A Step Forward (牧師といのちの崖, Atsushi Kasezawa, 2019)

bokushi_B5_01“It is very difficult to say what is right and what is not right” a conflicted pastor laments, reflecting on perceived past failings and the sad death of a man who eventually took his own life despite the best efforts of all to help him find a way to go on living. Atsushi Kasezawa’s documentary A Step Forward (牧師といのちの崖, Bokushi to Inochi no Gake) follows a small-town pastor who is on constant call near a series of rocky cliffs which attract both cheerful tourists and those looking for a way out of life’s suffering.

Pastor Yoichi Fujiyabu works with a local suicide prevention charity to try and rescue vulnerable people who might be thinking of taking their own lives. So common is suicide at the clifftop, that the society has erected a sign urging those in distress to reconsider with a number they can call for help. Of course, sometimes other people call too which seems to be the case with the first incident we see in which Fujiyabu spends two hours patiently trying to coax a middle-aged woman away from the cliff edge, eventually taking her back to the rectory and offering her a place to stay.

Suicide prevention does not just end at the clifftop. Fujiyabu also runs a rehabilitation centre which, as his wife later suggests, becomes a kind of “home” for those who feel they no longer have anywhere else to go. Though there may not be any one reason someone decides they have no option other than to end their life, it remains true that many of the people Fujiyabu saves have either lost or become estranged from their families and feel themselves to be alone in the world. The Fujiyabus aim to provide them with the safety net of a place they know they can always return to so that they can begin to rebuild their lives and ultimately return to mainstream society.

Then again, as Mrs. Fujiyabu also points out, they are not “suicide experts” or trained psychologists, just compassionate people trying to do their best to help those in need. Thus they are quite honest about the fact that their work is often emotionally difficult or frustrating, and that though they do their best to love and support everyone there will inevitably be people in life that you cannot like or get along with. Nevertheless, they do what they can with what they know in the hope that the people in their care will eventually be able to leave and become independent. To help in practical as well as emotional ways, they also run a small not for profit bento shop where they employ some of the people Fujiyabu has saved from the cliffs. Working brings many benefits aside from the ability to earn a wage, giving the rescued men and women a new sense of being useful while allowing them to learn new skills surrounded by people in a similar situation so they can perhaps begin to feel less lonely and alone.

It’s just that sense of existential loneliness that Mori, a young man to whom Kasezawa devotes special attention, is seeking to escape. Though he was surrounded by people and in regular contact with his family, Mori always felt at a painful distance from those around him – something which seems to have decreased thanks to the communal lifestyle of the rehabilitation station. When he tries to move on, however, he quickly encounters the same old difficulties as he feels himself disliked by his colleagues, unable to fit in to the point that his therapist eventually advises him to quit for the sake of his mental health. Meanwhile, Fujiyabu, to whom he returns, gently tries to explain to him that he’s living well beyond his means – something that he seems to understand on one level but is entirely unable to rectify.

Fujiyabu, well-meaning as he is, quickly becomes irritated by Mori’s inability, or he wonders lack of will, to change. This is perhaps a little unfair in that he fails to consider the various ways that Mori maybe be unable to conform to the standards he expects for a grown man in his society, thereby failing to find effective methods to help him with the areas of life he seems to have the most trouble with – appropriate social interactions, and executive functioning. Being berated for being selfish and irresponsible when he simply does not understand only adds to his sense of despair and conviction that he is unwanted by the world around him. Though many of the people arriving at the church have more obvious motives to end their lives – debt problems, marital breakdown, career ruin etc, there are also those like Mori who struggle to find acceptance in a fiercely conformist society which perhaps hasn’t yet woken up to the needs of those who “cannot read the air”.

As Fujiyabu says it’s difficult to know what to do for the best. That first lady we saw him save eventually decided to leave the centre and Fujiyabu, after all, has no real right to stop her only to make sure she knows what’s she’s doing. He has to wonder if suicide is a valid choice for those whose suffering is incurable and if, after all, it’s all a part of God’s plan. Nevertheless, he resolves to carry on doing what he can to help those in pain find the will to live again. Director Atsushi Kasezawa approaches the most sensitive of subjects with a compassionate, yet unflinching eye, hinting at the entrenched social problems which cause mass despair as well as the toll taken on those who are determined to help.


