Foolish Bride, Naive Bridegroom (三八新娘憨子婿, Hsin Chi, 1967)

Even in the Taiwan of 1967 things were changing but not perhaps as quickly as elsewhere. Hsin Chi’s delightful “taiyupian” Taiwanese-language screwball rom-com Foolish Bride, Naive Bridegroom (三八新娘憨子婿) is a fairly late take on the arranged marriage vs love match debate which, perhaps surprisingly given the increasing conservatism of the era, comes down firmly on the side of the youngsters’ right to choose even while subtly poking fun at them for being naive and irresponsible, unable to forge independent lives for themselves and expecting the older generation to fix their mistakes while the parents eventually soften and in a sense free themselves from the oppressive values which defined their youths. 

As the film opens, grumpy father A-Kau (Chin Tu) is complaining that his pot is already boiling but his son Bun-ti (Shih Chun) has not yet returned with the rice he sent him out to get. That’s because Bun-ti has taken the opportunity of the errand to meet up with his girlfriend, Kui-ki (Chin Mei), who is also out on an errand having been sent grocery shopping by her mother (Yang Yue-fan). The pair can only meet on occasions such as these because their overly possessive parents refuse to let them leave the house without good reason and firmly disapprove of romantic relationships. 

In an amusing reversal of accepted gender norms, it’s A-Kau who plays the wounded widower, afraid that some young woman is coming to steal away his son and then there’ll be no one to look after him. Nevertheless, he’s simultaneously proud of his son’s popularity with the opposite sex despite describing him as having a “ladies curse” which he attributes to a constant need for female affection caused by the early death of his mother when he was only a few months old. In a running gag, the house is frequently beset by the young women of the neighbourhood pushing notes through the window and demanding to see the handsome young man. A-kau’s solution is to literally shut his son away by having the windows boarded over despite the carpenter’s cautioning that most people are looking for more ventilation, not less. 

Kui-ki’s mother, by contrast, is a much feistier figure directly telling her daughter that she’s no wish to meet her boyfriend because marriage is a matter for the parents. A-Kau later says something similar, concerned that “love heats up fast but often cools”, believing perhaps that an arranged marriage can provide greater longterm stability and is no more likely to fail than a love match. As we later discover, however, the parents’ animosity is rooted in youthful tragedy. In a staggering coincidence, it turns out that they were once young lovers like Bun-ti and Kui-ki who wanted to marry but fell foul of parental disapproval. Each accuses the other “abandonment”, but the cause is found to lie with A-Kau who, like Bun-ti, failed to be “resolute in love”, refusing to fight for Kui-ki’s mother and simply backing off when her father told him he wasn’t good enough. His own father then apparently forced him into the arranged marriage which produced Bun-ti while Kui-ki’s mother held out for a few years and was then forced into an arranged marriage herself. The pair of them fail to see the parallels with their children’s romance and have over invested in the idea of properness in traditional values in an attempt to ease the pain and disappointment of being denied the right to marry the person they loved. 

On recognising A-Kau, Kui-ki’s mother chases him out of the house with a broom and vetos the marriage, causing the young couple to elope to Taipei in an attempt to escape their parents’ authority. Each of them is sorry, but still wedded to their position as parental authorities, too proud to cede ground and simply give their blessing to the union to get their kids to come home. In an echo of an earlier scene in which he went on the prowl looking for Bun-ti, A-Kau roams the local park and spots young couples everywhere some of them engaging in public displays of affection which one might have assumed would have annoyed the censors. He’s approached first by a disabled beggar who explains that he, like Bun-ti, did not listen to his parents and eloped to Taipei with a woman they wouldn’t let him marry. But he couldn’t find work, went broke, and became ill. Finally she left him, and he’s too ashamed of his filial failure to go home which is why he’s begging in this park. A-Kau seems to find vindication rather than a warning in the story, glad to hear the young man admit that his parents were right rather than fearful that the same will happen to Bun-ti if he does not eventually accept his decision to marry. Later, a young couple approach him looking distressed, offering to sell the woman’s coat for money to elope. Feeling sorry A-kau gives them twice as much as they asked for and drops the coat behind him as he leaves, but then gives a long and painful lecture reflecting on his plight and encouraging the young couple to go home, “your filial duty is to avoid worrying your parents” he goes on. The young couple eventually make a sneaky escape while he’s turned around mid-monologue, rejecting his melancholy defence of feudal patriarchy. 

Meanwhile, in the city, Bun-ti and Kui-ki have got what looks to be a rather nice apartment together and are living it large but we later discover that they’re months behind on their rent (not to mention the rice bill) and the reality of their situation is beginning to place a strain on their relationship. He accuses of her of being a spendthrift, wanting to go out for dinner and a movie on a Sunday when they owe so much money already, while she blames him for failing to provide. In a strange and uncomfortable defence of domestic violence, Bunt-ti and Kui-ki chance on an apparently happily married couple making a spectacle of themselves during their weekly bout of fighting after which they both emerge bloody and bruised but seemingly cheerful after having worked out all their frustrations. Bun-ti and Kui-ki decide to try it for themselves and find that it works, later getting into a blazing row caused by Bun-ti’s staying out late drinking without phoning home. 

