The Age of Awakening (前進, Ke Chin-Yuan, 2018)

Taiwan is now a prosperous society regarded as most the progressive in Asia, yet for some that prosperity has come at too high a cost. Ke Chin-yuan’s documentary The Age of Awakening (前進, Qiánjìn) looks back over the last thirty years and wonders how it can be that in a little under half a century humanity has managed to “devastate this beautiful, mountainous island”. Tracing the links between the authoritarian past and the origins of eco-activism, Ke is nevertheless keen to remind us that the environmental costs of unchecked capitalism are not a local issue. 

Ke cites the titular “awakening” at the tail end of the martial law era, explaining that the picturesque coastline where he first picked up a camera was forever ruined when the area was re-designated as an industrial park. His own eyes were awakened to the environmental costs of development when local residents rose in opposition to the building of a petrochemical plant, apparently a key part of the nation’s economic strategy. Charting the resistance towards the DuPont plant in Lugang and the LCY Chemical Corp in Hsinchu, he uncovers the hidden link of environmental harm and authoritarianism as centralised government and a prohibition on protest largely prevent the local community having a say over their own land. Though some may have been glad to see the plants arrive, misled by false promises of good jobs and the benefits of development, they were soon disillusioned by the reality in which industrial pollution poisoned the sea life on which the local economy was otherwise dependent while also destroying farmland and leaving an acrid, near unbearable smell in the air. 

As one of the protestors puts it, all they want is breathable air and drinkable water. If your government cannot guarantee you such basic rights, then what really is it for? Yet the government, Ke seems to suggest, is minded to make a tradeoff and thinks this is an acceptable price for the prize of economic growth. Seeing the imposition of the plants and misinformation surrounding their foundation as yet more evidence of the various ways in which those with the least power suffer most under authoritarianism, Ke centres the awakening to environmentalism as a cornerstone of the movement against martial law in which communities sought the power and freedom to be able to advocate for their rights on a local level.

Yet as he points out the environment is never just a local issue. The protestors may be successful in keeping the plant out their town, but maybe the plant gets built the next town over where they perhaps aren’t so lucky possibly because they have less sympathetic political leaders keener to toe the government line. Taiwan is a small island, and at least according to some you can’t ever really be far enough away to escape the effects of industrial pollution. Yet even when prevented from building in Taiwan, local companies simply shift overseas to other, even less empowered, areas of Asia where the same thing happens again. The poor are misled by offers of good jobs only to find dead fish washing up on their shores, eventually mounting protests against the unfair imposition of having a chemical plant built on their land. In Taiwan, meanwhile, the issue is even thornier with large developments built on territory which belongs to the indigenous community. 

Nevertheless, the drive for economic development continued after the martial law era. According to another protestor, it’s a matter of conscience rather than technology with the choice to favour the economy over the environment seemingly irreversible even when major parties win on an economic platform and govern with the knowledge that such policies have widespread public support. So, Ke asks, why is the government so unwilling to listen when the idea that the environment itself is also a basic human right is almost a given? What has actually changed in the last three decades with Taiwan’s transition to democracy? Not enough, according to his veteran activists, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Awareness has improved, people care more than they used to. They’ve been ‘awakened” to the issues in all of their complexity and Taiwan has a lively, diverse and intersectional activist scene in which environmental concerns are very much part of a social justice movement full in the knowledge that the environment is never just a local issue. The age of awakening may have come to an end, but the age of action is only just beginning. 


The Age of Awakening screens on 6th December at London’s Rio Cinema as part of Taiwan Film Festival UK 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Boluomi (菠蘿蜜, Lau Kek Huat & Vera Chen, 2019)

Legacies of trauma and displacement frustrate the connection between two floating youngsters in Lau Kek Huat & Vera Chen’s poetic drama, Boluomi (菠蘿蜜, Bōluómì). Making a direct connection between the Malayan Emergency and a sense of rootlessness in the contemporary generation, Lau & Chen send their conflicted hero overseas in an attempt to plant himself anew but even there he discovers himself merely another kind of other even as he forms a tentative bond with a similarly displaced woman rendered still more marginalised by her undocumented status and inability to speak the language. 

