Vengeance of the Phoenix Sisters (三鳳震武林, Chen Hung-Min, 1968)

“We’re big, strong men. Why should we worry about three little girls?” a trio of bandits reflects on having allowed the children of their enemy to escape their massacre thereby leaving themselves open to future reprisals. As the title of Chen Hung-Min ’s Taiwanese-language wuxia Vengeance of the Phoenix Sisters (三鳳震武林) implies, however, they are quite wrong to be so dismissive of “three little girls” who will later grow up to fulfil their filial duty by avenging the deaths of their parents even though they are daughters rather than sons. 

During the exciting nighttime prologue, three bandits attack the house of Yang formerly a sheriff. The three men are taking “revenge” for his attempt to arrest them 15 years previously which they seemingly managed to evade and have been on the run ever since. Taken by surprise, Yang sends his three daughters away to safety with his servants, but is ultimately unable to do more than hold the bandits off before both he and his wife are killed. In the final moments before dying however, he is able to impart a few last words to second daughter Xiufeng instructing her to avenge their deaths while advising the nanny to take her to one of his sworn brothers way up in the mountains. 

This is where we meet Xiufeng (Yang Li-Hua) again 15 years later now dressing as a man and having apparently spent the remainder of her childhood perfecting her martial arts but now determined to set out alone to pursue vengeance as is her filial duty. The sisters have become scattered with the youngest, Zhifeng (Chin Mei), apparently unaware of her parentage having been brought up by the servant who helped her escape in a nearby town which is itself a victim of warlord Cao one of the bandits who killed her father who has now it seems become wealthy and powerful on the back of his life of crime. Cao is in fact so wealthy and powerful that he’s been exacting his droit du seigneur over the local population, Xiufeng rescuing a young woman in the middle of being carted off by Cao’s goons seconds after arriving in town only for Cao to ironically settle on Zhifeng as his next target despite being warned that she’s reputed to be highly skilled in martial arts. 

The the fact that each of the three bandits has become successful in the intervening 15 years is another wrong that sisters must right in their quest not only for vengeance but for justice and as the bandits seemingly have no children or family members the cycle of revenge will end only with them. Their actions will restore a kind of order not only in drawing a line under the deaths of their parents so that they can move on, but removing the bandits’ corruption so that the local population is no longer forced to live in fear of their cruel tyranny. This sense of anxious devastation is rammed home as, in a scene inspired either by contemporary samurai dramas or the western, Xiufeng slowly makes her way towards a low set camera to enter the town while in the foreground a lone figure collects debris from the otherwise empty streets. 

Xiufeng is, in genre tradition, dressing as man in order to pursue her revenge going under the name Lin Keding and exerting absolute authority unafraid of anything or anyone. Chen had worked as an editor on King Hu’s Dragon Inn and in true wuxia fashion includes a classic fight in a teahouse that also finds Xiufeng following her adoptive father’s advice to use her wits to win as she quickly realises that Lord Cao has set her up in revenge for robbing him of the girl by getting the innkeeper to poison her dinner. Meanwhile, in a repeated motif, the innkeeper’s wife keeps flirting with her adding to gender ambiguity. Older sister Qingfeng (Liu Ching) meanwhile whose protector apparently fell off a cliff and died some time ago sees no need for a similar pretence though she and Zhifeng later almost have a falling out after being distracted from their mission on encountering the “handsome hero” Lin Keding which is about as awkward a situation as one could imagine until they figure out that they’re after the same guy and Xiufeng’s true identity is confirmed simply by letting down her hair. 

In any case, the Pheonix Sisters are perhaps unusual even within the context of contemporary wuxia in that they pursue their revenge entirely independently with no male assistance or romantic involvement save the awkward flirtatious banter between the other two sisters prior to realising that Lin Keding is really Xiufeng. Nevertheless, on having completed their quest they throw away their swords, implying at least that they now intend to return to a more conventional femininity remaining strictly within the confines of patriarchal filiality rather than choosing to free themselves from it. Even so, the treatment they receive is perhaps harsher than that a male avenger may have faced, Cao sneering that he loves tough women who can fight while the other two bandits Ke and Lu eventually decide to burn Qingfeng and Zhifeng alive only for Xiufeng to arrive and dramatically save them just in the nick of time. 

Chen’s take on wuxia is indeed surprisingly violent, the cruelty in the bandits’ swords fully evidenced as they cut down not only Yang the former sheriff but his wife too. Meanwhile he makes good use of thematic symmetries typical of the genre, the trio of amoral bandits opposed by the trio of chivalrous sisters, pursuing them for a crime they committed 15 years previously to take revenge for a slight 15 years before that while the sense of circularity is further emphasised through repeated imagery in Chen’s elegantly framed widescreen composition. Despite the comparatively low budget typical of Taiwanese-language cinema which apparently saw Chen having to resort to car headlights in order to light the film during night shoots, he manages to craft fantastically entertaining period adventure filled with well choreographed action sequences and a playful sense of unease as the sisters strive to reunite their family through their quest for justice and vengeance. 