A Step Forward was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

I Go Gaga, My Dear (ぼけますから、よろしくお願いします。, Naoko Nobutomo, 2018)

I go gaga posterWith the population ageing at unprecedented levels, Japanese society is facing a series of interconnected social issues as it contemplates the best way of caring for large numbers of elderly people often living away from family members who, in the past, might have been expected to bear responsibility. What sometimes gets forgotten, however, is the human dimension as older people go on living their everyday lives sometimes surrounded by family and sometimes not. Veteran TV director Naoko Nobutomo’s first feature I Go Gaga, My Dear (ぼけますから、よろしくお願いします。, Bokemasukara, Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu) follows her ageing parents from her own perspective as their daughter as they continue supporting each other into old age.

Nobutomo begins her story on New Year’s Day 2014 as she begins to notice a change in her sprightly, independent mother Fumiko and decides to take her to a doctor where they discover she is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Over the next three years, Fumiko’s condition intensifies while her husband of 60 years, Yoshinori, does his best to care for her though he himself is already over 90.

Flashing back to home video taken in earlier years, Nobutomo recalls her difficulty dealing with breast cancer at 45 throughout which her mother had been there to look after her. Having looked after her family for all of her life, there is an especial irony that now it’s Fumiko who needs looking after and it is perhaps these small moments of change that force her to acknowledge a gradual decline in her living standards even if she cannot clearly process them. Though Yoshinori bravely starts taking more domestic responsibility at 95, losing the ability to cook for herself is an obvious blow to Fumiko who nevertheless determines to keep her kitchen spotlessly clean.

Luckily, Fumiko and Yoshinori have a generous health insurance policy which entitles them to assistance in the home though that is something they obviously feel ambivalent about accessing. Fumiko, in particular, remains confused about the presence and role of their new helper, believing she is something to do with the insurance company, and is a little resentful of her offer to help with physically difficult housework such as cleaning the bath and emptying the washing machine. Likewise, she is originally reluctant to attend the daycare centre but noticeably perks up after being given a valuable opportunity to socialise rather than staying home all day with relatively little stimulation.

Seeing that her parents are struggling to manage on their own, Nobutomo wonders if she should give up her job in Tokyo and come home to Kure to look after them but is assured by her father that they’d prefer her to go on living her own life. Yoshinori, born in 1920, wanted to study literature at university but the war got in the way. Perhaps for this reason, he was determined that his daughter follow her dreams and is profoundly happy that she’s been able to make a career doing something she loves in the big city. Fumiko too, marrying at the comparatively late age of 30, had been a career woman, graduating from a woman’s school and working as an accountant before her marriage. A notably progressive pair, perhaps usually for the times in which they lived, they were content to let their daughter live the life she wanted to live and never placed any particular pressure on her to conform by getting married and having children.

Married for over 60 years, Fumiko and Yoshinori are determined to go on living independently and managing on their own as best they can. Fumiko, however, has brief painful moments of anxiety in which she is acutely aware of her declining condition and implications for her future. Some days she refuses to get out of bed, either resigned to the fact that “life isn’t always happy”, or lamenting that her life “miserable”. Neither of them want to be a “burden”, but find it increasingly difficult to continue managing on their own as much as they prefer to be as independent as possible. Nevertheless, they go on supporting each other much as they always have living together in hope and happiness while Nobutomo watches warmly from the sidelines supporting them in the same way they supported her, gently and with compassionate understanding.


I Go Gaga, My Dear was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

In Character (入戏, Dong Xueying, 2018)

In Character posterThere has of late been an unfortunate trend of historical revisionism in recent Chinese cinema which has sought to look back at the Cultural Revolution with a kind of fond remembrance for a more “innocent” time. Mostly coming from directors in their 50s and 60s who were themselves young during the last years of Maoism, films such as Feng Xiaogang’s Youth have attempted to draw a sharp contrast with the collectivist past and consumerist present as if to lament the passing of a kinder era, but have also largely located themselves within the cosseted group of youngsters working for the regime and therefore shielded from the intense cruelty of the age.

Songs of the Youth 1969, the debut (and to this date only) narrative feature film from director Ye Jing, is much the same in this regard in that it deliberately recreates his own longed for adolescence as young man fighting, he thought at the time, for a better China. Lamenting that the young people of today have no idealism, he describes the Cultural Revolution as a “rock ‘n’ roll movement” in which intellectual youth chased love and freedom through venerating Mao. Looking at footage of himself on screen, he urges the youngsters not to pity the kids in the square even though they were being “brainwashed” but to admire them because they were fighting passionately for something they believed in.

