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)

God Man Dog (流浪神狗人, Chen Singing, 2007)

God Man Dog posterEverybody’s looking for something but mostly in all the wrong places in Chen Singing’s spiritually inclined God Man Dog (流浪神狗人, Llàng Shén Gǒu Rén). Lonely and disaffected, Chen’s portrait of contemporary Taiwan is of an island set adrift with no clear path to the future and no reliable guides to follow. Many turn to religion, be it Eastern or Western, while others embrace consumerism or literally fight to find a way out while refusing to let those around them drag them down. Cosmic coincidence does perhaps begin to show them the way, but it’s less a matter of faith than chance as they each find opportunity to refocus and reclaim what it is they really wanted out of life.

Hand model Ching (Tarcy Su) is suffering from postnatal depression after the birth of her first child but her husband, Hsuing (Chang Han), remains detached and insensitive – running off to new age country retreats to avoid the strain of caring for his delicate wife and baby daughter. Meanwhile, an indigenous couple have lost a child of their own and then suffered the departure of both their daughters because of the father’s persistent alcoholism. Their daughter, Savi (Tu Hsiao-han), is living in Taipei with a beauty obsessed friend who’s doing dodgy modelling to pay for a boob job while Savi works hard on her martial arts as a possible path out of rural poverty. A chance encounter brings her into contact with mysterious Buddha bus driver Yellow Bull (Jack Kao) who is saving money to pay for a new prosthetic leg while making a point of rescuing and reviving the many broken and abandoned Buddha statues which seem to call out to him from around the island, adopting a stray child, Xian (Jonathan Chang), in the process.

Everybody here wants something that they aren’t convinced they can have. The upper middle class couple Ching and Hsuing might seem comfortable enough but are filled with spiritual emptiness and feel trapped by conventionality. They’ve started to drift, and the baby far from bringing them together has only forced them further apart in thinly veiled mutual resentment. Hsuing refuses to play any role in caring for his daughter, or in trying to care for Ching whose dangerously deteriorating mental state seems to be receiving almost no support from family or medical personnel even when she tries to ask for it. In desperation she turns to Christianity, creating a further rift between herself and the intensely Buddhist Hsuing (not to mention his fortune telling obsessed mother).

Christianity is also a dominant force in the life of the indigenous couple who have been participating in AA meetings led by the local church in an effort to get their daughters to return though their faith is beginning to wane thanks to constant setbacks and the lingering conviction God has it in for them. Only through an improbable encounter with the Goddess of Mercy sitting beatifically on the back of Yellow Bull’s truck does the drunken father begin to wake up in making a symbolic act of sacrificial recompense in the hope of being forgiven for a transgression he did not perhaps wholly make. Guanyin, apparently, is there for them even if God was sleeping.

The indigenous couple, whose land is being infringed on by those like Hsuing who want to repurpose it to turn the beautiful natural surroundings into man made spas and thereby turn spiritual peace into a marketable commodity, tried to escape their troubles via alcohol and then turned to religion to save them from drink only to find it not quite as supportive as they’d hoped. Then again, kindly Yellow Bull stuffs his fortune telling box full of positive fortunes because, after all, people looking for fortunes are looking for hope so perhaps it’s not so much that Buddhism is “better” than Christianity, as it is that people are basically good and in the end that’s what you ought to have faith in. On the other hand, Savi and her friend end up making extra pennies through a fake dominatrix double act during which the girls rob their sleazy johns in a potentially dangerous piece of societal revenge that is, ironically, her friend’s plan to save money for a boob job to conform to those same patriarchal conventions they were just superficially rebelling against.

In any case, some kind of cosmic force eventually pulls them all together through the intervention of the many “abandoned” stray dogs who run free across the landscape, as does one supposedly million pound pedigree pup after making a break for freedom as the sole survivor of a nasty car wreck. “Freedom” might mean different things to different people at different times, but each of these lonely souls is in a sense trapped by their own sense of disconnection and the anxiety of feeling abandoned by those around them. Dogs, or maybe gods, bring them back together and accidentally reawaken their faith in themselves and each other to send them back out into the world with slightly lighter hearts if in acceptance more than hope.


