Alifu, the Prince/ss (阿莉芙, Wang Yu-lin, 2017)

Alifu posterAmong Asian nations, Taiwan has a reputation for being liberal and permissive but if you’re a minority within a minority life is far from easy even if you manage to find support from others in a similar position. So it is for Alifu (Utjung Tjakivalid) – the conflicted soul at the centre of Wang Yu-lin’s nuanced depiction of the road towards self acceptance and actualisation in the face of competing duties and obligations, Alifu, the Prince/ss (阿莉芙, Ālìfú). While Alifu struggles with the demands of being the heir to the Chieftainship of an indigenous tribe with all the rights and obligations that entails, her lesbian roommate struggles with a bad breakup and growing feelings for her transitioning best friend, a drag queen is conflicted about his sexuality, and a transgender bar owner worries for the future of those close to her after she is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Despite the multitude of difficult circumstances, each attempts to deal with their problems in a mature and rational fashion finding love and mutual support from their friends and community even if others sometimes require a little more time.

Alifu, born the son of a tribal chief, identifies as a woman and has been working in a hairdressers in the city to save up for gender reassignment surgery. Her plans for the future are thrown into disarray when she is abruptly called home, walking into a family meeting during which her father (Ara Kimbo) suddenly announces that he is stepping down because of poor health and that his son will be taking over. Though it is possible for a woman to succeed as chief, Alifu has not disclosed her intentions to transition to her traditionally minded father who wears a prominent wooden cross around his neck and does not seem to be particularly understanding of his child’s feelings or emotions, caring only for his appearance in the eyes of the tribe.

Alifu’s transition is subtly revealed in the lengthy opening in which she slowly sheds her “masculine” appearance by discarding her baseball cap, rearranging her hair and stepping into the ladies loos where she puts on colourful lipstick and hoop earrings before making her way to the hairdressers where she earns her living. Meanwhile, her lesbian roommate Pei-Zhen (Chao Yi-Lan) thinks nothing of leaving the house dressed in a way which best makes her feel comfortable only to cause a mini ruckus in the salon when her ex gives her the side-eye for openly flirting with another client apparently after “something special”. After hours, Alifu picks up extra money by doing hair and makeup for the drag acts at a local gay bar where she has also drawn close to the owner, Sherry (Bamboo Chen), who is in a long-term though apparently non-sexual relationship with a former gangster (Wu Pong-fong).

Alifu soon develops a liking for a new drag act at the bar, describing him as somehow “not like the others”. Chris (Cheng Jen-shuo), a local government worker, is a mild mannered sort apparently happily married to a piano teacher (Angie Wang) and living a conventional middle-class life, except that he likes to stay out late on Fridays performing at Sherry’s drag bar. Though it would be a mistake to assume Chris is gay just because he enjoys drag, his “secret life” eventually places a wedge between himself and his wife who is hurt to find out about his alter-ego through a third party. Chris’ wife doesn’t necessarily disapprove of his drag career but is disturbed to discover such a big secret in her married life and, understandably, has a lot of questions about the status of their relationship – something Chris isn’t keen on talking about leading to his wife finally throwing him out. Struggling to reconcile his drag persona with his need for a conventional life, Chris finds himself exiled and unable to integrate himself fully as whole person, torn between his conflicting desires. 

Meanwhile, Alifu’s ever supportive best friend Pei-Zhen has begun to develop feelings for her roommate despite the fact that Alifu has no interest in women and Pei-Zhen is a lesbian with no previous interest in male genitals. Seducing her, Pei-Zhen reassures Alifu that male or female she will always love her – something which becomes a minor theme in arguing for fluidity and self identification over culturally defined notions of gender, echoed in the relationship of Sherry and her partner which seems to be deep and loving but also celibate. Perhaps overly convenient, the union of Alifu and Pei-Zhen does at least provide an opportunity to experience the best of both worlds in allowing Alifu to fulfil her obligations to her tribe while also living an authentic life as a transgender woman.

Warm and filled with a particularly Taiwanese brand of humour, Alifu is a sympathetic exploration of life on the margins, both from the perspectives of the LGBT community and that of the indigenous peoples attempting to preserve their traditional culture whilst acknowledging their place in the modern world. Arriving at an important moment, Wang Yu-lin’s empathetic drama is a celebration of love and equality but most of all of the power of self-acceptance and actualisation in bringing about real social change.


