How much do you really owe a family that has failed you? A difficult question at the best of times, it’s one that continues to play on the mind of teenager Chen, one of two young women from indigenous communities at the centre of Ho Chao-ti’s documentary Turning 18 (未來無恙, Wèilái Wúyàng). Following the two girls who each come from challenging family backgrounds from the ages of 15 to 18, Ho perhaps draws a slightly uncomfortable contrast in the differing paths their lives eventually take after they briefly meet during an internship at funeral home but nevertheless presents an all too often ignored perspective on a hidden side of the island nation.
Forced to grow up far too soon, both young women are children of single parent families in which there has been a history of domestic violence and, as we later discover, in Chen’s case sexual abuse. In response to her difficult family circumstances in which her mother has become an alcoholic and she has become the primary carer for her eight siblings, Chen has grown serious and mature. She intensely resents her mother’s drinking, not least because it plays into a racist stereotype about indigenous people while also trapping them in desperate poverty. Chen has had to take time out of education to look after her siblings and is grateful for the internship opportunity after which she will return to high school.
Pei, meanwhile, has moved in with her possessive boyfriend, Wei, and his despairing mother. She is slightly less enthused about the internship, but dutifully completes it. Unlike Chen she never returns to school but remains with Wei who later becomes a delinquent and encounters trouble with the law. Pregnant before her 18th birthday, Pei finds herself navigating teenage motherhood and economic instability while the increasingly irresponsible Wei gravitates towards a life on the margins of crime.
As such, it seems almost as if we’re being pushed towards judgement of the unlucky Pei for, perhaps, making the same mistake as her mother in unwisely depending on an unreliable man though they are both only teenagers, while it is undoubtedly much easier to get behind the earnest Chen who is determined to make something of her life while fiercely defending her family. Nevertheless, their marginalised status as members of an indigenous community is quickly brought home to us. Ho throws in a few snippets from post-war propaganda programs regarding the development of Hualien which describe the local Tayan population alternately as savage and uncivilised and then simple and innocent, apparently grateful for their “civilisation” at the hands of the KMT government which recommends Hualien to industry leaders as a source of cheap labour.
Both the young women suffer at the hands of a patriarchal social code and fractured economy. Forced to compromise her education, Chen resents her mother for being unable to hold down a job of her own while it seems clear that she has little education herself and that her drinking is in part a response to her despair. Having escaped abusive spouses, the mothers of both girls have been left without effective means to support themselves in the absence of men, Chen’s mother depending on the support of her extended family who, we later learn, were also abusive. When the abuse is brought to light, Chen’s mother encourages her to lie to the court in order to protect her family members afraid perhaps of the shame but equally of the impossibility of surviving without them.
Yet Chen continues to try to love her mother no matter how much she disappoints her, sorry only that her mother could not learn to love herself enough to save herself and determined never to make the same mistake. Finding an outlet in Taekwondo which she sees as another way to protect her family, Chen discovers another side of herself in dating another girl, at this young stage of her life incongruously insisting on referring to her as a “boyfriend” though the relationship appears to be accepted by her classmates as entirely normal. We never see how Chen’s family feels about her sexual identity save that she later affirms her desire to march in the Pride parade in Taipei precisely because she wants them to understand she loves women and that’s not something that will change, no one has the right to tell her who to love or who to marry.
In this at least, Chen appears to have broken the cycle in definitively embracing her identities as a queer indigenous woman while also continuing to love and support her problematic family. Pei meanwhile is in a much less advantageous position, having perhaps repeated the same behaviour patterns in being letdown by an unreliable man and left to bring up a baby on her own though little more than a baby herself. Nevertheless, Ho’s camera is never judgemental in capturing this largely hidden side of Taiwanese society in which systemic male failure and entrenched patriarchy contribute to the marginalisation of the indigenous community even in the contemporary era.
Original trailer (English subtitles)