Encounter at the Station (難忘的車站, Hsin Chi, 1965)

Destructive and outdated conservative patriarchal social codes drive a young man to madness, cause a young woman to lose her sight, and push another towards nervous breakdown in Hsin Chi’s subversive Taiwanese-language romantic melodrama Encounter at the Station (難忘的車站) which rather than reinforcing the status quo eventually argues that it’s time to leave the old ways behind. Adapting the popular novel Cold and Warm World/Human Fickleness by Chin Hsing-chih, Hsin swaps the wartime setting for a purely contemporary tale in which the major victim of a patriarchal society turns out to be a rich boy in love with a poor girl while the arch villain is in fact his status-obsessed mother.

As the title perhaps implies, Tshui-Giok (Chin Mei) and Kok-Liong (Shih Chun) share a brief encounter at a train station when she drops her ID on the way to school and he picks up and returns it to her. For each of them it is love at first sight, student Kok-Liong idly dreaming of Tshui-Giok at home envisioning her in differing settings and eventually wearing a wedding dress. They continue to meet “accidentally” at the station and develop an innocent romance but while Tshui-Giok has problems at home, her adoptive mother suffering a serious illness while her step father has a serious gambling problem, Kok-Liong is attempting to put off an arranged marriage set up by his mother to a girl of a similar background, Hun-Kiau (Ho Yu-Hua). 

To begin with, the barriers between them would seem to be those of money and class though it is a sense of shame leading to minor deception which finally keeps them apart. After her mother dies, Tshui-Giok’s step father indentures her to a hostess bar after which she stops going to the station and meeting Kok-Liong. When he runs into by her accident, she tells him that she’s dropped out to look after her sickly father and is taking night classes but continues to go on innocent dates with him on her days off. When he discovers the truth, Kok-Liong borrows money from his father to buy her contract at the bar and proposes marriage again lying to his mother that Tshui-Giok is the orphaned daughter of his former teacher. Interestingly enough, it is Kok-Liong’s father who fully sympathises with his son and convinces his wife to allow him to exercise his romantic freedom, his mother reluctantly agreeing that the pair can marry when Kok-Liong returns from studying abroad in America secretly hoping he’ll go off the idea while he’s away. 

Despite her conservatism, Kok-Liong’s mother does not lack compassion, in fact Tshui-Giok later describes her as “kind” while trying to reason with her once her past as a bargirl is discovered. Nevertheless, she cannot let go of her old-fashioned ideas of properness, persuading Tshui-Giok that her love for Kok-Liong is toxic. She agrees that Tshui-Giok is a good woman who has performed the role of the perfect daughter-in-law while living in the house waiting for Kok-Liong’s return and seems at least partly conflicted but insists that Tshui-Giok’s background disqualifies her as a suitable wife for the son of a prominent family. Again she forces her to lie, leaving a goodbye note stating that she’s tired of waiting and has chosen to marry a wealthy man she met by chance. Her exit paves the way for Hun-Kiau’s return, Kok-Liong agreeing to a rebound marriage believing his mother’s claims that Tshui-Giok ran off with another man while his father cautions his wife with irritation that all of this is likely to blow up in her face.

Unlike his wife, Kok-Liong’s father continues to sympathise with the young couple indifferent to Tshui-Giok’s past while worried that his wife’s decision to throw her out (taken in his absence) may leave her with no choice but to become a bargirl again. This is in fact what ends up happening, a minor comment on the economic situation revealing that Tshui-Giok cannot support herself with a job in a factory because the pay is so low and the hours are irregular. She finds herself ironically having to return to the fringes of the sex trade in order to earn back the money Kok-Liong used to free her from it. Kok-Liong’s mother may be keen to maintain the little power she has in a patriarchal social system in enforcing her choice for her son’s bride, but her obsession with reputation and social standing eventually ruins all three lives. The marriage between Hun-Kiau and Kok-Liong is understandably unhappy leaving Kok-Liong a resentful drunk which is how he ends up re-encountering Tshui-Gok in a Taichung bar at first angrily berating her, becoming violent and threatening rape until realising she is still wearing the necklace he gave her as a symbol of their love. 

In some ways, Kok-Liong is just as much of a prisoner of this system as either of the women manipulated into an arranged marriage by his overbearing mother. Having become economically prosperous, he now has the resources to support two households setting up a home with Tshui-Gok in Taichung while keeping his marriage a secret from her leading her to believe they are simply waiting for his parents to come around. The effects of this patriarchal mindset are further felt in the fact that Hun-Kiau’s baby is female, hinting at the wrongness of their union, while Tshui-Gok’s is male. A doting father to his son, Kok-Liong all but ignores his daughter and rarely returns to his “family” home in Fengyuan forcing Hun-Kiau’s hand as she, like his mother, forces the good and proper Tshui-Giok to accept that her existence is ruinous to Kok-Liong’s future. Hun-Kiau unfairly accuses her of “stealing” Kok-Liong’s affections, making her own daughter tearfully demand that Tshui-Giok return her husband to her. 

