Two orphaned brothers set out to find a literal goldmine, but discover only relentless exploitation and defeat in Wang Tung’s meditation on oppression and colonialism, Hill of No Return (無言的山丘, Wúyán de Shānqiū). The third in a trilogy of films exploring Taiwanese history, Wang’s tragic melodrama finds commonality if not solidarity among a collection of villagers living in a small town sustained entirely by the mine which produces riches only for the Japanese while those who risk their lives underground deprived of the light of the sun delude themselves that if they work hard they too can become rich only to discover each of their attempts to escape the constraints placed against them leading to nothing other than despair.
As the film opens, brothers Chu (Peng Chia-Chia) and Wei (Huang Pin-Yuan) who have signed long-term five year contracts as farm labourers, are listening to an old man’s story about the grandfather of a local man who followed a frog to a mountain noticing its skin glowing gold and thereafter filling his pockets with gold dust he later used to buy up land and become rich. Chu thinks the man was foolish for not going back and becoming even richer, but the old man explains that he was reminded in a dream that excessive greed would only anger the gods and lead to his downfall. Fed up with their lives as labourers, the brothers take the story to heart and decide to look for their own mountain of gold, their backs too bathed in the light of the sun as they rest while looking for the goldmine town of Jiou-fen, later coming across a grisly and ominous scene shortly before they arrive.
Both illiterate and speaking only Taiwanese, the brothers are each intent on becoming landowners partly in order to give their late parents, apparently killed by TB, a fitting resting place, but soon find themselves once again exploited, Wei becoming increasingly disillusioned with being trapped underground whereas in the fields at least he’d had the sun. The mine is of course a Japanese concern and its operators care little for the local Taiwanese workforce even if their treatment may not be as deliberately brutal as it might have been elsewhere. The new director is convinced that the miners are pocketing gold before it reaches the surface, instituting several new controls which threaten the local economy and especially that of the Japanese-style brothel which depends entirely on the mine for its survival.
Like many, Hong-mu (Jen Chang-bin), a young man raised in the brothel by its madam following the death of his mother, looks up to the Japanese colonisers seeing them as innately “better” than the Taiwanese all around him. “People will respect me if I wear Japanese clothes” he tells the madam disappointed on receiving a new outfit in the local fashion. Having been told that his father, whom he has never met and was presumably a client of the brothel, was Japanese he speaks the language fluently and believes himself to be slightly superior by virtue of his birth but only too late learns his mistake in collaborating with the mine owners believing they would help him marry a young Japanese woman working at the brothel as a maid, Fumiko (Mayko Chen Hsien-Mei), and finding himself betrayed. As Fumiko is from the Ryukyu islands (Okinawa), the mine owner doesn’t quite see her as fully “Japanese” either and thinks nothing of using and abusing her in the course of his activities.
The wily madam quips that you can’t call yourself Taiwanese if you haven’t figured out how to do illegal things legally finding ways of getting around the prohibition on accepting gold from the miners as payment, but that doesn’t stop the military police later raiding the brothel and brutally taking back “their” gold even though it has already changed hands albeit not entirely in good faith. The sex workers too are victims of this same vicious cycle, dependent on the custom of the miners for their livelihood while deprived any real possibility of escaping their desperate circumstances. Meanwhile, the brothers’ grumpy landlady, Ro (Yang Kuei-mei), is a twice-widowed single mother of numerous children left with no choice other than to engage in independent sex work, advertising herself as the more economical, local alternative to the Japanese-style “opulence” of the traditional teahouse. While Wei falls for the melancholy innocence of Fumiko singing Okinawan folksongs in a field of golden flowers, Chu takes a liking to Ro and her many children but though they both dream of the same thing, saving enough money to buy a farm, their tempestuous romance is later frustrated by Chu’s reckless decision to take advantage of chaos at the mine in an attempt to get rich quick by harvesting a mega load of gold while no one’s looking.
He has perhaps been too greedy, ignoring the lessons from the old man’s story. The brothers are continually forced to pay for their transgressions, Chu cutting off his own fingers when cornered by thugs sent out by his previous employer to satisfy their literal demand for an arm and a leg in satisfaction of the broken contract, while Wei’s foot is later injured in a partial cave in when caught underground during an earthquake. Ro calls Chu foolish in his delusion that hard work will bring him a comfortable life, watching him slaving away to make the Japanese rich but what other choice do either of them really have? Only later does Wei begin to reflect on the possibility that the treasure of the mountain was the bright yellow flowers which covered it, a natural beauty soon destroyed by industrial exploitation. A melancholy chronicle of life in a small mountain town in the colonial era, Hill of No Return finds only despair and impossibility for its orphaned brothers whose eternal quest for ownership of their own land leads to nothing but continual disappointment.
Hill of No Return streams in the UK until 31st October as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.
Trailer (Traditional Chinese / English Subtitles)