God Man Dog was screened as part of the Taiwan Film Festival UK 2019. Also available on DVD in the UK courtesy of Terracotta Distribution.

UK Terracotta release 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)

Long Time No Sea (只有大海知道, Heather Tsui, 2018)

Long time no sea posterWhile Taiwanese cinema has not been an exclusively urban affair, Taipei stories have tended to loom large, perhaps presenting an unfairly uniform view of what is in reality an extremely diverse cultural landscape. The debut film from Heather Tsui (Tsui Yung-hui), Long Time No Sea (只有大海知道, Zhǐ Yǒu Dàhǎi Zdào) is set on one of Taiwan’s many islands and among the indigenous Tao whose culture is perhaps being gradually erased thanks to the increasing demands of the modern society and its constant pulls towards the city. A coming of age tale in more ways than one, Tsui’s debut is also a heartrending exploration of learning to cope with parental disappointment while also learning to reappreciate the beauty of island life which might before have seemed unexciting in contrast to city glamour.

The hero, Manawei (Pangoyod Si / Zhong Jia-jin), lives alone with his grandmother (Feng Ying-li) and uncle while his father works as a taxi driver in Kaohsiung. The family is not hungry, but they live humbly and rely on money sent by Manawei’s father whose visits are becoming ever more rare. Missing his dad terribly, Manawei is sometimes resentful towards his grandmother, rejecting her home cooked island fare while longing for junk food and jealous of his friend whose mother, also working in the city, is doing much better and can afford to send him expensive toys as a kind of recompense for rarely being able to come home. Manawei, meanwhile, has been badgering his dad to buy him new shoes for the past few years (his own are so worn out he can no longer even glue the soles back together), and has been reduced to wearing flip flops to school.

The flip flops eventually get him into trouble with authoritarian schoolteacher Chung-hsun (Shang He-huang) who he first met rescuing his sunglasses from the harbour after Chung-hsun lost them in a bout of violent sea sickness. A middle-class city guy, ending up on Orchid Island isn’t something Chung-hsun was looking for and he’s intensely resentful of his new posting, particularly as it’s taken him away from a girlfriend he fears is losing interest. This is perhaps why he’s so hard on his new pupils, roughly berating Manawei for turning up late and in flip flops with no attempt to find out if there might be a reason for his behaviour. Needless to say, his approach backfires in making the boy reluctant to come to school at all in reinforcing his embarrassment over not being able to afford proper shoes.

Long Time No Sea is as much a coming of age tale for Chung-hsun as it is for Manawei as he begins to accept his position as a surrogate parent for his pupils, many of whom are living with relatives (or even alone, at least partially) while their mothers and fathers are away working in the city. This is perhaps why there are relatively few young adults on the island which is home mostly to children and the elderly as well as middle-aged returnees and the few who’ve decided they like the island life best such as radio host Chin-yi (Zhang Ling) who is currently supplementing her income by helping out pretty much anywhere else she’s needed. Chung-hsun only decides to help out with a school entry into a national “traditional dance” competition because he thinks it might improve his prospects of getting off the island faster, but, partly thanks to Chin-yi, gradually begins to embrace the rich cultural history of the Tao while bonding with the kids and coming to the conclusion that perhaps the simple life is indeed best.

Meanwhile, Manawei comes to learn a similar lesson in an ordinary, if heartbreaking, way as he gradually begins to wonder if his father has emotionally abandoned him to make a new life in the city. While his grandmother speaks to him in the local dialect, which he obviously understands, he replies to her mostly in Mandarin and knows he will one day leave the island if only to pursue his education. Longing for his father, he idolises the city with its 24hr junk food and bright flashing lights but most of all for the river of love his father told him flows through it. Finally visiting Kaohsiung he is abruptly confronted with its reality and finds himself warming to his island home with its taro root and longan fruit, no longer tempted by superficial modernity. While Chung-hsun’s assertion that “it’s better with just one road” might be somewhat restrictive if not didactic, it is also a tribute to a simpler, more honest way of life in contrast to city duplicity and empty ambition. Beautifully photographed and evocatively scored, Long Time no Sea is an important window into the little seen indigenous culture of the Tao as well as into the economic realities of modern living and the painful processes of growing up no matter how old you are.