This last argument which signals the failure of their attempt to live as independent adults in the modern city leads to an intervention from the district chief/landlord and rice merchant, each of them instructing the creditors to call their parents to settle the debts. Ah-kau and Kui-ki’s mother dutifully arrive, launching a mini trial to discover who’s at fault including a full reconstruction of the events of the previous night which results in another violent fight after which the couple threaten to break up and marry other people only to reconcile while A-Kau and Kui-ki’s mother are then forced to deal with their “grudge” and end up getting engaged.

“Parents don’t understand the way young people do things” Kui-ki had explained, but they are eventually compelled to shift ground as they take back what was taken from them in finally being allowed to marry. Hsin doesn’t let anyone off the hook, neither the naive and feckless lovers nor their embittered parents whose hurt eventually turns into an unexpected opera duet as they rehash the failure of their youthful romance. He does however leave room for an unambiguously happy ending in which, ironically, the traditional family is repaired but only in its subversion as the young lovers are validated in their desire for love and freedom while A-Kau abandons the patriarchal order by assuming the role of the bride, carried in a palanquin to Kui-ki’s mother’s house wearing a veil, as he removes himself from his son’s family and surrenders his authority to his new wife in affirmation of a new social order struggling to be born in the increasingly repressive martial law era. 


Remaster trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

As We Like It (揭大歡喜, Chen Hung-i & Muni Wei, 2021)

“It’s the crazy madness we call love” according to a series of bemused bystanders in Chen Hung-i and Muni Wei’s modernist take on the Shakespeare play, As We Like It (揭大歡喜, Jiēdàhuānxǐ). As the reframing of the title implies, no longer pleasing “you” but “we”, Chen and Wei’s all-female adaptation is an attempt to reclaim the stage taking a swipe at the Elizabethan prohibition on actresses while undermining the notion of a gender binary as the various lovers pursue their romantic destiny in defiance of heteronormative ideas of sex and sexuality. 

Rather than palace intrigue, however, the force which sends Rosalind (Puff Kuo) into the forest is romantic failure coupled with filial and financial anxiety. Her father, the Duke, has been missing for seven years and will shortly be declared dead at which point his company will be divided between the father of her best friend, Celia (Camille Chalons), and a random young man named Orlando (Aggie Hsieh) she was previously unaware of. Hoping to locate him, she winds up at a street fight in which she becomes Orlando’s eyes and he falls in love with her at first sight. For unclear reasons and drawing inspiration from traditional Taiwanese opera, Rosalind then decides to pose as a man, taking the name of Roosevelt, and later teaming up with Orlando in the hope of finding the Duke. 

Despite its best intentions, the awkward irony at the centre of As We Like It is that it accidentally ends up re-inforcing the patriarchal ideology it otherwise seeks to critique in that Rosalind’s romantic adventure turns out to be a series of manipulations at the hands of her long absent father. A romantic exile, it is she who remains unsure of her feelings, unwilling to admit the possibility that she is finally in love with Orlando and hiding behind the mask of masculinity in order to test her would-be-lover’s sincerity. The strange scavenger hunt the pair are forced to follow in order to find their way to the Duke amounts to a forced courtship, each of the pitstops another level up in terms of romantic intimacy culminating in an oddly eroticised ear cleaning date. While Orlando vacillates over whether it’s OK to fall for a boy because he reminds you of a girl, Rosalind is tasked with rediscovering her faith in romantic love which she does but only after talking to her father first. 

Celia, by contrast, seizes her own agency by defiantly seducing sometime antagonist Oliver (Joelle Lu) and becoming pregnant by him even before marriage. In this instance, Oliver is still the villain attempting to steal the business, even going so far as to send his thugs to chase Orlando down, the implication being that Celia’s love softens and then corrects him so that he might reconcile with his brother. Yet the final showdown introduces a new villain in the figure of Charles (J.C. Lei), Oliver’s chief thug apparently harbouring an unrequited crush on his boss and therefore extremely resentful of Celia. Yet her taunting of him asserting that hers is the final victory because she has done what Charles never could in conceiving Oliver’s child seems to fly in the face of the film’s otherwise egalitarian views on love, negating not only same sex love but also love between those unable to produce children uncomfortably heading back into a gender binary which makes maternity the essence of womanhood. This message is perhaps undercut by the closing moments in which Oliver and Celia argue about whether to buy boy clothes or girl clothes for the baby only for the shop assistant to advise a neutral white and cede the “choice” to the child in time but nevertheless seems an odd means of defeating the spectre of the unexpected antagonist driven to a dark place by the “madness” of love. 

Love’s “madness” may be the central theme though the sense of a world turned upside down is undermined by Celia’s maintenance of her position as a princess rather than relegation to the role of a peasant even as it affords her unexpected agency over the surprisingly pliable Oliver. The world’s uncanniness is fulfilled by its unreachability, set in an “internet-free” district of near future Taipei enhanced with frequent onscreen graphics where people send each other “slo-express” letter-pressed telegrams in place of “text messages” delivered by the human touch, implying perhaps that our increasingly depersonalised society is actively frustrating the path to love even while the idea of the idyllic and utopian Forest of Arden seems to have been co-opted by venal developers. Nevertheless, journeys end in lovers meeting to quote another play and love’s madness is eventually cured in its fulfilment. 