Whatever she thought she could accomplish with this gambit, it’s unlikely that it would spontaneously reignite Kok-Liong’s buried love for her but she could hardly have expected that it would finally push him into mental breakdown unable to accept the total lack of power he has in his family life while manipulated firstly by his mother and then by his wife. Caught in an impossible situation, the young women are unable to hate each other caring most for their children rather than tussling over a man but each in their own way constrained, Hun-Kiau guilty of the same mindset as her mother-in-law if to a lesser extent while Tshui-Giok, shamed by her past and conscious of the class difference, is also wedded to outdated ideals which force her to believe that she is not good enough and only ruins Kok-Liong’s life. Fearing her son will be disadvantaged by his illegitimacy, she entrusts him to Hun-Kiau and goes to look for her birth relatives while returning to seamstressing and general emotional strain eventually lead to her losing her sight. 

Yet where traditional melodramas often reinforce the current social order, Encounter at the Station eventually allows the two lovers to reunite insisting that the mother-in-law is in the wrong, the old ideas belong to an old society and should be abandoned to facilitate a greater happiness the couple eventually leaving the family home for new one of their own. The ending is however a little too happy given the solemnity of the previous scenes. Hun-Kiau becomes the greatest casualty having allied herself to the mother-in-law’s philosophy which cannot progress into the modern society, succumbing to a mental breakdown before finally giving her blessing to Tshui-Giok. The patriarchal society disables them all, the men weak and shallow while the women are resilient but equally unable to pursue their desires finally only able either to protect their children or unethically misuse the little power they have over them. Familial bonds are eroded by notions of social propriety that force everybody to lie, or at least to conceal the truth, in order to present the facade of respectability. Featuring a number of musical sequences recounting the lovers’ sorry tale of romantic woe, Hsin hints at tragedy but eventually offers them a happier future if only in actively stepping away from the constraints of the past. 


Trailer (English subtitles)

City of Lost Things (廢棄之城, Yee Chih-Yen, 2020)

A traumatised teenage boy attempts to escape his sense of alienation by relegating himself to the literal junkyard of humanity in the first animation from Blue Gate Crossing’s Yee Chih-Yen, City of Lost Things (廢棄之城, Fèiqì zhī Chéng). Not to be confused with tragic noir Cities of Last Things, Chen’s eventually inspirational drama resounds with positive energy as the embittered hero determines to love himself a little more in order to find the place where he belongs, where he can he strong and beautiful and “turn into something not trash”, while remaining unafraid to explore the darker edges of his loneliness and desperation as he searches for connection and community. 

As he explains in the opening voiceover, 16-year-old Leaf (River Huang) doesn’t like it at home where it seems his mother drinks, nor does he like it at school, or on the streets where he becomes the victim of violence. Coming to the conclusion he has nowhere else to go, Leaf is almost swept away by a giant rubbish truck along with a host of “other” refuse, accidentally saving a sentient plastic bag imaginatively named “Baggy” (Joseph Chang) which gets stuck under his shirt. Baggy guides him to Trash City where unwanted and discarded items live in a kind of ghetto ruled over by an oppressive guardian deity statue, Mr. G (Jack Kao), who also looks quite like the figure of legendary Chinese general Guan Yu. Baggy explains to him that he and many of the other pieces of “trash” trapped in the city long to escape the “siege” in order not to be “quiet trash” anymore but find a place they can be beautiful, and strong, and love themselves a little more. 

In contrast to the heroes of most children’s animation, Leaf is not a particularly sympathetic character, his obvious self-loathing of which “Trash City” is perhaps a metaphor beginning to boil over into something dark and potentially dangerous. In Trash City he finds a source of eternal escape, not wanting to leave but to remain in this place where he can feel at home, unjudged, and unbothered by the adult world while accepted by those around him as an equal. This is one reason he clings so fiercely to his new friendship with Baggy, immediately anxious on discovering his plan to leave Trash City in realising it must necessarily mean that they will one day have to say goodbye. Not wanting to lose this new friendship and return to loneliness he finds himself taking the self-destructive step of snitching on his friends little realising the consequences of his actions. 

Yet if Trash City represents Leaf’s sense of depression is also perhaps functions as a political allegory through the oppressive rule of Mr. G who refuses Baggy and the others permission to leave though he does so apparently for their own safety in order to evade the “armoured trucks” which literally suck up dissidents and crush them like rubbish in their rear compactors. In escaping Trash City, however, what Leaf must overcome is his sense of powerlessness and inconsequaility to believe that there is a place for him where he can lead a happy life surrounded by people who love him rather than regarding himself as human “trash” rejected by and unworthy of regular society. 