Dong Xueying, the director of In Character (入戏, Rù), came on board with the intention of exploring the living conditions of Chinese actors but quickly found herself sucked into an alternate reality in documenting the behind the scenes production of Songs of the Youth 1969 as Ye sends his cadre of youngsters off to an abandoned munitions factory in Sichuan for “the Cultural Revolution Experience”. During this time, they must prepare by living under contemporary conditions – wearing Red Army uniforms, surrendering their phones and other modern communication devices, and learning the various revolutionary songs which operated as a key part of the movement.

Although the young men and women are merely actors born long after the Cultural Revolution had ended, the “experience” quickly turns into a kind of social experiment along the lines of Stanford Prison as the intense mob mentality of the era begins to take hold. An early visit from Ye finds them furiously role playing, greeting him as if they were ghosts of his past waiting more than 40 years for his return. Playfully singing bawdy and suggestive songs, they embrace the sense of fun loving youth the director seems to be looking for but a fatal mistake by one young actor abruptly turns the tables, recalling the fear and danger that many must surely have felt in an era of intense suspicion puritanical scrutiny.

Many had openly laughed during rehearsals as they spouted the outdated Maoist quotations and learned the choreography for revolutionary ballet, but the fervour eventually takes hold and it’s not long before they begin turning on each other. First it’s a minor complaint blown out of all proportion about inattention and fiddling with fingernails instead of concentrating on collective concerns, and then an outright attack on one of their number who has made an obvious if understandable mistake – he asked for a few days off on hearing a relative was dangerously ill, and not only that, he misspelled Chairman Mao’s name in his apology letter. Jiang Siyuan’s request seriously upset Ye who is now convinced that the modern youth is selfish and irresponsible and that the youngsters still haven’t absorbed the spirit of the Cultural Revolution. Upset that Jiang may have ruined all their hard work, the actors subject him to a Struggle Session in which he must self criticise while they each berate him for damaging the integrity of their common project.

Ironically enough, the “film” has taken the place of the revolutionary ideal, while Ye has become a kind of Mao figure as a faraway authority whom they must worship and placate to make their dream come true. Despite their modern upbringings, the actors quickly succumb to the worst tendencies of the age as they consent to oppress each other, going along with the austerity of the ideology which instructs them to rid themselves of their “selfish” instincts in order to serve the collective while simultaneously emphasising their individual will to ensure their place in the film which necessarily means that Jiang must surrender his human feeling and accept he may never see his grandfather again.

Ye promises them the time of their lives in an experience he hopes will be life changing in the same way, presumably, he feels his own youthful brush with the revolution to have been, but their memories of the munitions factory are likely to be less positive as they ruminate on the immediacy with which they were able to betray each other in service of an empty ideal. Dong’s camera captures not only the misguided romanticisation of the Cultural Revolution by those like Ye disillusioned with the path of modern China, but its frightening legacy in the ease with which such inhumanity takes hold.


In Character was screened as part of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Land of Peach Blossoms (世外桃源, Zhou Mingying, 2018)

Land of Peach Blossoms posterIn Tao Yuanming’s 5th century fable, The Land of Peach Blossoms (世外桃源, Shìwàitáoyuán) is a mythical utopia where people live in peace and harmony knowing nothing of the outside world. Zhang Derong, the founder of the Feast of Flowers restaurant, saw himself as creating something similar – a place beyond the outside world founded on collectivist principles where they make healthy people healthier through “emotional catering”. If it were not immediately obvious, the founder of Feast of Flowers is not entirely on the level but has promised great things to the young men who work in his restaurant and look up to him as if he were some kind of more ethical, caring Jack Ma.

His most devoted pupil, Tang Guangbin used to work in a nuclear power plant and had a sea view from his company dorm but he likes it here better because he feels “free” in his heart and soul. Like Guangbin, Zeng Qi also feels that as long as they follow The President’s teachings they will make the Feast of Flowers bloom all around the world spreading health and happiness as they go. The Feast of Flowers is indeed a cheerful place filled with dancing and a faux ancient fantasy Chinese village atmosphere. There is also, however, a dark side which will become apparent to the young hopefuls the longer they stay in the garden.