As We Like It screens on July 8 and streams online in Switzerland until July 10 as part of this year’s Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival (NIFFF). Readers in London will also have the opportunity to see As We Like It at Genesis Cinema on 16th July courtesy of Chinese Visual Festival & Queer East

Original trailer (English subtitles)

NIFFF 2021 Announces “Formosa Fantastica” Taiwan Spotlight

The Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival (NIFFF) returns for 2021 in a hybrid format taking place online and at various locations across the Swiss city. This year’s edition will have a special focus on Taiwanese genre cinema with the Formosa Fantastica strand encompassing five features, the first two episodes of a TV series, and a collection of shorts streaming online and screening physically while visitors to the festival will also be able to enjoy a series of installations at Neuchâtel Natural History Museum from 2nd to 10th July.

As We Like It

All female retelling of the Shakespeare play set in an internet-free corner of contemporary Taipei in which the hero falls in love with the heroine in the guise of a man.

Get the Hell Out

An idealistic former MP and a hapless, besotted security guard attempt to fight their way out of a zombiefied parliament in Wang I-fan’s absurdist satire. Review.

My Missing Valentine

A lovelorn woman finds herself forced to reckon with the forgotten past when she somehow misplaces Valentine’s Day in Chen Yu-Hsun’s charmingly quirky rom-com. Review.

The Magician on the Skywalk

The first two episodes of the hit TV drama adapted from a series of short stories by Wu Mingyi in which a young boy has a life changing encounter with a mysterious magician in a shopping mall in 1985.

The Scoundrels

Intensely kinetic Taiwanese neo-noir in which a disgraced former basketball player takes to a life of crime only to find himself locked in a deadly battle with a mysterious and amoral thief known as the “Raincoat Robber”. Review.

The Tag-Along

Creepy Taiwanese horror inspired by a real life urban legend of a little girl in red who randomly photobombed a family on a hiking trip standing right behind a man who later died. Her latest victims are apparently a harried real-estate agent and his conflicted radio DJ fiancée whose reluctance to marry makes her a target for supernatural ire. Review.

The Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival (NIFFF) runs online and in Switzerland 2nd to 10th July with the full programme to be unveiled 17th June when tickets will also go on sale. You can keep up to date with all the latest news by following the festival on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.

Dear Tenant (親愛的房客, Cheng Yu-Chieh, 2020)

Taiwan introduced marriage equality in 2019 and is often regarded as the most liberal of Asian nations but that does not necessarily mean that it’s free of prejudice or homophobia whether internalised or otherwise. Cheng Yu-Chieh’s melancholy family drama Dear Tenant (親愛的房客, Qīn’ài de Fángkè) begins in fog, mirroring it seems the hero’s sense of numb confusion consumed as he is with guilt and grief but also perhaps reflecting the miasma of his life in which he is forced to remain silent, prevented from fully expressing himself by a persistent sense of shame and anxiety. 

Chien-yi (Mo Tzu-yi) has been caring for his mother-in-law Mrs. Chou (Chen Shu-fang) and Yo-yu (Bai Run-yin), the son of his late partner Li-wei (Yao Chun-yao), for the past five years, but is described by them merely as a “tenant”, a lodger occupying the upstairs annex not really part of the family. His liminal status is fully brought home during the New Year dinner which he cooks and serves but, as Li-Wei’s brother Li-gang (Jay Shih) has decided to make a rare visit home from an extended stay in China, later excuses himself from as if he were the help not entitled to sit at the family table. Mrs. Chou, meanwhile, grumpily invites him to stay low-key resentful of Li-gang suspecting he’s only come to ask for more money, suspicions which are deepened after he starts talking about retirement apartments. When Mrs. Chou passes away suddenly a few months later Li-gang returns again and is both annoyed to learn that Chien-yi has already adopted Yo-yu and distressed to realise that his mother put the house in Yo-yu’s name which means he’s not getting the inheritance he assumed would be his. Consequently, he accuses Chien-yi of killing his mother to get his hands on the house, a series of events complicated by the autopsy report which suggests Mrs Chou’s death may have been hastened by over medication. 

A shy and reticent man, Chien-yi perhaps has reasons for his silence and his reluctance to speak openly with the police, who are needlessly aggressive and belligerent in their treatment of him, is easily understandable. Questioned by the relatively sympathetic prosecutor he is pressed about his “relationship” with the family and remains somewhat coy, later explaining that Mrs Chou had asked him not to tell Yo-yu that he and his father were lovers continuing to refer to him only as her “tenant” even as he took care of the household. The prosecutor asks him why he didn’t leave after his lover died, a question Chien-yi rightly feels to be absurd asking her if she’d ask the same question of a woman who stayed to look after her husband’s family after her husband died. Of course she wouldn’t, it would be ridiculous and insensitive.

It’s impossible to escape the sense that Chien-yi falls under greater suspicion solely because of his sexuality, the lead police officer quite clearly getting a bee in his bonnet about this particular case. They find him evasive and uncooperative, insensitive to the reasons he may have not to trust them that are later justified by their treatment of him as they again make moral judgements about his use of a dating app they likely would not make if he were picking up women though they might perhaps make of a woman in the same situation. Incongruously hanging out in a gay bar they hassle a former hookup who happens to be a drug user, blackmailing him into incriminating Chien-yi while Li-gang has Yo-yu taken to a psychiatrist in the suggestion that he may have been abused, explaining that he doesn’t want him raised in an “abnormal” environment. Chien-yi finds himself in handcuffs less for the alleged crime than for being a “suspicious” person who must surely be guilty of something even if it’s only his existence. 

