Jack the most, although the trips to Japan were also inviting. Shi Qi is undoubtedly a star (she also appears in Hou’s later film, Three Times) and I was interested to find out more about her from various fansites (such as shuqi.org). I hadn’t realised that she started in soft porn modelling and films in Hong Kong and that at one point she was in the running for the role in Crouching Tiger that went to Zhang Ziyi. I hope she gets challenging roles in the future.

I think that I would like to show this film to film students in order to discuss how Hou creates its hypnotic feel combining music, images and editing. The cinematography is by Mark Lee (aka Lee Pin-bing) whose work I now realise I have seen several times before (and look forward to on several upcoming movies). All the time in Millennium Mambo I was thinking about Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels (HK 1996) which shares not only elements of the visual style, but also allusions to youth culture and criminality. I notice now that Mark Lee was an assistant to Chris Doyle on that shoot and that he later shot Wong’s In the Mood For Love. There is an interesting blog on the audio work in Millennium Mambo here.

The comparison with Wong Kar-wai is interesting. Wong’s films are for me more entertaining and Hong Kong is a more familiar milieu. Hou seems more for cinephiles in some of the films. However, I’ve got a couple more of Hou’s films to view in the next few months and I’m aware of the cult status that Millennium Mambo seems to be developing from the YouTube comments. You can follow our other Hou entries via this tag.