Born on the Mainland in 1941, Mou Tun-Fei was one of many making the move to Taiwan with his family following the Chinese Civil War in 1949. In fact, he made only two films in Taiwan, neither of which were ever released, and spent the bulk of his career in Hong Kong working for Shaw Brothers where he became associated with a brand of extreme exploitation cinema before finally returning to the Mainland, later working on the notorious co-production Men Behind the Sun.
His debut, however, I Didn’t Dare to Tell You (不敢跟你講, Bù Gǎn Gēn Nǐ Jiǎng), is a gritty social drama inspired by the neorealist movement and the French New Wave even throwing in a few nods to The 400 Blows. No single reason is offered as to why it ultimately went unreleased, it was apparently not because Mou was unhappy with the film, though its mildly subversively digs at contemporary authoritarianism and perhaps problematically left-wing take on structural inequalities may have made it unpalatable to the censors even if its unexpectedly rosy coda feels like a concession made for their benefit.
The hero, Da-Yuan (Hsu Jian-Sheng), is a lonely little boy tormented by playground bullies and raised by an often absent single-father (Chen Kuo-Chun) who has despite himself pledged his son as an apprentice in settlement for his gambling debts. Da-Yuan, however, wants to stay in education after middle school and is wary of an older man, Uncle Chen, who often drops by the house inspecting his teeth as if he were a horse at market. Consumed by guilt, Da-Yuan’s father eventually decides to honour his son’s wishes and send him to the public high school telling Uncle Chen that the deal is off. Uncle Chen, however, is less than sympathetic insisting that Da-Yuan’s father pay back the money he owes within the month. Spying on his father Da-Yuan overhears their conversation and begins to feel guilty himself, wondering if he should give up on staying at school but later deciding to look for work to help his father pay off the debt entering an arrangement with another boy who had to drop out of education to work in a print house, pulling his shifts while his friend does Da-Yuan’s homework to prepare for entering the high school the next year as his older brother had promised him he could.
The subject of child labour seems to have been the controversial element that may have upset the censor’s board, suggesting a series of economic and social problems at the heart of a developing society as kids like Da-Yuan find themselves exploited while at the mercy of an irresponsible parent, in this case his father’s gambling which sees him berated by their no-nonsense landlady who makes no secret of her disapproval of his parenting style. Da-Yuan’s father, meanwhile, desperately tries to make amends by thrusting himself into overwork in low pay, exploitative conditions which have left him exhausted and in poor health as his constant coughing hints. Discovering that Da-Yuan has been neglecting his studies to work, he is crushed and betrayed, feeling as if all his sacrifices have been for nothing throwing his son out never knowing that he did it only in an attempt to ease his burden. The truth is eventually only revealed by Da-Yuan’s staunchly loyal friends who eventually “dare” to tell in the interests of justice.
Meanwhile, a parallel conflict is going on in the heart of Da-Yuan’s school teacher (Grace Gua Ah-leh) who first appears as an austere figure with her hair in a tight bun wearing thick-framed glasses and dressed in a severe suit. Outside of school she finds herself at odds with her beatnik artist fiancé who complains that she’s travelled too far to the dark side and that her newfound conservatism is turning the kids into identical mindless drones devoid of life or creativity. She meanwhile, intensely resents his beard and shaggy hair complaining that he wasn’t “like this” when they first met two years previously, but once he smashes her unfashionable glasses which were merely an affectation designed to add to her sense of authority, her outlook does indeed begin to change. Letting her hair down and dressing in a more comfortable fashion she begins to bond with the kids and develops a sympathy for Da-Yuan investigating why it is he’s always falling asleep in class now determined to help rather than punish.
In the end, authoritarianism loses out, the teacher’s earlier assertion that pupils need to be obedient members of society replaced by a more compassionate desire to nurture their individual talents and personal happiness. Nevertheless, the coda occurring after a poignant freeze-frame a little after the boy utters the film’s title to his chastened father, seems improbably optimistic, subtly re-enforcing the power of the state in its parade of pristine public high schools as if to say the system works in direct contrast to everything we’ve just seen implying that the dissatisfying reality of boys like Da-Yuan can be fixed by a simple act of truth sharing and an acceptance of mutual responsibility. Shot with unflinching though never preachy naturalism, Mou’s steely drama is otherwise resolute in its anti-authoritarianism condemning both the deadening effects of a rigid educational system and an unforgiving society that actively frustrates the hopes and dreams of ordinary kids like Da-Yuan and his friends.
I Didn’t Dare to Tell You streamed as part of Electric Shadows.