It doesn’t seem to matter that Chien-yi tenderly cared for Mrs Chou even while she rejected him, angrily sniping that no matter how good he is to her it won’t bring her son back, or that he’s the only father the nine-year-old Yo-yu has ever really known having lost Li-wei when he was only four, he is condemned for his silence and his “secrets” ostracised by the previously warm parents at the piano school where he teaches after being outed by the insensitive police investigation. Consumed by grief and guilt he does his best to care for Li-wei’s family in his place, but is continually othered by a society which recognises him only as a “tenant” denying him his rightful place as bereaved spouse and step-father. As the melancholy ending perhaps implies, justice and equality are still very much works in progress even a rapidly liberalising society. 


Dear Tenant streams California until May 2 as part of San Diego Asian Film Festival’s Spring Showcase.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

My Missing Valentine (消失的情人節, Chen Yu-Hsun, 2020)

“There’s a lot you don’t remember” the heroine of Chen Yu-Hsun’s quirky rom-com My Missing Valentine (消失的情人節, Xiāoshī de Qíngrénjié) is advised by a mysterious dream gecko arriving with clues retrieved from her subconscious to guide the way towards her romantic destiny. He also tells her that love is a matter of self-hypnosis, and in a sense he might be right in that what Hsiao-Chi (Patty Lee Pei-Yu) apparently needs is a time out, quite literally, to enable her gain a slightly different perspective in order to make peace with the half-remembered past and repair her fracturing sense of self. 

At 30, Hsiao-chi laments that she’s always been slightly out of sync with the world around her, perpetually racing ahead, laughing before the punchline and caught with her eyes closed in photographs. She blames this case of bad timing for her continued romantic failure along with the sudden disappearance of her father ten years previously who went out for tofu pudding and never came back. When she joins in with a dance class in the park and is courted by the handsome teacher (Duncan Chow) who asks her out on Chinese Valentine’s Day she thinks her luck is beginning to change, but when she wakes up with a mysterious sunburn and is told Valentine’s has been and gone she’s left only with a sense of existential confusion. 

As the gecko implies, Hsiao-chi’s existence is defined by the things that she’s “lost”, be they fathers, orphaned memories, or an entire day. The sunburn at least tells her that she experienced Valentine’s outdoors, only she has no memory of it, while she later comes across a photo of herself, unblinking, taken in a place in which she’s sure she’s never been. As it happens, the sweet and funny explanation has its unpalatable qualities, Hsiao-Chi quite literally manipulated without her knowledge or consent unwittingly on an awkward “date” while in a catatonic state but nevertheless guided back towards the hidden secrets of her past the discovery of which will eventually allow her to shift into sync with the world around her.

Meanwhile she remains hopelessly smitten with the improbably suave dance teacher, falling for his obvious scam as he sells her a sob story about his traumatic past and an orphan with a heart condition only for her to ironically suggest they entire a three-legged race in an effort to get money to help her. She resents her pretty colleague at the post office (Joanne Missingham), complaining that ability is irrelevant when all anyone cares about is the superficial while presented with a series of eccentric characters including a chubby guy in search of a wife and a pervert professor, lowkey dismissive of a young man she refers to as the “weirdo” (Liu Kuan-ting) who comes in every day to mail a letter. Living in a rundown house share with another set of unusual people, she penny pinches for all she’s worth while listening to a sympathetic talk radio host and dreaming of romantic fantasy. Ironically what she finds is that she needs to slow down, see things from a different perspective not quite as “superficial” or judgemental as she’s hitherto been while opening herself up to receiving the messages from her past she’d long forgotten were even waiting for her. 

With its retro colour scheme and quirky worldview, Chen’s charmingly sophisticated screenplay marries an intriguing puzzle box structure with a genuine sense of existential questioning as Hsiao-chi ponders the nature of loss wondering if it’s really possible to mislay an entire day even trying to report it to the police as stolen while wondering if her new “boyfriend”, also missing, is more than mere romantic fantasy. The irony is that Hsiao-Chi works at the post office but struggles with communication, finally discovering she can only unlock the secrets of her past through the recollections of others, adding their perspective to her own in order to complete the panorama of their lives and allowing her interior mantra to shift from “love yourself because no one else will” to “love yourself because someone out there loves you”. Hsiao-Chi’s missing Valentine is in many ways the one to her herself as she rediscovers a sense of self-acceptance while finally finding her rhythm in sync with the world around her as she resolves to wait for love hopeful that it too will eventually catch her up. 


My Missing Valentine streams California until May 2 as part of San Diego Asian Film Festival’s Spring Showcase.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Spider Lilies (刺青, Zero Chou, 2007)

“I have no choice but to live in a virtual world” according to the lovelorn heroine of Zero Chou’s ethereal reflection on love and the legacy of trauma, Spider Lilies (刺青, Cìqīng). Two women connected by childhood tragedy struggle to overcome their respective anxieties in order to progress towards romantic fulfilment, eventually freeing themselves only by destroying the image of that which traps them. 