Long Time no Sea was screened as part of the Taiwan Film Festival UK 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (不散, Tsai Ming-Liang, 2003)

Goodbye, Dragon Inn poster“So much of the past lingers in my heart” laments the melancholy song which closes Tsai Ming-Liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn, (不散, sǎn) “I’ll remember with longing forever”. What is cinema if not an expression of irresolvable nostalgia, a kind of visual hiraeth for something that probably never quite existed but is so painfully missed. Everything in here stayed the same, but everything outside changed and now the present seems to be literally raining in leaving the last few fugitives from reality lost in halls of memory like lonely ghosts trapped on the wrong side of the screen.

On the wrong side of the screen is where we find ourselves. We begin in darkness with the opening narration from King Hu’s 1967 wuxia masterpiece Dragon Inn before the curtain in front of us begins to flicker and reveal an entire theatre filled with people. We pull back, and eventually the people are gone leaving just a few desperate souls returning to watch this now classic picture on what could be its very last evening as this theatre – now so unsuitable for the modern cinema environment, will be closing “temporarily” as soon as the reels stop turning.

Truth be told, no one much is even very interested in the movie. Some have merely come in to shelter from the rain, but unfortunately for them not even here is safe thanks to a leaky roof. The dazzling labyrinths of the backstage environment seem to have been co-opted by the local cruising community, men brushing past each other looking for another like them but needing to be sure their desires will be returned. Meanwhile they gaze at each other in the dim half light of the cinema screen, aching with unspeakable longing.

Longing is also something on the mind of an older gentlemen, seemingly the only one actually watching the film, who turns out to be one of its actors shedding a silent, solitary tear for time passed. Running into a friend much like himself outside he laments that “No one comes to the movies anymore”. Everyone has forgotten them, turning them into ghosts of cinema, immortal but unremembered. They have, in a sense, been attending their own funeral, entombed inside a moribund building lit only by spectres of the past.

All this is, however, secondary to the backstage drama of the lonely box office cashier (Chen Shiang-chyi) and her inexpressible crush on the projectionist (Lee Kang-sheng) who never seems to be around when she needs him. Sadly cutting into a celebratory bun, she saves half of it for him – the least ambiguous expression of love which seems to be possible within this space. Slowly climbing the stairs with a lame leg, she gazes fondly at the screen while the heroine fearlessly dispatches a series of bad guys, but the light cast on her face seems only to emphasise her lack of courage before she sadly retreats back to the ticket booth where no customers require her services.

Meanwhile, in the auditorium, a young woman (Yang Kuei-mei) munches peanuts and throws her legs over the backs of the seats in front much to the chagrin of the confused tourist whose confusion seems only to deepen when the crushing noise stops and the woman disappears (unbeknownst to him she’s on a mission to retrieve a lost shoe, or perhaps has evaporated into thin air). The first words spoken, which occur at the 45 minute mark, are to state that this theatre is haunted. Departed spirits all, the lonely denizens are indeed haunting the room and themselves as they attempt to escape the relentless march of the modern world through self-internment in a damp and crumbling mausoleum of cinema.

A lament for a dying world stripped bare by the passage of time, Tsai’s exploration of urban loneliness is a nostalgic elegy for a simpler age, filled with unresolvable longing and the ironic misconnection of an individualised communal activity. Stillness and solitude define all for these lonely, disconnected souls chasing oblivion. The past can never return, nor can the missed opportunities and brief moments spent bathed in celluloid splendour, but then perhaps you wouldn’t want it to anyway because then you couldn’t miss it. “I’ll remember with longing forever” – romanticism at its finest, but it’s a trap that’s difficult to resist.