Nevertheless, there’s a slightly less cheerful metaphor in play in the obvious ironic twist that the place they’re looking for is a recycling centre which points to an external transformation rather than the change from within implied by Baggy’s constant messages of the importance of learning to love one’s self a little more. It also gives rise some awkward humour as Leaf looks for his friend in plastic buckets and subway seats which eventually leads to a slightly inappropriate adult joke likely to confuse younger viewers while uncomfortably implying that people and things only have value when they’re transformed into something “useful”. While the animation style is relatively simple, the charming worldbuilding and innovative production design of the almost steampunk city with its mannequin lamp guards and disco-crazy white goods help to smooth over any sense of hollowness while the overarching story of growing self-acceptance as the path out of despair is a refreshing take on potentially destructive adolescent angst as the hero resolves to find his place in the world rather than exiling himself from it. 


City of Lost Things screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Eternal Summer (盛夏光年, Leste Chen, 2006)

A trio of emotionally displaced teens find themselves swept into an awkward love triangle while longing to escape their loneliness in Leste Chen’s melancholy youth drama Eternal Summer (盛夏光年, Shèngxià Guāngnián). Each in someway marginalised and searching for acceptance, the teens struggle to define themselves as the world changes itself around them while bound by the paradoxical qualities of their circular relationships, their unspoken secrets continually driving them apart even as they continue to long for the intimacy born only of sharing their authentic selves. 

A quiet, studious boy, Joseph Kang (Ray Chang) is asked to befriend his deskmate Shane (Jopseph Hsiao-chuan) who has ADHD and has been labeled disruptive in the hope that creating social relationships with other children will help calm him down. The arrangement in a sense backfires, Joseph’s academic achievement falling while his friendship with Shane only grows in strength and intensity. By the time they are teenagers, the pair are inseparable but Joseph has also fallen in deep, unrequited love with his best friend, a secret he is afraid to share with anyone and ironically cannot share with the one person to whom he is supposed to be able to tell anything. The friendship is further disrupted by the sudden introduction of transfer student Carrie (Kate Yeung Mei-ling) who has returned to Taipei to live with her mother after years of living with her father in Hong Kong. Carrie first develops a fondness for Joseph while working with him on the school paper, but later figures out that he’s secretly in love with Shane and decides to support him as a friend while in another irony Joseph’s ongoing internal crisis eventually forces his friends together, Carrie secretly dating Shane while each of them knows on differing levels how their relationship may hurt Joseph when he eventually finds out. 

In 2006 Taiwanese society was perhaps not quite as accepting as it would become, yet Joseph’s anxiety in his sexuality in compounded by the desire not to lose his friendship with Shane fearing not just that his feelings are not returned but that he may reject him altogether just for being gay. While Shane, a high school sports star with terrible grades, eventually blossoms academically after Carrie makes the ironic promise to go out with him in the unlikely event he gets into uni, it’s heavily implied that Joseph’s previously high level of achievement is damaged because of his preoccupation with his sexuality shockingly failing his uni entrance exams and thereafter further separated from his friends as they move on and he remains in cram school limbo hoping for better luck next year. Meanwhile he finds himself in potentially dangerous situations cruising in parks trying to verify his homosexuality while privately consumed by shame. 

For Shane, meanwhile, his problem is that he feels rejected by the world around him because of the way his ADHD was treated as a child. Regarded as a disruptive troublemaker none of the other kids would play with him save Joseph, meaning that he too is desperate to maintain the friendship in fear of his inescapable loneliness even while finding a similar connection with Carrie who is herself longing for love seemingly having strained relationships with each of her divorced parents while geographically and culturally displaced in having spent much of her life in Hong Kong. Carrie is, however, the only one to know the whole truth frustrated with the two men in her life that they can’t simply clear the air by voicing the secrets that continue to erode their relationship. 

Then again perhaps what they really fear is “change”, afraid of an uncertain adulthood in which their childhood connection will necessarily weaken. “We will lose each other in the future?” a conflicted Shane wonders, uncertain if his co-dependency is entirely healthy or fair on his friends but fearing becoming alone or having to make a choice unable to lose one or both of his essential connections. At heart a mood piece, Chen’s melancholy drama is filled with the strange canted angles of a world out of kilter and poignant reflections of the past in the midst of present torment, both elegiac and nostalgic for a particular moment in time which must in some way pass even if his parting words are painfully ironic in their cutting intensity.


Eternal Summer streams in Poland until Nov. 29 as part of the 15th Five Flavours Film Festival.

4K restoration trailer (Traditional Chinese subtitles only)

Days Before the Millennium (徘徊年代, Chang Teng-Yuan, 2021)

Perhaps deceptively titled, Chang Teng-Yuan’s bifurcated epic traverses the millennial divide in the company of two Vietnamese women each with very different stories but eventually agreeing “your generation or mine things were not easy for us” as they share their stories of migration amid the changing fortunes of Taiwan-Vietnam relations. Beginning in the mid-90s, Days Before the Millennium (徘徊年代, Páihuái Niándài) finds a mail order bride dreaming of a better life on an “island of riches” but soon finding herself trapped by an overbearing mother-in-law and violent husband, while another woman two decades later arrives happily married for love and well educated but often frustrated in her attempts to help those like herself struggling to adapt to a changing society. 