In the present day, Jade (Rainie Yang) is an unsuccessful camgirl with a habit of shutting down her clients on a whim which doesn’t play well with her boss. In an effort to spice up her live show, she decides to get a raunchy tattoo only to realise that the tattooist, Takeko (Isabella Leong), is in fact her long lost first love, a neighbour she took a fancy to at the tender age of nine. For her part, Takeko appears not to remember Jade but cannot deny the presence of her unusual spider lily tattoo, a version of which hangs prominently on her wall. Hoping to maintain contact, Jade decides to get the spider lily tattoo herself but Takeko is reluctant, explaining that the spider lily is a flower that leads only to hell. 

According to Takeko’s master, there is a secret behind every tattoo and the responsibility of the tattooist is to figure out what it is but never reveal it. Thus Takeko crafts bespoke tattoo designs for each of her clients designed to heal whatever wound the tattoo is intended to cover up, such as the ghost head and flaming blades she tattoos on a would-be gangster who secretly desires them in order to feel a strength he does not really have. Her tattoo, however, is intended as a bridge to the past, a literal way of assuming her late father’s legacy in order to maintain connection with her younger brother (Kris Shen) who has learning difficulties and memory loss unable to remember anything past the traumatic death of their father in an earthquake which occurred while she was busy with her own first love, a girl from school. Feeding into her internalised shame, the tattoo is also is a means of masking the guilt that has seen her forswear romance in a mistaken sense of atonement as if her sole transgression really did cause the earth to shake and destroy the foundations of her home. 

Then again, every time Takeko seems to get close to another woman something awful seems to happen. Jade, meanwhile, affected and not by the same earthquake is burdened by the legacy of abandonment and the fear of being forgotten. Living with her grandmother who now has dementia the anxiety of being unremembered has become acute even aside from the absence of the mother who left her behind and the father last seen in jail. “Childhood memories are unreliable” she’s repeatedly told, firstly by Takeko trying to refuse their connection, and secondly by a mysterious online presence she misidentifies as her lost love but is actually a melancholy policeman with a stammer charged with bringing down her illicit camgirl ring. The policeman judgementally instructs her to stop degrading herself, having taken a liking to her because he says he can tell that she seems lonely. 

A kind of illusionary world of its own, Jade’s camgirl existence is an attempt at frustrated connection, necessarily one sided given that her fans are not visible to her and communicate mainly in text. It’s easy for her to project the image of Takeko onto the figure of the mystery messenger because they are both in a sense illusionary, figments of her own creation arising from her “unreliable” memories. Jade wants the tattoo to preserve the memory of love as a bulwark against its corruption, at once a connection to Takeko and a link to the past, but the tattoo she eventually gets is of another flower echoing the melancholy folksong she is often heard singing in which the lovelorn protagonist begs not to be forgotten. 

“I am a phantom in your dream and you too live in mine” Jade’s mystery messenger types, hinting at the ethereality of romance and fantasy of love. Caught somewhere between dream and memory the women struggle to free themselves from the legacy of past trauma and internalised shame, but eventually begin to find their way towards the centre in making peace with the past in a sprit of self-acceptance and mutual forward motion.


Spider Lilies streams in the UK 26th April to 2nd May courtesy of Queer East

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The End of the Track (跑道終點, Mou Tun-Fei, 1970)

“It’s too dark in there, I can’t see the end” the hero of Mou Tun-fei’s The End of the Track (跑道終點, Pǎodào Zhōngdiǎn) complains though in the end he’ll find himself venturing into the darkness all alone. Like many of his contemporaries, Mou had come to Taiwan from the Mainland as a child during the Chinese Civil War but eventually made only two features on the island spending the bulk of his career working in exploitation cinema for Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong. The second of his two Taiwanese movies neither of which were ever given a mainstream release, The End of the Track continues in the broadly Neo-realist vein of I Didn’t Dare to Tell You while venturing towards the expressionistic in its innovative use of rhythmic editing and sound design to mimic the hero’s sense of confusion and anxiety in an oppressively authoritarian society. 

A middle-class boy, Hsiao-Tung (Chen Da-Wei) is best friends with Yung-Sheng (Tsai Tu-Chuen) whose parents operate a small noodle cart. Despite the class disparity between them, the boys are inseparable spending their time skinny-dipping at local beaches, play fighting, or exploring a disused mine they regard as their place joking about the possibilities of hidden gold. Tragedy strikes however when Hsiao-Tung gets bad vibes about venturing into the mine and suggests they head back to school to engage in a mutual “race”, he with his abacus and Yung-Sheng on the track. Shortly after Hsiao-Tung brings up the fact another boy has called them “queer” which they both laugh off with an intention to beat him up they later think better of because of his pimples, Yung-Sheng begins to tire but thanks to Hsiao-Tung’s encouragement continues to run until finally collapsing in his arms and thereafter passing away. 

The homoerotic undertones of the intense friendship between the two boys have been posited as a possible reason the film was not passed for release, and there is certainly something in the fact that Yung-Sheng dies seconds after the word “queer” is uttered though the underlying subtext seems to be bound up more with their class disparity than with the repression of their latent sexual desire. Academically gifted and from a middle-class family, Hsiao-Tung seems primed for conventional success in a rapidly developing economy while Yung-Sheng whose potential lies in his physicality will most likely be left behind. Hsiao-Tung’s attempt to push him beyond his limit eventually leads to his death in his inability to outrun the restrictions placed on him by his society. The two boys have been on different tracks all along, their paths set to diverge even as they fight desperately to maintain their friendship.