Goodbye, Dragon Inn screened at Tate Modern as part of the Taiwan Film Festival UK 2019 and The Deserted film series.

International trailer (dialogue free)

Liu Lian by Yao Lee – the poignant song playing over the end credits.

Your Face (你的臉, Tsai Ming-Liang, 2018)

Your Face posterThe act of looking is an oddly intimate experience, which is perhaps why it becomes so uncomfortable to be looked at. The 13 souls who brave the camera for director Tsai Ming-Liang’s Your Face (你的臉, Nǐ de Liǎn) have all, obviously, given their consent to to become a subject for contemplation and are fully aware of being observed but still suffer the self-conscious embarrassment of being on show. That embarrassment is perhaps the point, pointing to a different kind of truth than the one we might have thought ourselves to be looking for but it’s also true that the camera becomes a kind of veil shielding us from our own anxiety safe in the knowledge that we can look all we please because we will never be seen.

Tsai’s subjects, aside from one or two, are mostly elderly residents of Taipei spotted by chance in the street and selected for their interesting faces. These faces, perhaps in contrast to those most often seen in cinema, are lined and worn. They wear their stories rather than tell them. Tsai gave few instructions, solely asking for an hour of time – 30 minutes spent in silence and 30 in conversation. The results are varied. Old men fall asleep, one plays a harmonica, a woman boils her life philosophy down to a love of making money, and a man laments a life wasted on pachinko and romantic disappointment.

Flickers of a smile erupt around a woman’s lips until she can’t contain her amusement any longer, finally breaking into a laugh in noting the strange incongruity of her position. It all looks so different on the screen than it looks at the scene. Tsai shoots in the same location as his earlier short Light, Zhongshan Hall – a public auditorium completed in 1936 when Taiwan was under Japanese rule (and therefore coincidentally close in age to many of Tsai’s subjects), but from different angles which almost obscure a sense of space until the hall itself gains its own portrait in the final shot, empty of life but somehow no longer passive.

Tsai encourages us to look deeply into the faces of others in manner which would be inappropriate in any other context. Yet the faces themselves react to Tsai’s camera and the people standing behind it. They do not and cannot react to us, except in an abstract sense, while we lurk behind a two way mirror protecting our own fragile senses of self from the same kind of scrutiny. Yet there is a kind of commonality in the way in which those on each side of the screen reach a point of mutual vacancy during which something else begins to emerge. The subjects fall into a kind of reverie, be it a literal sleep or motion towards activity such that of as one lady who decides to show off some of her “exercises” designed to stave off the effects of old age.

Those moments of activity, however, in breaking the stillness rupture the sense of contemplation in simply beholding an unfamiliar face. The ordinary had become uncanny, but now we have other concerns, narrative concerns with which to engage on an intellectual rather than instinctive level. On hearing the story, we forget about the face and concentrate on words while also forgetting that these stories are not really being told to us but to whoever is behind the camera and that the subject may also have lost consciousness of the camera itself while concentrating on relating their truth.

Then again, Tsai rejects the medium of documentary and we have only our own assumption that what we’re told is authentic and offered in the natural feeling of the moment. This is particularly true of the final subject who happens to be Tsai’s longterm muse Lee Kang-sheng (whose mother also appears in the film). Lee too muses on his family history, offering a meta comment on his face and its transitory likeness to that of his father, lamenting that though they say Lee’s father looked like him when he was young Lee knows that in “reality” he no longer is. Tsai’s camera turns its lens on ageing, on changes superficial and spiritual while remaining rooted to the spot as if fighting for an impossible objectivity. Closing in an empty room, Tsai nevertheless finds the light and the soul in the stonework as if to suggest that perhaps it wasn’t faces that were so important after all.


Your Face screened at Tate Modern as part of the Taiwan Film Festival UK 2019 and The Deserted film series.