The film opens with the central trauma which is itself one of many as a child is born to a communist guerrilla fighter, Gyun (Vera Chen), and is then abandoned in the forest hidden inside the shell of a jackfruit or “boluomi” as is the custom apparently intended to ensure the child’s survival. In this case the child does indeed survive and like the opening of a fairytale is rescued by an older muslim Malay couple who have no children of their own and decide to adopt him, giving him the name “Mi” inspired by the unusual circumstances of his birth. Segueing to the present day we’re introduced to the hero, Yi-fan (Wu Nien-hsuan), just as he’s been humiliatingly stopped at customs on his return to Taiwan where he is studying agriculture because the homemade sambal his mother gave him is apparently too fragrant for the authorities’ taste. They won’t meet until later, but it’s at the airport that he first crosses paths with Laila (Laila Ulao), a young woman from the Philippines escorted out as one of many “carers from South East Asia” though as we later discover her true destination is a local massage parlour where she works as a cleaner in order to send money home to her family. 

Connecting the two timelines through a fragmentary dream we can assume that the abandoned child is Yi-fan’s father and that his double abandonment, later taken away from the loving older couple he believed to be his parents when his birth mother resurfaces, is responsible for his rage and fecklessness which has in turn left Yi-fan angry and resentful. The legacy of the Malayan Emergency is also perhaps connected to his feelings of alienation as a member of the Chinese minority, denied a place at university he feels solely on the basis of his ethnicity. Yet when he gets to Taiwan he’s suddenly not “Chinese” enough and incongruously finds himself speaking Malay even if there’s a double irony in being told that he should speak Chinese while in Taiwan. His professor with whom he seems to be on slightly awkward terms, perhaps another manifestation of his suspicion of male authority figures, pours cold water on his suggestions of finding a way to stay in Taiwan by opening a business instructing him that diaspora students have a duty to go home to stimulate social change. 

In a rather pregnant metaphor, the teacher’s opening lecture concerns foreign fruits successfully transplanted to Taiwan but also uncomfortably references viruses lurking in the soil, while Yi-fan’s attempts to grow a hybrid boluomi tree by grafting the Malaysian plant onto the Taiwanese eventually fail in parallel with his frustrated relationship with Laila who finds herself equally rootless while attempting to care for a fragile friend trafficked from Vietnam as a mail-order bride and now suffering ill heath but afraid to get treatment because of her status as an undocumented sex worker. Yi-fan befriends Laila by becoming an interpreter, helping her at the post office by translating into their shared language, English, and thereafter deepening their connection through the similarities found in Malay and Tagalog. Yet Yi-fan’s simple dreams of romance are frustrated by the world in which they live even as the pair bond through a shared sense of continual displacement. 

Try as he might, Yi-fan can’t make the boluomi grow, though it seems Laila could, putting down firmer roots while Yi-fan remains perpetually on the margins unable to escape the legacy of loss and alienation even in wilful migration. Struggling to survive in the precarious, largely hidden migrant worker underclass, Yi-fan and Laila’s romantic fantasy can never be more than just that though eventually comes full circle with another boy abandoned in the forest and a tree finally taking root.


Boluomi streams in Poland until 6th December as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Price of Democracy (狂飆一夢, Liao Jian-Hua, 2019)

What does a revolutionary do after the revolution? Lacking direction in his own life, director Liao Jian-Hua finds himself asking the question of those who fought for an end to martial law in Taiwan, wondering if the price they paid for their idealism was really worth it. Following two now elderly protestors both of whom continued with activism after the advent of democracy, he discovers that the battle was never really won and that each has their share of loss if not quite regret for the sacrifices they made to try and bring about the better world. 

The first of Liao’s subjects, Hsin-i, is a popular novelist though perhaps unexpectedly known for romance featuring working class women rather than anything more overtly political. Daughter of a Mainland soldier, she was married with two children when she first began to become disillusioned with Taiwan’s political situation after realising the extent to which the authorities would go to rig elections. Unfortunately, the family she married into was staunchly nationalist, actually members of the KMT, and after her husband read a satirical story she wrote for a magazine the marriage broke down. Fearing reprisals, Hsin-i’s husband and in-laws emigrated to America and took her children with them while she remained in Taiwan and deepened her involvement in the movement for democracy. 