As Tue (Annie Nguyen) puts it, she exchanged her youth for a future of hope in Taiwan escaping a childhood of war for a more peaceful existence abroad. At the time she arrives, however, Taiwan is not so peaceful as relations with Mainland China continue to decline with many fearing military escalation. Meanwhile, the “mysterious man” to whom she was to be married, is a sullen construction worker filled with a sense of impossibility. Ming (Chiang Chang-Hui) patiently lays one brick on top of another attempting to build his home but finds himself under the watchful eyes of a couple of “surveyors” with eyes on his land. Alone in their van, the two men often debate the modern society the one decrying increasing globalisation while looking down on women like Tue complaining that half the town is now Vietnamese, “polluted”, as if they think they’re losing something even as they attempt to snatch Ming’s land out from under him to build, one assumes, some of the half-completed apartment blocks “private investigator” Lan (Nguyen Thu Hang) drives past 20 years later. 

Tue’s attempts to reclaim some of her agency through opening a small business selling street food only further irritate the already frustrated Ming whose internalised rage eventually turns violent while his mother (Chen Shu-fang) looks on saying nothing, later berating Tue for not having fulfilled the role for which she was desired pointing suggestively at an empty crib which seems to have been in the corner ever since she came. It’s at this point that her marginalisation intersects with that of women born on the island as her Vietnamese friend attempts to get her help by talking to the local police in the light of new legislation recently passed against domestic violence. Though the officer is sympathetic he can do little for her seeing as she has no material evidence while Tue blames herself and is otherwise trapped knowing that leaving her husband before completing her period of residency means potential deportation. Later doing just that she finds solidarity first at a buddhist temple and then a woman’s refuge, but even that is later disrupted by natural disaster.  

Tue’s story becomes a source of inspiration 20 years later for recent immigrant Lan, Chang transitioning to the post-millennial city during a storm which seems to narrow the screen now in a boxy 4:3 rather than the strangely oppressive widescreen with which the film opened. Unlike Tue, Lan has a degree in Chinese and an extensive resume having apparently met and married her Taiwanese husband in Vietnam. She applied for a position at a detective agency, the same agency which once offered to “help” Tue “fight for her rights” but didn’t really want to rent her an apartment, because she wants to help other women like herself in inter-cultural marriages find better solutions to domestic friction but finds her goals at odds with those of her capitalistic boss. Perhaps for these reasons, her first job does not go to plan as she accompanies a Vietnamese mail order bride on a mission to spy on the husband she suspects of having an affair, failing to stop her confronting him after discovering that he is a closeted homosexual who married her to please his parents but now feels guilty and conflicted in his treatment of her. 

This is of course another marginalisation, but one that Lan is ill-equipped to process while the woman she hoped to help is, as Tue once was, faced only with her broken dreams for better life in Taiwan. The Vietnamese news remarks on Taiwan’s geopolitical positioning as a delegation is awkwardly asked to leave an international conference because of Mainland pressure, while it also seems that a Taiwanese factory is responsible for a toxic waste spill that has damaged local fishing stocks and caused widespread illness in Vietnam. When Lan and Tue eventually meet they talk of the changing fortunes of their nations, Lan explaining that the port town where she’s from is now a bustling big city, the Vietnamese economy now much improved while Taiwan’s is falling behind. 20 years between them their fortunes are entirely different, even so they each agree things have not always been easy if differing ways. Nevertheless, their mutual sense of solidarity and desire to improve the circumstances of those like them offers a ray of hope in what might otherwise seem a difficult and hopeless future, Chang’s sometimes experimental, etherial tale of historical echoes and awkward symmetry finally allowing each of its heroines the sense of the better future of which they once dreamed. 


Days Before the Millennium screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (dialogue free)

Execution in Autumn (秋決, Li Hsing, 1972)

“We all have to die, but we must die in peace and honour” the hero of Li Hsing’s tale of spiritual redemption Execution in Autumn (秋決, Qiū Jué) finally realises, resigning himself to the cruelty of his fate. Partly an advocation for “responsible” childrearing, Li’s philosophical tale is also one of growing enlightenment as the boorish, entitled hero is cajoled towards a sense of social responsibility through the ministrations firstly of his cellmates and then of a good woman who finally learns to see the good in him if through a gentle process of emotional excavation. 

As the opening voiceover explains, at this time it was thought somehow offensive to conduct an execution during the seasons of life and rebirth and so they were relegated to the autumn amid its ominous mists. As we first meet Pei Gang (Ou Wei), however, he’s on the run, trying to make a break for it in refusing to accept the judgement which has been passed on him. The sole heir of a wealthy family, he has been convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of two men and a woman who claimed he was the father of her child (as for what became of the baby, no further mention is made). His grandmother (Fuh Bih-Huei) vows to get him out of jail, pulling every trick in the book and bribing a local official to engineer a good outcome at the upcoming retrial. But in an ironic indication of his buried goodness, Pei Gang refuses to lie to the court and freely admits his crime claiming he was “overcome with rage” believing the woman and her cousins intended to blackmail him but was otherwise in sound mind when he murdered her because he was “sick of being duped” and wanted to vindicate his family honour by taking vengeance on those who’d wronged him. 