Festival trailer (English captions)

The Tag-Along (紅衣小女孩, Cheng Wei-hao, 2015)

The Tag-Along posterWhy are little girls in red dresses such a frequent figure for fear? From the cheerfully naive little red riding hood and her unavoidable association with unscrupulous wolves to the murderous spectres of Don’t Look Now, we don’t seem to be able to abandon our strange anxiety on seeing little girls incongruously alone and distinctively dressed. A little girl in red became a national meme in Taiwan in 1998 after accidentally photobombing an ordinary family out on a mountain hike, notably appearing behind a family member who later passed away though no one was able to remember having seen the little girl on the day. Truth be told, our little girl in red does not actually feature as much as you’d expect in Cheng Wei-hao’s The Tag-Along (紅衣小女孩, Hóng yī Nǚhái), but she does become the embodiment of the “mosien” – an ancient monster appearing in the form of a child or a monkey who bewitches and feeds on guilt.

Cheng opens in the mountains with an old woman, Shui (Pai Ming-hua), wandering. Shui is subsequently reported missing and much missed by her friend, grumpy grandma Shu-fang (Liu Yin-shang). Everyone seems to be worried that ancient spirits may have dragged her off to the mountains, but Shui does eventually return, albeit not quite as she left. Meanwhile, Shu-fang’s grandson Wei (River Huang) is an overworked real estate agent in a committed five year relationship with radio DJ Yi-chun (Hsu Wei-ning). While Wei is keen to get married and start a family, Yi-chun is not convinced partially for financial reasons but also perhaps because she simply is not ready to give up her individual freedom to become a member of Wei’s family.

Indeed, Yi-chun asks her radio listeners if marriage isn’t “the tomb of love”, but shows no other signs of wanting to break up with Wei only emphasising that she does not envisage marriage as part of her life plan – something later contradicted by a message she scrawled on the back of a photo five years previously. In a touch of disappointing conservatism, The Tag-Along makes Yi-chun its ostensible hero who alone battles against  preternatural horror to reclaim her rightful relationships, but frames her mission as a gradual process towards conforming to conventional social norms in which she learns that her qualms over marrying Wei are nothing more than commitment phobic selfishness and pointless guilty self obsession – something which she needs to abandon in order to fulfil her proper role as a woman by marrying and making a home even if she is also allowed to continue her radio career.

Meanwhile Wei, who has a strong desire to start a family of his own precisely in order to forge his own identity, treats his loving granny with contempt and irritation, eventually mortgaging the family home in order to buy a fancy apartment he hopes will help convince Yi-chun that he has the means to marry. Yi-chun, again, is not convinced partially because she fears Shu-fang may think it was all her idea and use it as evidence of her gold digging. The rot has already set in at home. Shu-fang feels sad for Wei who seems to have lost his parents young but also for the burden he feels himself under because the family lost their money, while Wei resents being shackled to an old woman who still cares for him as if he were a child, nagging him about getting married when she herself is one of the obstacles in its way.

Yet “civilisation” is perhaps the force that each of them are fighting, living as they do in ultramodern, always aspirant Taipei. The mountains represent something older and earthier, filled with atavistic passions and the dark fear of the unknown. One of the more supernaturally inclined elderly residents of Wei’s apartment block speculates that the forest spirits are angry with the encroachment of modernity, that persistent tree cutting has destroyed their natural habitat and sent them into the cities in search of souls to devour like foxes hungry for human suffering. Another forest dweller adds that every time a tree is removed, the spirits steal a body to “plant” in its place in an ironic act of restitution. An encounter with dark nature however sends each of our conflicted souls reeling back to the comforts of urbanity, suddenly no longer quite as afraid of the things which frighten them and now convinced that their salvation lies in each other and in repairing the bonds of the traditional family. Socially conservative as it may be, The Tag-Along’s spectres of moral decay are all too real in the increasingly indifferent city plagued by greed and selfishness where competition is key and human feeling merely an afterthought in a rabidly acquisitive society.


The Tag-Along screened as part of the Taiwan Film Festival UK 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)