Kang, meanwhile, is a Minnanese man from the South who came to Taipei for work. Staunchly leftist, he lives up to his ideals even in his 60s earning no more than the minimum wage and living in a kind of commune with other gentlemen of a similar age, often allowing those in need to stay giving up his bed to make space for them. Like Hsin-i, his activism eventually cost him his family though he admits that his marriage was perhaps a mistake to begin with with. Showing Liao pictures of his youth he reveals himself to be quite the dandy and caught up in the consumerist revolution of an increasingly prosperous society (another wealthy girlfriend even bought him a Renault when they first came to Taiwan), only to be converted to socialism after leaving the army. He admits that he married his wife largely because she was pregnant but was uncomfortable with her upper-middle class lifestyle, her father attempting to railroad him into running a convenience store. Given their ideological differences, the marriage failed and Kang lost contact with his son who would now be in his early 30s. 

Other members of the activist group swap similar stories, that their wives and families complained that they “changed” after getting into activism or accused them of neglecting their familial duties for the political. Kang describes this as a choice between “small” love and “big”, familial love versus the societal. He and his friends chose big love at the expense of the small, devoting themselves to bettering their society. Hsin-i meanwhile doesn’t see it quite the same way and harbours a degree of guilt and regret for not having been as present as she might have liked in the lives of her family, often torn between activism and caring for her elderly mother while obviously missing her children even now forlornly looking up the Facebook profile of the daughter who declined to have contact with her. 

Though each of them continued with activism after the end of the martial law period, both Hsin-i and Kang also have traumatic memories of what was obviously a very intense time, recalling the tragic death of one young man who self immolated in protest against oppressive KMT regime. While Kang seems to accept his act with sadness, it led Hsin-i to question the movement and her place within it that others knew this young man planned to take his life in such painful way and did nothing to discourage him. From the vantage point of a very different Taiwan following the victory of Tsai Ing-Wen’s Democratic Progressive Party in 2016, now regarded as the most liberal of Asian nations, Liao wants to ask them if they feel all their suffering was worth it but discovers perhaps that he’s asking the wrong question when the costs of betraying one’s ideals may not be worth contemplating. There is always work to do, and whatever it may have cost them, both Hsin-i and Kang have remained true to themselves as they continue to do what they can to bring about the better world filled with a big love for the whole of their society. 


The Price of Democracy (狂飆一夢, Kuángbiāo Yī Mèng) streams in the UK 28th November to 5th December as part of Taiwan Film Festival UK

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Go! Crazy Gangster (風雲高手, Chang Ching-feng, 2016)

Nothing is impossible, according to the surreal logic of zany sports comedy Go! Crazy Gangster (風雲高手, Fēngyún Gāoshǒu). The only crazy gangsters here are two old men, childhood friends both obsessed with basketball, who work out their gang rivalry through the much more healthy medium of high school tournaments. The hero is not a gangster, but he does admittedly dress like one. In any case, the point is that given the right motivation, even the most hopeless of slackers, and the most rebellious of delinquents, can be reformed by the mutual solidarity of team sports. 

Lai-Fong (Alien Huang) is a reservist on a professional basketball team, a last resort player known chiefly for his laziness. Variously nicknamed “idler”, “benchwarmer”, or “waterboy”, he is not exactly keen to get on the court. Nevertheless, after getting hit by random meteorite the unthinkable happens. He not only gets to play, he becomes his team’s MVP and guides them to an unprecedented victory. Shortly after that, however, he’s seduced and blackmailed by pretty high school teacher Hsaio-Yun (Cyndi Wang) whose gangster father Liao (Liao Jun) then forces him to take a job coaching a losing girls’ high school team. Unbeknownst to Lai-Fong, Hsiao-Yun has become the subject of a bet between Liao and his friend Tseng (Ma Ju-lung) to the effect that her hand in marriage has been promised to his thuggish son Shuai-Nan (Dean Fujioka) if the team loses. 

The problem is that the high school basketball team is made up of delinquent girls because the school have been using it in lieu of detention. Predicatably, they don’t want to actually have to participate in sports and so they do everything they can to get rid of Lai-Fong before having a change of heart in realising the extent to which he actually does care for them in an admittedly fast turnaround from his “idler” persona. Thanks to his newfound sense of compassion and desire to assume his responsibility as a coach, he begins figuring out the girls’ problems from the ringleader’s difficult home life with her mother’s struggling business, to the demands of a showbiz dream. Meanwhile he’s apparently always been kind, Hsiao-Yun recalling that they have a childhood connection which has long given her strength seeing as she was herself lonely in her youth, the other kids unwilling to befriend the daughter of a scary gangster. 