Screened as part of the Chinese Visual Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Somewhere Beyond the Mist (藍天白雲, Cheung King-wai, 2017)

Somewhere Beyond the Mist posterCheung King-wai, making his narrative feature debut, opens with a quote from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov to the effect that people, even bad people, are often far more innocent and pure-hearted than most realise, including we ourselves. The quote, overlaid above the vision of the city at night glowing red like dying furnace, introduces us to the story we are about to hear – one which is dark, too dark perhaps to imagine, but then again all too real. Caught in the twilight half light, Hong Kong is fiery cauldron of hell, yet when the sun rises and the mist rolls in, it’s hard to see what the night made so terrible.

As if to underline the confusion, we begin with a lost old man who is desperately searching either for a way in or a way out. His housekeeper eventually comes to find him and bring him home and we discover he is the father of one of our heroines, Angela (Stephy Tang Lai-yan) – a police detective expecting her first child. Angela’s father, Dr. Ho, is suffering from advanced dementia which is beginning to take its toll on Angela’s home life even if she leaves most of the responsibility to her compassionate husband, Tony.

Meanwhile, the bodies of a middle-aged couple have been discovered at a reservoir. The police set about looking for the couple’s missing daughter, Connie (Rachel Leung Yung-ting), only to find her holed up in the mountains with her best friend Eric (Zeno Koo Ting-hin). Connie reacts with eerie calm when informed of the deaths of her parents, merely repeating that she was already aware before agreeing to accompany the police to the station where she, matter of factly, confesses to having been the one who murdered them.

Cheung’s intention is not to create a murder mystery, Connie freely confesses her crime and isn’t particularly interested in explanations or justifications (though as it turns out, she would have plenty). He is much more interested in the examining the society which made such an “unthinkable” crime possible, exposing the dark heart of an increasingly confused city which finds itself pulled in two directions by various political anxieties.

Back with the original image of the city as a pit of hell, each of our protagonists becomes a link in a circular chain of violence, turning their own feelings of oppression, marginalisation, and despair back on their fellow suffers. Connie, as we find out, comes from an extremely dysfunctional home in which her truck driver father lists small time pimping among his “hobbies”, openly masturbates while watching hardcore Japanese pornography in the family living room only enjoying it more for the thought of taunting his teenage daughter, rapes the family’s disabled mother, and seemingly ignores his grown up son. Catching Connie’s friend Eric hiding in a cupboard in her room, he assumes the pair are up to no good and drags the boy out to viciously beat him with his belt just to remind him who it is that is boss around here, pausing only to remind Connie that “a virgin pussy” is worth more money and if she’s that desperate he can find her a client to satisfy both their needs.

Strangely enough, Eric does not completely object to the beating. He sees it as a sign of validation. Like Connie, Eric is also a lonely, marginalised figure but in his case because he is gay and desperately wants not to be. Being mistaken for Connie’s boyfriend is, in his eyes, a kind of proof of his “manhood” and so it’s a beating he is almost grateful to receive unlike those from his schoolmates who taunt him with broom handles and scream homophobic slurs which only add to his feelings of extreme worthlessness. Eric wanted to be friends with Connie to escape both suspicion and loneliness, but she, in a cutting moment of despair, also uses his insecurity over his sexuality and feelings of inadequacy as a “man” against him to get him to help with her plan to free herself of parental tyranny. Connie hates bullies, but she hates people who don’t stand up to them more. Thus she becomes the gentle defender of another marginalised figure – Jessica, an Indian girl who is targeted because she wears trousers under her school skirt, constantly assailed with slurs about “stinky” curry and various other stereotypical insults that leave her in tears.

Eric points out that his beating at the hands of Connie’s father didn’t bother him because it was “understandable” – a father finds a boy hiding in his daughter’s room and chases him out. The logic is sound, it’s a story you’ve heard before – not like the senseless acts of violence which surround him every day and cannot be explained. Connie’s crime too seems “understandable” given all she’s suffered, a precaution taken to save her from a still more terrible fate she feared might soon come her way. This is the uncomfortable realisation with which Angela is faced during her investigation, forcing her to confront her own difficult relationship with her apparently tyrannical father who made her mother’s life a misery. Angela has to accept that she could easily have been Connie, or Connie her, though she ultimately made the (still taboo) decision to place her father into a home rather than continue to look after him herself. Tube fed and alone, Angela’s father is utterly powerless but however much she wishes she could abandon him she continues to visit even if her resentment is plain. Then again, if a parent breaks the contract first in failing to care for their child in infancy, should the child still be expected to care for them when they are old? Perhaps they owe each other nothing other than civility and an attempt at forgiveness.