Unable to save her grandson, Gang’s grandmother blames herself realising that her failure to discipline him in childhood has led to his immense sense of entitlement and conviction that the rules do not apply to him. Grandma promised that whatever sort of trouble he got into, she would get him out which is obviously a promise she wouldn’t be able to keep but also somewhat irresponsible. For these reasons, Gang regards his treatment as extremely unfair, unable to understand why any of this is happening to him or to accept that this is one fix grandma won’t be able to smooth over even with her money and the power of her name.  

The lesson would seem to be that you have to be cruel to be kind, a message later confirmed by Gang’s conflicted jailor (Ko Hsiang-Ting) who we learn had a son of his own he wrongly indulged which led to him becoming a wayward lad like Gang drowning in a river in the middle of a fist fight. Learning that his grandmother has passed away, Gang once again rails against his fate offering proclamations of hate which are really of love while blaming his grandmother for never having beaten him when he was a child recognising her problematic love for him, mixed as it was with his importance to her as the heir, but also his own abuse of her indulgence. Bad parenting may be the cause of Gang’s amorality, but he is not and never was blameless. He had a free choice to become a better person but did not take it, engaging in persistent boundary pushing even as an adult culminating in the murder of three people mostly out of spite. 

At first Gang can’t bear the mention of the word death, caught between the earthy philosophies of the street thief in the cell to him and the Confucianist scholar opposite serving a one year term as a proxy for his elderly, debt-laden father. Slowly he begins to come around the scholar’s way of thinking, coming to accept death as an inevitability of life as certain as the seasons. His second lessons begin on realising he cannot escape his sentence, his grandmother has given up on him and enacted her back up plan to ensure the family line continues by marrying him to his adopted “sister” Lian (Tang Pao-Yun). Other signs of his buried goodness manifest themselves in his initial reluctance to go along with the plan, not only resenting being used as a stud but unwilling to make Lian an instant widow. “I don’t want you to hate me the rest of your life” he adds in a moment of vulnerability, trying to convince his new bride to find someone more able to give her a happy life stretching further than the next autumn. 

Gang’s tragedy is, in a sense, that as he approaches his execution he experiences true happiness and is genuinely reformed but only by accepting the necessity of his death can he fully redeem himself. Though he tried to escape, he refuses to leave even when the jailor offers to let him go fearing both for the jailor’s fate and for that of his wife and child if he were to become a fugitive. Nevertheless he cannot prevent their victimhood, knowing that just as grandma and Lian had done he must sacrifice himself in order to protect his family accepting not just his moral and social responsibility but the filial. Taking place mostly within the claustrophobic confines of the prison, Li’s melancholy existential drama uses the rhythm of the seasons as a metaphor for life but also as a kind of ticking clock accelerating Gang’s remaining time as he lives out his glory days and twilight years in the span of months awaiting his execution as the first leaves fall. It might be tempting to draw the conclusion that they are each victims of a cruel and oppressive social system taken to authoritarian extremes though Li may have intended the opposite in reminding parents, literal and figural, that the moral education of their children through physical discipline is their primary duty. Nevertheless, Gang’s spiritual awakening and subsequent redemption prove profoundly moving even in their concurrent tragedy. 


Execution in Autumn screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival

Trailer (English subtitles)

Taipei Story (青梅竹馬, Edward Yang, 1985)

“Just a fleeting hope. The illusion that you can start over” the hero of Edward Yang’s melancholy drama of the costs of modernity, Taipei Story (青梅竹馬, Qīngméizhúmǎ), eventually laments. Yang apparently chose the English title himself in a deliberate echo of Yasujiro Ozu’s equally pessimistic drama, yet the original title literally translated as “childhood sweethearts” also has its poignancy in hinting at the loss of innocence and hopeless impossibility of the fracturing love between its twin protagonists. 

Yang begins and ends in an empty room, for an empty room is always a possibility. As the film opens, high-flying career woman Chin (Tsai Chin) is buying her own apartment, already envisioning her life there in pointing out to her boyfriend Lung (Hou Hsiao-hsien) where they’ll put the TV and VCR so they can watch movies in bed hinting at a new level of consumerist success. More practically minded, he points out that the place needs a little work but Chin is confident she can manage it, saving up and paying in instalments having no immediate anxiety about her income. 

Yet Yang seems to suggest that this burgeoning economic powerhouse is built on shaky ground. The construction firm at which Chin works has recently been hit with a potential lawsuit about a lethal building error, while Chin’s mentor has already moved on and the firm has been bought up by another company presumably intent on some shady business of its own. This Chin discovers to her cost on hearing the not entirely unexpected news that the new bosses don’t understand her job title and want to demote her to the role of secretary which, she suspects, is just a way of pushing her to resign (which she then does). 