In the depths of his guilt feeling that he hastened Yung-Sheng towards his death in failing to recognise his distress, Hsiao-Tung attempts to atone by helping out at his parents’ noodle stand hoping to make his dream of opening a physical store a reality. Yet while his efforts eventually earn him acceptance from the Lees, the conclusion he comes to is that he cannot take his friend’s place or exchange his life for Yung-Sheng’s. He cannot change “track” to become a noodle stall owner’s son, but neither can he reconcile himself to the petty conservatism that defines the lives of his respectable middle-class parents, angrily throwing back at them the instructions given to children in order to become “model citizens” that they should work hard and mind their own business as his father berates him for his bad grades encouraging him to prioritise himself before others so that he might be of more use to society in the future. Hsiao-Tung finds himself bitterly remarking that Yung-Sheng’s death was then his own fault, reacting to the selfish individualism of an authoritarian society which tells him that his intense grief for his friend is wrong and that care and compassion for others is an inappropriate waste of potential. 

Continuing to visit his friend’s grave, Hsiao-Tung remains lost recalling the many conversations they had in which they were torn in their relationships with their parents feeling as if they ought to obey but also that there were times they desired their own freedom. “Everything is so changeable” he complains, “what’s right and wrong in this world all depends on the time, place and people.” He tells us that he doesn’t want to figure it out anyway, but claims to know now what’s going on coming to an understanding of himself as he re-contemplates the cave less afraid to face the darkness of adulthood as he ventures forth all alone in search of an ending.  


The End of the Track streamed as part of Electric Shadows.

I Didn’t Dare to Tell You (不敢跟你講, Mou Tun-Fei, 1969)

Born on the Mainland in 1941, Mou Tun-Fei was one of many making the move to Taiwan with his family following the Chinese Civil War in 1949. In fact, he made only two films in Taiwan, neither of which were ever released, and spent the bulk of his career in Hong Kong working for Shaw Brothers where he became associated with a brand of extreme exploitation cinema before finally returning to the Mainland, later working on the notorious co-production Men Behind the Sun. 

His debut, however, I Didn’t Dare to Tell You (不敢跟你講, Bù Gǎn Gēn Nǐ Jiǎng), is a gritty social drama inspired by the neorealist movement and the French New Wave even throwing in a few nods to The 400 Blows. No single reason is offered as to why it ultimately went unreleased, it was apparently not because Mou was unhappy with the film, though its mildly subversively digs at contemporary authoritarianism and perhaps problematically left-wing take on structural inequalities may have made it unpalatable to the censors even if its unexpectedly rosy coda feels like a concession made for their benefit. 

The hero, Da-Yuan (Hsu Jian-Sheng), is a lonely little boy tormented by playground bullies and raised by an often absent single-father (Chen Kuo-Chun) who has despite himself pledged his son as an apprentice in settlement for his gambling debts. Da-Yuan, however, wants to stay in education after middle school and is wary of an older man, Uncle Chen, who often drops by the house inspecting his teeth as if he were a horse at market. Consumed by guilt, Da-Yuan’s father eventually decides to honour his son’s wishes and send him to the public high school telling Uncle Chen that the deal is off. Uncle Chen, however, is less than sympathetic insisting that Da-Yuan’s father pay back the money he owes within the month. Spying on his father Da-Yuan overhears their conversation and begins to feel guilty himself, wondering if he should give up on staying at school but later deciding to look for work to help his father pay off the debt entering an arrangement with another boy who had to drop out of education to work in a print house, pulling his shifts while his friend does Da-Yuan’s homework to prepare for entering the high school the next year as his older brother had promised him he could. 

The subject of child labour seems to have been the controversial element that may have upset the censor’s board, suggesting a series of economic and social problems at the heart of a developing society as kids like Da-Yuan find themselves exploited while at the mercy of an irresponsible parent, in this case his father’s gambling which sees him berated by their no-nonsense landlady who makes no secret of her disapproval of his parenting style. Da-Yuan’s father, meanwhile, desperately tries to make amends by thrusting himself into overwork in low pay, exploitative conditions which have left him exhausted and in poor health as his constant coughing hints. Discovering that Da-Yuan has been neglecting his studies to work, he is crushed and betrayed, feeling as if all his sacrifices have been for nothing throwing his son out never knowing that he did it only in an attempt to ease his burden. The truth is eventually only revealed by Da-Yuan’s staunchly loyal friends who eventually “dare” to tell in the interests of justice. 

Meanwhile, a parallel conflict is going on in the heart of Da-Yuan’s school teacher (Grace Gua Ah-leh) who first appears as an austere figure with her hair in a tight bun wearing thick-framed glasses and dressed in a severe suit. Outside of school she finds herself at odds with her beatnik artist fiancé who complains that she’s travelled too far to the dark side and that her newfound conservatism is turning the kids into identical mindless drones devoid of life or creativity. She meanwhile, intensely resents his beard and shaggy hair complaining that he wasn’t “like this” when they first met two years previously, but once he smashes her unfashionable glasses which were merely an affectation designed to add to her sense of authority, her outlook does indeed begin to change. Letting her hair down and dressing in a more comfortable fashion she begins to bond with the kids and develops a sympathy for Da-Yuan investigating why it is he’s always falling asleep in class now determined to help rather than punish. 