Asked why she ran to the mountains, Connie replies that she went to live “the life I deserve”. Dreaming of a world “beyond the mist”, free from the city’s confusion and the constant stream of violence passing from one lonely soul to another, Connie transgressed in order to free herself but has only found greater imprisonment and ongoing mental torment. Beautifully photographed, Cheung’s narrative debut is a bleak and gloomy affair but somehow maintains its belief in a better place Somewhere Beyond the Mist even if it continues to elude us.


Screened as part of the Chinese Visual Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Soundless Wind Chime (無聲風鈴, Kit Hung, 2009)

Soundless Wind Chime posterTwo transients find love in the crowded streets of Hong Kong, only to lose it again and long for its return. Deliberately obscure, Kit Hung’s debut Soundless Wind Chime (無聲風鈴, Wúshēng Fēng Líng) is an elegy for lost love, a poetic meditation on the power of memory and a treatise on the art of letting go. Though the lovers manage to construct a world for themselves shielded from the external chaos, its shell gradually fractures under the pressure of real world concerns until tragedy finally intervenes and shatters it forever.

Ricky (Lu Yulai), a mainlander recently arrived in Hong Kong, lives with an aunt (Wella Zhang) who makes a living through prostitution, while he makes ends meet as a delivery boy at neighbourhood eatery. One day, he pauses on the job to watch a foreign juggler (Hannes Lindenblatt) at which point his wallet is stolen by a foreign pickpocket who we later learn to be a German speaking Swiss man named Pascal (Bernhard Bulling). Pascal is currently in an abusive relationship with the juggler whose act is a set up to attract a crowd so that Pascal can rob the captivated spectators. After being beaten up and then brutally raped by his boyfriend, Pascal ups and leaves, eking out a living through juggling on the streets. Arriving at Ricky’s restaurant, he gives him his wallet (and ID card) back and the two strike up a friendship that soon becomes more, living together first at Ricky’s aunt’s and then getting their own place where they can truly be themselves.

To begin with the relationship is a rather happy and open one. Though Ricky decides to leave his aunt’s place immediately after she figures out that he is gay and in a relationship with Pascal, she does not disapprove of his sexuality and only stops to warn him not to invite his ailing mother to Hong Kong because she doesn’t know what the fallout will be from realising her sister is a prostitute and her son is gay all at the same time. Likewise, the lively ladies at the restaurant all seem fairly accepting (or perhaps just oblivious) of Ricky’s relationship with Pascal, impressed by his juggling skill and including him in their after hours mahjong games. The young couple do however have their differences, notably in Pascal’s self destructive streak which sends him back into Hong Kong’s gay nightlife scene while Ricky would rather just spend time home alone together.

The disjointed, non-linear narrative opens in the middle with Ricky making his way to Switzerland in search of Pascal, in a spiritual more than literal sense. Whilst there he runs into another man, Ueli, who looks exactly like Pascal even if he is nothing like him in spirit. The film’s title is inspired by the Chinese belief that a soul lingers after it leaves the body, attaching itself to an animal in order to stay longer and make its last goodbyes. Traditionally, a wind chime is though to reveal the presence of spirits, and it is this Ricky has come looking for as the wind chime outside Ueli’s antique shop gleefully trembles as if it were pleased to see him.

Ricky’s memories spiral away from him as snow covered Switzerland echoes sunny Hong Kong, each thought and action recalling some part of his life with Pascal while he grows closer to the wounded, grieving Ueli whom he believes, on some level, to be Pascal returned to him in another form. Later, Hung shifts the action to the Mainland where Ricky has returned to look after his dying mother, working as a taxi driver to make ends meet. Unable to find Pascal, uncertain whether his soul has flown to Hong Kong where they made their home or the place where he was born, Ricky has himself returned to source and prompted Ueli to make his journey in reverse, bringing him news of Pascal but also perhaps promising an end rather than a beginning.

Hung wears his influences on his sleeves – his style owes much to Wong Kai-Wai but more particularly to Tsai Ming-Liang as his frequent forays into surrealistic musical interludes make plain. Yet his narrative is confused and overly impressionistic, withholding essential pieces of information which would make sense of the more obscure elements such as the lost luggage receipt Ricky takes with him to Switzerland and the contents of the bag he ultimately obtains. Deeply melancholic and filled with a wistful sense of longing – the soundless wind chime of the title lying silent yet attentive, Hung’s dreamlike debut is a strangely affecting exploration of grief and transience as his hero learns how to live after love, abandoning his pain to realms of nostalgia and rediscovering the peaceful emptiness of ordinary silence.


Screened as part of the Chinese Visual Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)