Shoddy business practices are also it seems responsible for her father’s present moment of financial insecurity though he only further alienates his daughter by talking entirely with Lung when the pair come to visit stopping only to ask awkward questions about marriage and children. Later we realise that part of Chin’s resentment towards her father is due to a long history of domestic abuse, her mother later crying silently prompting Chin to withdraw some of her savings something she would not have done had her father asked it. Yet Lung, old-fashioned in many ways and not least in his filiality, feels duty bound to help his not-quite father-in-law provoking a row between the pair when he gives him money he’d saved in the forlorn hope of going into business with his brother-in-law in America. 

Once childhood friends and now seeking a new start, the couple begin to dream of a new life though as Lung later says, America, like marriage, is not a panacea. Chin is in a sense torn between past and future neither of which have much possibility, in a committed relationship with Lung yet jealous over his past with a mutual childhood friend, and also carrying on an affair with an unhappily married man at work. A high-flying executive and independent career woman, she is determined to keep moving forward while Lung is stuck in the past hung up on baseball glory and morally righteous to a fault, helping out Chin’s feckless father while knowing it will do no good while his attempt to help a friend sort out his complicated family life leads only to tragedy. It’s obvious that he does not fit in with Chin’s yuppie friends, one particularly obnoxious male colleague describing him as having the face of a yam farmer and needling him to the point that it eventually leads to an altercation in a karaoke bar. Chin doesn’t seem particularly upset about the fight, comforting Lung as he confesses that he ends up in fights in order to stick up for himself or else because of his love of justice, but continues hanging out with her unpleasant friend for otherwise unclear reasons. 

But it’s less a love of justice than frustrated masculinity that eventually seals Lung’s fate, unwisely picking a fight with a young tough not so much in order to protect Chin as to preserve his own sense of wounded male pride. Realising the futility of his situation, he is unable to move forward into the new society, whereas Chin eventually finds herself substituting his role as her former mentor shows her around a potential new office space just as she had him her apartment envisioning how they will exist within it, where their offices will be along with the state of the art computer room. “It’s actually nice here,” she assures her, “now we have a big American company right in our hometown. Why go abroad?”. Yet Chin perhaps remembers her dejected colleague lamenting that all the new buildings look the same and he can’t even remember which ones he worked on so anonymous has the landscape become. In this Taipei story, the city is devoid of life or character a highly corporatised arena of increasingly dehumanising capitalism where everyone dreams of escape abroad to America or Japan, yet all Chin can do lowering her sunshades is to gaze from the window of her new office onto the lonely streets below and ask herself where it is she thinks she’s going. 


Taipei Story streamed as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Trailer (English subtitles)

The Moon Represents My Heart (La luna representa mi corazón, Juan Martín Hsu, 2021)

Named for the classic song by Teresa Teng that connects the mother and son at its centre, Juan Martín Hsu’s documentary/fiction hybrid The Moon Represents My Heart (La luna representa mi corazón) sees the director himself making two trips from his home in Argentina seven years apart to see his mother in Taipei in part in order to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of his father when he was six years old. It may be a minor spoiler to reveal that the truth remains frustratingly out of reach though he perhaps discovers other, equally hidden, familial traumas in the complicated history of post-war Taiwan. 

Martín and his brother Marcelo were born in Argentina where their parents ran a restaurant but his mother later elected to return to Taiwan while they stayed behind. The earlier visit in 2012 is apparently the first in the 10 years since his mother left, the difficulty of obtaining visas and the expense being the reasons he gives for leaving it so long. His next trip, however, is not for another seven years, he and his brother instantly remarking on the various ways his mother may or may not have aged. Martín seems to want to talk about his father, but his mother would rather not drag up the past. In fact so averse is she that she’s developed a habit of cutting the faces of those she doesn’t like or want to remember out of her photos which is why the boys complain they don’t have any of their father. While chatting about that, she advances that their father was murdered because of an extramarital affair he’d been having with a local woman, later claiming that he may have had a drug problem or been involved with organised crime. 

Mostly what she tells her son is that she was unhappy, having left a previous marriage because her husband was intensely patriarchal refusing to allow her go on working after becoming his wife. She met Martín’s dad after persuading her first husband to allow her to work at a restaurant and left with him for Argentina pregnant with her first husband’s child, Diego. But in Argentina her new husband was little different, actively preventing her from learning Spanish while also discouraging her from associating with other Chinese-speaking migrants, especially men. The boys speak to her in awkward Mandarin with the assistance of smartphone dictionaries while she complains that her Spanish was never good enough even after she began running the restaurant on her own. “You two wouldn’t be able to spend “la vida” in Taiwan” she explains, “just like your mum couldn’t spend “la vida” in Argentina”. 

Martín’s mother keeps telling him to leave it alone, that he might not like what he finds he if keeps poking into his father’s death though as we find out later he has own traumatic memories of the night his father died along with a burning desire to understand why as if hoping to unlock the secrets of his history. In a raw hotel room exchange, his brother complains that he doesn’t feel part of this extended Taiwan family and is upset that Martín threatened to disown him if he refused to take part in the documentary, feeling a little tricked in having agreed to come only to be forced to participate while his brother seemingly ignores his discomfort. Yet while looking for his father Martín discovers a darker history of his grandfather’s suffering during the White Terror adding new layers to a legacy of familial trauma in the buried history of his maternal family as complicated as it already seemed to be. 