In the end, authoritarianism loses out, the teacher’s earlier assertion that pupils need to be obedient members of society replaced by a more compassionate desire to nurture their individual talents and personal happiness. Nevertheless, the coda occurring after a poignant freeze-frame a little after the boy utters the film’s title to his chastened father, seems improbably optimistic, subtly re-enforcing the power of the state in its parade of pristine public high schools as if to say the system works in direct contrast to everything we’ve just seen implying that the dissatisfying reality of boys like Da-Yuan can be fixed by a simple act of truth sharing and an acceptance of mutual responsibility. Shot with unflinching though never preachy naturalism, Mou’s steely drama is otherwise resolute in its anti-authoritarianism condemning both the deadening effects of a rigid educational system and an unforgiving society that actively frustrates the hopes and dreams of ordinary kids like Da-Yuan and his friends. 


I Didn’t Dare to Tell You streamed as part of Electric Shadows.

Born to be Human (生而為人, Lily Ni, 2021)

Taiwan is often regarded as among the more liberal of Asian nations, but it is certainly not free of outdated ideas of gender and sexuality as Lily Ni’s powerful sci-fi-inflected drama Born to Be Human (生而為人, Shēng ér Wèirén) makes clear. Like the similarly themed Metamorphosis from the Philippines which also made much of butterfly imagery, Born to Be Human finds a teenager’s ordinary existence upended by the sudden discovery that they are intersex along with the realisation that they have almost no agency over their medical decisions, but is ultimately more concerned with undermining the fallacy of the gender binary along with the sometimes duplicitous actions of the medical profession than with exploring the intersex identity. 

Unpopular at school 14-year-old Shi-nan (Lily Lee) is a regular teenage boy who secretly buys porn mags from the old man on the corner and enjoys playing online video games. Still embarrassed about his body, he is deeply worried on noticing blood in his urine after experiencing painful stomach cramps and half-convinces himself he has bladder cancer while too anxious to tell his parents or seek medical help. When his parents eventually find out they take him straight to the hospital but are fobbed off by an overworked doctor who diagnoses him with a urinary tract infection caused by an infected foreskin, something which they assume can be fixed by circumcision. Returning to school after some time off to recover, however, the problem recurs with Shi-nan collapsing during a sports lesson his shorts stained with blood. A more comprehensive medical exam reveals that Shi-nan is in fact intersex and has a functioning womb directly connected to external male genitalia. 

This unfortunately brings Shi-nan into the orbit of Dr. Lee (Yin Jau-Der), apparently a specialist in urology with an improbably futuristic office, who immediately latches on to Shi-nan’s case as a means of advancing his own career. He recommends to Shi-nan’s parents that they “correct” his physical body according to his chromosomal makeup, explaining that he may be at increased risk of cancer maintaining both sets of sex characteristics. On discovering the analysis has come back female, Shi-nan’s father’s first question is how he can carry on the family name if his son is now a daughter while his mother and the doctor fixate on Shi-nan’s viable womb and the all important ability to procreate. Feeling he will not understand, the parents decide not to share his medical diagnosis with Shi-nan even while he continues to believe that he is dying from bladder cancer, telling him only that he will undergo circumcision signing the consent forms for his gender confirmation surgery without ever consulting him. 

Already 14 years old and having lived all his life as a boy, this forced gender transition provokes a secondary sense of dysphoria as Shi-nan becomes Shi-lan and moves to the capital to attend an elite school presumably offered some kind of financial incentive from Dr. Lee who continues to monitor her progress. Removed from her previous environment, Shi-lan is plunged into hyper femininity as if the entirety of her previous personality had been erased. On her birthday she is given a pink cake with frills and a selection of dolls, while her bedroom is similarly pink and frilly, apparently part of Dr. Lee’s treatment programme to acclimatise Shi-lan to her new identity. Even her mother laments that she’s behind on her feminine education, unable to cook or do chores which she fears will interfere with her ability to get married. Shi-lan says she doesn’t intend to marry, but her refusal is met only with confusion as if a woman’s entire purpose lies in marriage and childbirth. Of course, the secondary issue is that Shi-lan is sexually attracted to women, upset and embarrassed to receive a love letter from a boy at school while pining for her sympathetic deskmate who later becomes her first friend. 

Meanwhile, she is forced to adopt a female personality more or less against her will, later explaining an old photo of herself as one of a younger brother who has unfortunately passed away but will remain always in her heart. Having been bullied at her last school, Shi-lan fears discovery but is subject to a secondary prejudice after a nosy girl goes through her bag and finds a bottle of pills she identifies as being for the treatment of depression later getting her parents to complain to the school that they shouldn’t be forced to share a class with a “mental patient”. 