Chang neatly subverts a number of conventional stereotypes, recasting his scary gangsters as childish old men who play video games and exercise their rivalry on the basketball courts rather than in the streets, the hint of violence lingering somewhere off screen. The women are tenacious and mature, the men feckless and ineffectual, but then there is the mild unpleasantness that Hsiao-Yun has been wagered by her father as part of the friendly rivalry he has with Tseng who also resents that he’s already “lost” in the child stakes because Hsaio-Yun is just much “better” than his son Shuai-Nan who despite studying abroad at Harvard seems none too bright and is little more than a vain thug. 

Nevetheless, what everyone learns is that it’s not really about winning or losing but gaining confidence in being yourself while drawing strength from mutual solidarity. Hsiao-Yun begins to stand up to her gangster dad, perhaps realising that he had no right to bet her in the first place so she doesn’t necessarily have to go along with it even if the team loses while Lai-Fong declares himself proud of the team whatever happens knowing how hard they’ve worked to come this far. His attitude may be defeatist, resigned to an inevitable loss, but he’s willing to chalk this up to experience, a valuable lesson for the road ahead. Hsiao-Yun, however, reminds him that they’ve come this far precisely because they were together and they’re still together now so as long as they stay that way there’s always a chance. 

To put it bluntly, Go! Crazy Gangster makes very little sense, a Taiwanese take on Hong Kong mo lei tau nonsense comedy it rattles absurdly from one unexpected plot development to the next. Nevertheless it hardly matters as the gang get their game on through sorting out their personal problems thanks to the love and support of their teammates, gaining the confidence to fight for their dreams on the court and off.


Go! Crazy Gangster streams in the US Nov. 27 – 29 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema & TACCGC’s @Home with Taiwan Cinema: Love & Hope

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Path of Destiny (不得不上路, Yang Chun-Kai, 2017)

Taiwan’s indigenous culture is an all too often neglected facet of the island’s history, but as Yang Chun-Kai’s documentary Path of Destiny (不得不上路, Bùdébù Shànglù) makes plain, it is sometimes unknown even within its own community. Following researcher Panay Mulu who has been studying the Sikawasay shamans of the Lidaw Amis people in Hualien for over 20 years and has since become a shaman herself, Yang explores this disappearing way of life along with the (im)possibilities of preserving it for later generations in the fiercely modern Taiwanese society. 

A member of the indigenous community though from a Christian family, Panay Malu recalls witnessing Sikawasay rituals in her childhood though only at the harvest festival. Her family’s religion made the existence of the Sikawasay a taboo, viewed as a kind of devilry to be avoided at all costs. Yet running into an entirely different kind of ritual, Panay found herself captivated not least by the beautiful ritualised music and thereafter began trying to gain access to the community who were perhaps understandably frosty in the beginning. Eventually she gave up her teaching position to devote herself to research full time and was finally inducted as a shaman becoming a fully fledged member. 

Listening to the stories of the old ladies, they explain that those who become Sikawasay often do so after sufffering from illness, one of the main rituals involving a shaman using their mouth to suck out bad energy and cure illness. Yet they are also subject to arcane rules and prohibitions that they fear put younger people off joining such as refraining from eating garlic, onions, and chicken, and being required to avoid touch prior to certain rituals. Under traditional custom, widows are also expected to self isolate at home often for a period of years to avoid transmitting the “bad energy” of their grief to others. 

Perhaps for these reasons, Panay is the youngest of the small group of Sikawasay who now number only half a dozen. A poignant moment sees her looking over an old photograph from a 1992 ritual featuring rows of shamans dressed in a vibrant red smiling broadly for the camera. The first row and much of the second are already gone, Panay laments, and as we can see there are only old women remaining with no new recruits following Panay in the 20 years since she’s been with them. Even one of the older women confesses that she would actually like to give up being a Sikawasay, it is after all quite a physically taxing activity with the emphasis on ritual singing and dance, but she fears being punished with illness and so continues. This lack of legacy seems to weigh heavily on Sera, the most prominent among the shamans, who breaks down in tears complaining that she often can’t sleep at night worrying that there is no one behind them to keep their culture alive save Panay who is then herself somewhat overburdened in being the sole recipient of this traditional history as she does her best to both preserve and better record it through academic study. 