The truth becomes apparent first to the practically minded Wang Peiyuan who turned down more lucrative jobs to work at the Feast of Flowers because he bought into Zhang’s ambitious business plan and assumed there would be more opportunities down the line. Not only is his pay cheque lower than promised because of all the “training” he has to pay for, but it’s so far below market rate that he’s worrying about paying his mortgage and being able to feed his wife and child. Meanwhile, Zhang waxes lyrical about work ethics and insists that “training” his workforce until 5am and then starting again at 8 is all part of his grand plan to turn them into top entrepreneurs.

Guangbin excuses himself to a friend on the phone in case he sounds as if he’s been “brainwashed” as he fiercely sells Zhang’s philosophy as not only a way to become rich and successful but to make the world a better, more caring place – the kind of place he perhaps assumes China was before the ‘80s reforms which opened it up to Capitalism. Of course, Guangbin is too young to remember what it was like back in the ‘70s, but hears people tell him about solidarity and job security and he’s understandably envious. He’s made a big investment in Feast of Flowers and so it takes a long time before he’s prepared to accept that he is being exploited by an unscrupulous charlatan. Once he and some of the other guys figure out there won’t be any expansion of Feast of Flowers, prime jobs, or bonuses, they want to quit but they can’t because they’re in hock for all this “training” and will lose their unpaid salary because, ironically, they don’t have effective work place protections. 

Zhang runs the place as if it were a work cadre and himself the Chairman. He commands absolute loyalty and requires employees to self criticise, running regular hunts to find the most “self centred” of the workers with many keen to jump at the bait and even to accuse others on cue. Those who disagree and want to leave are dismissed as having “too many personal thoughts and opinions” when they should be concentrating on understanding The President’s philosophy. Guangbin once felt free inside the Feast of Flowers, but later came to feel that outside was “a world of freedom” and inside “a prison full of darkness” from which there is “no escape”.

As if to ram his point home, Zhang makes the workers listen to Red Detachment of Women and has a bizarre obsession with “retaking” the Diaoyu Islands (also known Senkaku islands) from the Japanese, even staging a surreal play in which the Feast of Flowers soldiers personally defeat the Japanese army and capture Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe while Moon Over Ruined Castle plays mournfully in the background. Disillusioned by modern China’s lurch towards soulless consumerism and yearning for a simpler time in which people supported each other in common endeavour (but secretly still wanting to get ahead), the youngsters at Feast of Flowers bought into Zhang’s duplicitous nonsense and allowed themselves to be brainwashed into serving his ideals rather than their own. The parallels are obvious, but Guangbin may sadly be right in believing that there is no escape from the soul crushing exploitation of the modern economy which promises so much and yet delivers so little.


The Land of Peach Blossoms screens as part of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival at King’s College London on 5th May, 7.15pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Stammering Ballad (黃河尕謠, Zhang Nan, 2018)

Stammering ballad poster“We all live our lives in silence” according to the subject of Zhang Nan’s Stammering Ballad (黃河尕謠, Huáng  Gǎ Yáo). A love song to a disappearing rural landscape, Zhang’s beautifully composed documentary follows an aspiring folksinger whose dreams of fame have taken him away from the land he loves so much as he tries to ensure the survival of traditional village culture by singing in the cities.

A college dropout, Zhang Gasong embraced his love of folk music while too embarrassed to return home. Honing his craft as he goes, he’s been travelling around the country for the last seven years going wherever someone wants to hear him play – though occasionally they might have to front him the train money to help him get there. Gasong is, it has to be said, an eccentric young man. A former bandmate laments Gasong’s “poor social skills” which led to the band’s breakup, while also remaining exasperated that Gasong just up and left, disappearing for years on end without a word, with little regard for their friendship. Still, he seems to have forgiven him enough to agree to play for Gasong’s big shot on China’s Got Talent.

China’s Got Talent might seem like a left field move for a traditional folk musician, but Gasong has his eyes on the prize. He wants to be the kind of star where everything gets done for him and all he has to do is play, but for the moment he’s busy touring small music venues and festivals singing for his supper and hoping the youth of China who have, like himself, abandoned their village homes for the convenience of city life, will eventually re-embrace the song of the earth.

That aside, Gasong has a conflicted attachment to the pastoral past. He always hated farming and ironically claims to loathe the familiar smell of wheat germ and freshly tilled soil, not to mention the physical toll of of the work. Nevertheless he maintains an attachment to the landscape and views it almost as an inheritance of which he has been robbed by the modern China. The place where he grew up is now largely in ruins after having been relocated to avoid a drought, and though he bitterly misses the familiar black donkey that once lived in the village he has to remember that it’s long been sold. A traveller now himself, Gasong is losing connection with his land and with his family, but desperately clinging to his ancestral legacy through the medium of song.