In between each of these difficult conversations and meetings with family members, Hsu splices brief fiction shorts along the theme of exile, the first featuring a returnee who emigrated as a young man leaving a lover behind who is now it seems about to marry someone else but carrying regrets, while another sequence follows a young woman preparing to go abroad but feeling terribly guilty about abandoning her mother. At times the sense of cultural dislocation seems unbreachable as the brothers accompany their mother and her partner to karaoke sessions and tourist excursions but then there’s the song and its universal ability to connect, Martín’s mother singing it firstly with a guitar and later a microphone almost like a long forgotten lullaby. Martín may not unlock the secrets of his father’s death, but does perhaps gain a new understanding of his mother, a resilient woman but also a perpetual victim of a patriarchal society, an oppressive regime, and finally of distance in the separations emotional and physical between herself and her sons. 


The Moon Represents My Heart screens in San Diego on Nov. 1 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival

Trailer (English subtitles)

Teresa Teng – The Moon Represents My Heart

Hill of No Return (無言的山丘, Wang Tung, 1992)

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)

Splendid Float (豔光四射歌舞團, Zero Chou, 2004)

A lonely taoist priest with a sideline as a drag artist falls for the siren song of a drifting fisherman in Zero Chou’s mystical vision of love and loss, Splendid Float (豔光四射歌舞團, Yàn Guāng Sìshè Gēwǔtuán). One of very few out lesbian filmmakers currently working in East Asia, Chou’s films more often deal with love between women but her second narrative feature is a melancholy meditation on grief and impossibility revolving around a performer with an itinerant drag act as she struggles to understand why the man she loved couldn’t stay with her forever. 

A taoist priest performing death rituals by day, by night Roy (James Chen Yu-Ming) becomes Rose a drag performer singing sad songs of lost love from the makeshift stage of converted pickup truck with a rainbow roof. It’s one evening when the van breaks down that she first meets Sunny (Chung Yi-Ching), a handsome swimmer who soon becomes her lover only to disappear the next morning leaving behind only a note saying goodbye and a yellow flower. Heartbroken, Rose tries to find him and begins to suspect the worst later discovering that Sunny has apparently drowned at sea. 

The minor irony is that Rose’s day job is as a taoist priest which to say bound up with the rituals of death and grieving yet she struggles to come to terms with Sunny’s absence and is unable to let go of a tragic, fleeting love. Following the rather lengthy opening sex scene, Rose asks Sunny to stay with her longing for a place to settle down together looking for conventional domesticity as a couple, something about which Sunny appears unsure not it seems because of societal pressure but because he is not made for a settled life. Often seen swimming, Sunny is a kind of mermaid happiest in the water which lends his death by drowning an additionally poetic quality but also perhaps aligns his sexuality with a sense of impossibility suggesting Rose will never be able to achieve the fulfilling romance of which she dreams. 

This is further brought home in her frustrated attempts to make contact with Sunny’s spirit, often seeing his ghost but refusing to let him go. Ironically brought in to conduct a death ritual on behalf of Sunny’s mother and sister, she unwittingly hints at their relationship by using the t-shirt he left behind to summon him and thereafter determines to split his soul taking a funeral tablet with her after tossing coins to try and gain his consent only to ignore the result when it implies Sunny chose to leave her and does not want to be possessed by her in death. “We live amongst tradition but still there’s no place for people like us” one of Rose’s fellow performers laments, “look at you and Sunny, together for so long but what are you, just ordinary friends? It’s not like you can just go and tell everyone you’re his widow and take his icon with you.”

Even Roy’s family members are apparently ambivalent, suspecting he might be gay but unsure how to respond to it. They avoid sending him to funerals because he has a reputation for being overly emotional earning the nickname of “the wailing girl “and feel bad about him being teased while also confused that seems so “effeminate”, “not like a man at all”. His aunt, however, a fairly butch older woman asks if she doesn’t look “like a man” while in her full taoist priest outfit, suggesting perhaps that gender is an irrelevance at least in the course of their work. 

Rose, meanwhile, struggles to come to terms with loss while unable to voice her grief. In this quasi-musical, Rose’s songs are the only way she can express her suffering. “No one knows the pain I must face” she sings in a repeated refrain, “smiling and swallowing my tears secretly casting my sorrows to the sea.” Exploring both the vibrancy of traditional taoist practice, the soul guiding ritual described as the last dance of life, along with the precarious existence of the itinerant drag queens, Chou crafts an etherial fairytale of love and loss in which Rose herself becomes a kind of wandering ghost trapped in a rootless existence while yearning to settle down in perpetual search for safe harbour amid stormy seas. 


Splendid Float streams in the UK until 31st October as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Original trailer (no subtitles)