It’s a minor irony then much of her recordings exist on the obsolete medium of VHS, but one of the other old ladies is at least hopeful while taking part in the documentary that people might be able to see their rituals on their televisions in their entirety and the culture of the Sikawasay will not be completely forgotten. Panay expresses frustration that, ironically, their own culture is often explained back to them by external scholars from outside of the community, while another Amis woman praises her implying that their own traditional culture is something they have to relearn rather than simply inheriting. An old lady who says her husband was once a shaman though her son neglected his shamanic nature and left to study describes the Sikawasay as the “real Amis people”, vowing never to give up on shamanism though acknowledging there’s nothing much she could do about it if it disappears. In any case, through Yang’s documentary at least and Panay’s dedicated research, the rituals of the Sikawasay have been preserved for posterity even if their actuality risks extinction in the face of destructive modernity. 


Path of Destiny streams in the UK 28th November to 5th December as part of Taiwan Film Festival UK

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Looking For? (你找什麼?, Chou Tung-yen, 2017)

“Looking for?” (你找什麼?, Nǐ Zhǎo Shénme?) is a common enough ice breaker on gay dating apps but when you get right down to it it’s a difficult one to answer. Struggling with the question himself as someone who came to the app scene fairly late, director Chou Tung-yen interviewed 60 men from all around the world to ask them what it is they’ve been looking for, why they use dating apps, and how they really feel about them. 

As might be assumed, many of the men are using the apps for casual hook-ups citing the convenience as a major motivating factor. In the old days you wrote letters and hoped to get a reply to your PO box, or you went to a bathhouse, or invested time in someone at a bar, but now you just exchange messages and get what you need when you need it. One older user even likens the experience to that of a supermarket or even ordering fast food, an entirely disposable satisfaction of needs. He’s not necessarily making a criticism, but others ask if the commodification of the community is really a good thing. Most assume that in a more open society and most especially within your own community there ought to be more freedom to be your authentic self, but the apps are so interested in finding a perfect match that they try to force those who use them inside their narrow lines, tagged as a particular brand with some feeling as if they have to change themselves to be “marketable” or no one is ever going to be interested in them. 

Social media of all kinds can foster feelings of inadequacy, but paradoxically others report that they use dating apps precisely in order to boost their self esteem. They like it when people like their photos and enjoy the feeling of being desirable, counting the messages roll in from various suitors to whom they may or may not choose to reply. Those who’d previously felt themselves unattractive have learned to find their niche and become more comfortable in their bodies able to own their sensuality in all areas of their lives. But then some have run the other way, obsessively working out becoming perhaps dangerously addicted to online praise as they continue to alter their physicality to better conform to an external idea of conventional attractiveness. 

And then there are the other dark sides, the inherent danger and the potential toxicity of a party culture that encourages excessive drug use. One young man who appears only in silhouette, his voice disguised, reveals that he thoughtlessly had unprotected sex while high, while another man explains that he eventually decided to leave rave culture behind after a friend took his own life while under the influence and another died of a short illness caused by longterm drug use during which his friends continued to take him out partying despite knowing that he was seriously ill. 

The man whose face appears in silhouette laments that he no longer thinks it’s possible to find true love online, though there are those for whom that is exactly what they were looking for and some of them seem to have found it. Several couples report that they met through a dating app and then stayed together, even later got married. Others however find that while using the app their desire to find a monogamous partner decreased, they enjoyed the ability to have various experiences instead. Still more are looking for friendship or companionship more than romance, someone just to have dinner or share a deep conservation with. 