In the end, China’s Got Talent didn’t really get Gasong, but perhaps that’s for the best. Cameramen expecting disappointment found only relief when they came to interview the band afterwards. Though it’s a shame that the performance will never be aired, and the beautiful rural folksong will not be heard by the millions of Chinese viewers almost certainly tuning in for more energetic fare, Gasong remains undaunted. Wandering off once again he loses touch with his band members and resumes his nomadic travels as an itinerant musician. The grand irony is that these songs, so intrinsically linked with place, are themselves travelling and echoing in new locations looking for new pastures in which to take root as the modern China flattens mountains to build factories and moves families on from their lands while sending its young into the cities all alone.

Gasong, who has stammered since childhood, has found his voice through music though often struggles to make that voice heard in boisterous modern society. Like many of his generation he too has realised he cannot stay in his pastoral paradise, but has also discovered that the city doesn’t suit him. Most at home in the wide open spaces of his native Gansu, Gasong roams the land singing the song of the soil as he goes in the hope that it will one day echo and send the sound of home all around the world.


Stammering Ballad screens as part of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival at King’s College London on 5th May, 1pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Small Talk (日常對話, Huang Hui-Chen, 2016)

Small talk poster“Who would want to understand me?” asks the laconic mother of filmmaker Huang Hui-Chen early in her autobiographical documentary, Small Talk (日常對話, Rì Cháng Duì Huà). “We do” the director replies, “but you won’t let us”. Huang’s film is, in a sense, an attempt to break through an emotional fourth wall in order to make sense of her complicated relationship with her distant mother Anu if only to ensure that her own daughter never feels as rejected or isolated as she herself has done living under the same roof with a woman she cannot quite claim to know.

In fact, Huang’s childhood memories of her mother are mainly to do with her absence. Even her younger sister eventually remarks that she always felt as if her mother was uncomfortable at home, preferring to spend time out with her friends rather than with her children. Forced to join her mother in her Spirit Guide business rather than attend school like the other kids, Huang began to resent her but also longed to be close to Anu despite her continuing distance. This desire for closeness is, ironically, only achieved through the introduction of the camera, acting as an impartial witness somehow uniting the two and making it possible to say the things which could not be said and ask the questions which could not be asked.

For Huang, the central enigma of her mother’s life is why she married man and had two daughters if she always knew she was gay. That her mother is a lesbian is something Huang always seemed to just know – it’s not as if Anu ever sat her down and explained anything to her, she gradually inferred seeing as her mother had frequent female partners and seemed to prefer spending time with groups of other women. Putting the question to her extended family perhaps begins to illuminate part of an answer. Like Anu, they will not speak of it. They claim not to know, that they do not want to know, and that they would rather change the subject. Even Anu, who otherwise seems to have no interest in hiding her sexuality, remarks that it “isn’t a good thing to talk about”. Nevertheless, her marriage seems not to have been a matter of choice. In those days marriages were arranged by the family, which is perhaps how she ended up with a man her sister describes as “no good” who later became a tyrannical, violent drunk she eventually had to flee from and go into hiding with her two young daughters.

Abusive marriages become a melancholy theme as Anu briefly opens up to recall throwing away sleeping pills her own mother had begun to stockpile in desperation to get away from her violent husband. A former girlfriend also mentions having divorced her husband because he was abusive, but seems surprised to learn that Anu had been a victim too. According to her, Anu had told her she was married once but only for a week and that her two children were “adopted”. Of course, this is mildly upsetting for Huang to hear, but seems to amuse her in discovering her mother’s tendency to spin a different yarn to each of her lovers to explain the existence of her family while also distancing herself from it. This seems to be the key that eventually unlocks something of Anu’s aloofness. Humiliated by her capitulation to marriage and then by her mistreatment at the hands of her husband, she cannot reconcile the two sides of her life and has chosen, therefore, to reject the idea of herself as a mother. Something she later partially confirms in admitting that though she does not regret her daughters, given the choice she would not marry again, not even if same sex marriages were legal believing herself to be the sort of person best off alone.

