Legacies of trauma and displacement frustrate the connection between two floating youngsters in Lau Kek Huat & Vera Chen’s poetic drama, Boluomi (菠蘿蜜, Bōluómì). Making a direct connection between the Malayan Emergency and a sense of rootlessness in the contemporary generation, Lau & Chen send their conflicted hero overseas in an attempt to plant himself anew but even there he discovers himself merely another kind of other even as he forms a tentative bond with a similarly displaced woman rendered still more marginalised by her undocumented status and inability to speak the language.
The film opens with the central trauma which is itself one of many as a child is born to a communist guerrilla fighter, Gyun (Vera Chen), and is then abandoned in the forest hidden inside the shell of a jackfruit or “boluomi” as is the custom apparently intended to ensure the child’s survival. In this case the child does indeed survive and like the opening of a fairytale is rescued by an older muslim Malay couple who have no children of their own and decide to adopt him, giving him the name “Mi” inspired by the unusual circumstances of his birth. Segueing to the present day we’re introduced to the hero, Yi-fan (Wu Nien-hsuan), just as he’s been humiliatingly stopped at customs on his return to Taiwan where he is studying agriculture because the homemade sambal his mother gave him is apparently too fragrant for the authorities’ taste. They won’t meet until later, but it’s at the airport that he first crosses paths with Laila (Laila Ulao), a young woman from the Philippines escorted out as one of many “carers from South East Asia” though as we later discover her true destination is a local massage parlour where she works as a cleaner in order to send money home to her family.
Connecting the two timelines through a fragmentary dream we can assume that the abandoned child is Yi-fan’s father and that his double abandonment, later taken away from the loving older couple he believed to be his parents when his birth mother resurfaces, is responsible for his rage and fecklessness which has in turn left Yi-fan angry and resentful. The legacy of the Malayan Emergency is also perhaps connected to his feelings of alienation as a member of the Chinese minority, denied a place at university he feels solely on the basis of his ethnicity. Yet when he gets to Taiwan he’s suddenly not “Chinese” enough and incongruously finds himself speaking Malay even if there’s a double irony in being told that he should speak Chinese while in Taiwan. His professor with whom he seems to be on slightly awkward terms, perhaps another manifestation of his suspicion of male authority figures, pours cold water on his suggestions of finding a way to stay in Taiwan by opening a business instructing him that diaspora students have a duty to go home to stimulate social change.
In a rather pregnant metaphor, the teacher’s opening lecture concerns foreign fruits successfully transplanted to Taiwan but also uncomfortably references viruses lurking in the soil, while Yi-fan’s attempts to grow a hybrid boluomi tree by grafting the Malaysian plant onto the Taiwanese eventually fail in parallel with his frustrated relationship with Laila who finds herself equally rootless while attempting to care for a fragile friend trafficked from Vietnam as a mail-order bride and now suffering ill heath but afraid to get treatment because of her status as an undocumented sex worker. Yi-fan befriends Laila by becoming an interpreter, helping her at the post office by translating into their shared language, English, and thereafter deepening their connection through the similarities found in Malay and Tagalog. Yet Yi-fan’s simple dreams of romance are frustrated by the world in which they live even as the pair bond through a shared sense of continual displacement.
Try as he might, Yi-fan can’t make the boluomi grow, though it seems Laila could, putting down firmer roots while Yi-fan remains perpetually on the margins unable to escape the legacy of loss and alienation even in wilful migration. Struggling to survive in the precarious, largely hidden migrant worker underclass, Yi-fan and Laila’s romantic fantasy can never be more than just that though eventually comes full circle with another boy abandoned in the forest and a tree finally taking root.
Original trailer (English subtitles)