In fact, Shi-lan has been lied to again, the pills aren’t for depression and she is in fact being tricked to take them against her will as part of her forced transition. She describes herself as a “monster”, neither male nor female, and is acutely compelled to feel that those are her only two options. Her new friend, Tian Qi (Bonnie Liang Ru-Xuan), takes her to a Taiwanese opera performance starring her mother in which a female scholar poses as a man in order to get her education only to fall for a classmate making it clear that an idea of gender fluidity has cultural currency yet Shi-lan has been denied the right to define her own identity, told that what she is is wrong or incomplete, and ultimately reduced to a subject for experimentation by an unethical doctor. Confronting him to be told he has turned her into a “normal person”, she later insists that she can ruin his work just as he has ruined her life, walking through a market witnessing flesh being butchered and fish gutted, before buying a bouquet of sunflowers echoing those on the doctor’s jigsaw puzzle. Whatever her intentions, Shi-lan perhaps comes into herself even if with a dark purpose in mind, actively claiming an identity that is defiantly her own in rebellion against a conservative society that refuses to accept her for all that she is.


Born to be Human screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (dialogue free)

Wrath of Desire (愛・殺, Zero Chou, 2021)

“Desire is the only truth. The body never lies” according to the prison missives penned by the heroine of Zero Chou’s latest meditation on sex, death, guilt, and repression, Wrath of Desire (愛・殺, Ài・Shā). As the title perhaps implies, Chou frames her epic tale in the extremes of Greek tragedy, opening with an ethereal desert scene and cryptic Butoh dance that equates desire with death as the victim later laments “it was I myself who pointed the knife at my heart”. 

The dreamlike opening gives way to a prophetic scene of violence as an androgynous young woman fends off an attack from a “burglar” who is later discovered to be part of a conspiracy sent to steal evidence that could be used against her father, a political candidate anxious that her existence as his love child not affect his chances of election. Visibly shaking from her traumatic encounter, Phoenix Du (Peace Yang) is comforted by the sympathetic female prosecutor in charge of her case, Jade Liu (Weng Chia-Wei), who finds herself somehow captivated by the intense tattoo artist. Witnessing her capacity for violence after they are attacked by more of the mayor’s thugs when she perhaps inappropriately offers her a ride home from the courthouse, Jade takes Phoenix back to her flat to tend to her wounds only to find herself overcome by desire when Phoenix playfully kisses her as if to test her naive hypocrisy. The two women share a single night of intense passion, but Jade is a pastor’s daughter and failure to resist her “blasphemous” desires leaves her only with shame and fear. In retaliation she has Phoenix sentenced to three years in prison hoping to forget her, while Phoenix spends her time inside writing 372 extremely intense love letters insistent that the body doesn’t lie and convinced that Jade has in fact imprisoned herself in her wilful repression. 

God is always between them, a cross hanging from the rear mirror in Jade’s car as they make their high speed getaway while it’s the Lord’s name that Jade cries out during their night of passion but out of guilt more than ecstasy as Phoenix urges her to let herself go, aware it seems that she continues to struggle against herself. While Phoenix is inside, Jade finds herself drawn to an androgynous young man, Meng Ye (Hsu Yu-Ting), who is accused of stabbing a cousin (Huang Shang-Ho) who had become his legal guardian and thereafter molested him. Referring to her as “sister’ Meng Ye reminds Jade of the younger brother who took his own life after being rejected by their religious family because of his homosexuality, something which undoubtedly contributes to her ongoing inability to accept her same sex desires describing her feelings for Phoenix as lust rather than love, something dirty and sinful to be rejected. After becoming aware of her inner conflict, Meng Ye suggests a platonic marriage to create a “family free from desire”, offering Jade the “stable family” she’s been looking for while he gains “social acceptance”. Yet on Phoenix’s release it’s Meng Ye who determines on bringing her into their life as a “friend” only to find himself consumed by jealousy while questioning the nature of desire. 

Chou intercuts the non-linear action with a series of black and white intertitles featuring Phoenix’s charred letters along with noirish, Rashomon-esque testimony from a handcuffed Jade and Meng Ye along with a third woman, Chrys (Chen Yu-Chun), who had apparently fallen for Phoenix in prison only to remain frustrated by her lack of interest in anyone outside of Jade. “Sex without love is as empty as violence without hate” Phoenix writes in one of her letters, repeating that the body does not lie and Jade is only harming herself in her continued denial. Phoenix is indeed correct, though 372 letters is rather excessive as is her stalkerish insistence in the face of Jade’s refusal. Nevertheless the ménage à trois eventually turns dark as Meng Ye determines to exorcise his resentment by making Phoenix betray herself in unmasking the hypocritical repression of her own desires. Meng Ye claims he’s a “pet” to his cousin and brother to Jade, what he wants from Phoenix is a love she might not choose to give him, but is also bound for a dark and nihilistic destination.

Though the mayoral conspiracy angle is an outlandish detail strangely forgotten in the ongoing narrative, all three are in a sense wounded orphans betrayed by parental failure and left adrift without firm anchor in a hostile society each looking for safe harbour whether in the certainty of bodily desire, its rejection, or subversion. Apparently the “first” in a six film series each set in different Asian cities (though the “second” The Substitute set in Beijing and filmed in 2017 is currently streaming via Gagaoolala, as is the reported third We Are Gamily set in Chengdu now streaming as a five-part webseries while the feature edit is also streaming via Amazon Prime US), Chou’s latest more than lives up to its name as the trio find themselves consumed by the fire of desire while unable to extricate themselves from a complex spiral of shame and repression.


Wrath of Desire screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)