Huang interrogates her mother with a rigour that is difficult to watch, often to be met only with silence or for Anu to walk away with one of her trademark “I’m Off”s. It may be true that most people have something they would rather not talk about, and perhaps Anu is entitled to her silence but if no one says anything, then nothing will change and the cycle of love and resentment will continue on in infinity. Using the camera as a shield, Huang brokers some painful, extremely raw truths to her elusive mother and does perhaps achieve a moment of mutual catharsis but is also too compassionate to satisfy for laying blame, exploring the many social ills from entrenched homophobia to persistent misogyny and even the class-based oppression hinted at by the use of native dialect rather than standard Mandarin which help to explain her mother’s complicated sense of identity. Yet she does so precisely as a means of exorcising ghosts more personal than political in the hope that her own daughter will grow up to know that she is loved, unburdened by a legacy of violence and shame, and free to live her life in whichever way she chooses.


Small Talk was screened as part of the Taiwan Film Festival UK 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Father (紅盒子, Yang Li-Chou, 2018)

Father posterBudaixi, the art of traditional Taiwanese puppet theatre, is a form that’s fast dying out – not least because of the persistent erosion of the native Taiwanese dialect with which it is most closely associated, but there are those desperately trying to save it despite the relative lack of interest from audiences and the cultural sector. The “father” of the art, Li Tien-Lu, will be familiar to many as the inspiration behind Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Puppetmaster, as well as several appearances in Hou’s films including his memorable role as the grandfather in Dust in the Wind. It is not Li, however, who is the subject of Yang Lichou’s documentary but his son – Chen Hsi-huang.

Chen Hsi-huang, now very elderly, is an exiled master of the art who has dedicated his remaining time to ensure its survival by attempting to teach the next generation. Chen is not fussy – he will teach anyone who wants to learn including those from abroad and frequently tours his shows around the world often pairing them with local examples of puppet theatre. His standards are, however, high and he does not entirely approve of the “modernisation” of the art believing that while innovation is one thing technique is another and what he sees in the next generation often disappoints him.

Yang opens with a hypnotic sequence of Chen’s naked hand rehearsing doll movements against a black screen, showcasing his now gnarled fingers bearing the effects of a lifetime’s experiences. Yet despite his various successes, Chen still feels himself slighted and as if he has something left to prove – perhaps ironically, he cannot seem to emerge from the shadow of his late father even now himself in advanced old age. Yang’s subtle suggestion lays the blame for Chen’s internalised resentment on the confucian society and its patriarchal obsession with the “father”. Li had married into his wife’s family and so, as is the custom, his first son took his mother’s surname – Chen, something which seems to have placed a wedge between parent and child leaving Chen more or less rejected by his father simply for having the wrong name. For this reason, he was prevented from inheriting Li’s puppetry company (that honour went to his younger brother surnamed Li) which might, in a way, have been a blessing in giving him the opportunity to remove himself and start again with his own company under his own name were it not for the fact that he is almost always introduced as the son of Li Tien-Lu.

In the traditional arts, it is not uncommon to think of a master as a “father” to his pupils and this does seem to be something Chen took to heart for good or ill. His own father had been extremely strict, often beating him with the head of a doll when he made a mistake. Chen is careful not to make the same mistake with his pupils, but is demanding none the less and often disappointed. His fatherly fixation is perhaps mirrored in his mild rejection of his own first pupil, standing in for a son (his own child did not follow him into the profession), whom he declined to name as a successor despite knowing that he is the most skilled member of the troupe. Somewhat embittered, Chen struggles to escape from the traps set by his father both in terms of his life and of his art.

Chen’s story feeds into that of Budaixi, set against 50 turbulent years of political history which saw it banned by the Japanese for being too nationalist, then defacto banned because of a prohibition on native dialects only to be resurrected in Mandarin to be used for anti-communist propaganda and then the same but pro-China. Chen just wants to be a craftsman perfecting his technique and serving the patron god of puppeteers as best he can. As one of his pupils suggests, regarding Budaixi as an “art” and its practitioners “artists” may perhaps have been a mistake in encouraging the wrong kind of competition and thereby weakening the industry as a whole just when it should be uniting in a shared mission to save Budaixi from disappearing completely.

Chen too struggles to emerge from his father’s shadow, perhaps gripping on too tightly to traditional Budaixi while rejecting its progeny in the burgeoning world of contemporary puppet theatre. Nevertheless, he was able to become a master of the art and to pass his knowledge on to a new generation committed to preserving it even in the face of mild opposition to a supposedly difficult, if infinitely beautiful, art form.


Father (紅盒子, Hóng Héziwas screened as part of the Taiwan Film Festival UK 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)