Towards the end, one interviewee reveals he no longer uses dating apps because he couldn’t figure out what it was he was looking for. Others drift away from them either because they found a stable relationship, began to age out or lost interest in the scene, whether having figured out what they want(ed) or not. Chou asks each of the respondents what love is, many of them talking wistfully about first love but seemingly jaded about grown-up romance or at least resigned to a cooler kind if perhaps still chasing that first flush of passion. Concentrating mainly on the interview sessions, Chou intersperses brief theatrical dance sequences and shots of himself captured alone at various points of transit in different cities, discovering at least a kind of commonality in the community of dating app users the world over who can understand each other even in the absence of shared language. Chou may not have discovered what it is he’s looking for, but has perhaps learned something else in his voyage through the trials of 21st century dating in that in the end you get out what you put in, which is to say what you’re looking for finds you whether you recognise it or not. 


Looking For? streams in the UK via Rio Player 20th – 26th November as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dear Loneliness (致親愛的孤獨者, Lien Chien-hung & Sunny Yu & Liao Che-yi, 2019)

“After 10 years or 20 years, you will feel less lonely. Surely you will not be hurt anymore due to your pure feeling and kindness” a warmhearted bookstore owner (played by literary superstar Lo Yi-chin AKA Lou Yi-chun/Luo Yijun) advises a series of young women in a parting letter, reminding them that the reason they suffer so is only their youth and that too shall pass. Inspired by Hou Chi-jan’s documentary series Poetries from the Bookstores which highlighted 40 Taiwanese indie bookshops, omnibus film Dear Loneliness (致親愛的孤獨者, Zhì Qīn’ài de Gūdú Zhě) features three segments helmed by three promising young directors selected through Dreamland Image’s Storylab featuring three women each consumed by loneliness at differing stages of youth. 

In the first of the stories, 12-year-old Xiaoyu (Lin Chi-en) is introverted and friendless. In common with the heroines of the other two segments, she is disconnected from her family, raised by a grumpy grandpa who hates her reading habit which he sees as a waste of time because it makes no money. Like many of the other girls at school, she has a crush on handsome teacher David (Chung Cheng-Chun) whose obvious enjoyment of the attention he receives has his relatively more authoritative colleague feeling worried enough to ask him if his behaviour isn’t a little inappropriate. Burying herself in romance novels and engaging in mental fantasies of her teacher Xiaoyu struggles with her adolescent desire while firmly rejected by her peer group, the girl on the next desk going so far as to adjust the angle of her selfie to avoid Xiaoyu being caught in the background. The irony is that David may indeed be engaging in inappropriate conduct with his students, just not with Xiaoyu whose jealousy and resentment may accidentally expose him for what he is but leave her even more marginalised. 

Kai-han (Angel Lee), meanwhile, also experiences parental alienation, yelled at by her unsupportive father just at the moment she really needs some help. Having left her small town for uni in Taipei she discovers a girl from the Mainland already in the room she thought was hers. Owing to some kind of mix up, she finds herself abruptly without accommodation with term about while the harried office admin lady is decidedly unhelpful. After taking temporary refuge in a bookshop where she’s berated by her father over the phone who accuses her of being lax with details and bringing this on herself, she decides to try getting the Mainlander to vacate “her’ room, but she is understandably unwilling seeing as she’s paid her rent for the term already. Things take a turn for the unpleasant when Kai-han discovers her wallet missing and after reading a series of xenophobic online comments decides the Mainland girl took it. She tries to get it back, perhaps mistakenly feeling she’s standing up for herself and taking responsibility but incurring only tragic consequences which yield ironic results. 

The oldest of the women, Xiaoxun (Chang Ning) who gives her age perhaps unconvincingly as 20, left her “indifferent” family in Kaohsiung for love, ending up on the fringes of the sex trade because she needed money. Yet she ends up taking a strange job in prison “rehabilitation”, flirting with the various lonely men who request her and vowing to wait for each of them until they get out. Prisoner 2923 (Liu Kuan-ting) is a little different, deep and introspective he forces her to realise that she too is imprisoned. “Each day goes by whether you’re happy or sad” she cheerfully advances, deflecting his questioning until the time runs out. He sends her to a book store, because you can’t recommend the best book, the best book chooses you. Meanwhile, she reflects on her problematic relationship with her ex who is now dating her friend before realising she’s hooked on the mystery of 2923, eventually hearing his story but allowing it to free her from her sense of shame and inertia as she ponders a return to source, perhaps finally meaning it when she tells him too that she will wait for him. 

The three women each experience loneliness and despair at different stages of life, but as the bookseller points out they are all very young. The key to escaping their loneliness, he claims, lies in experience, filling the void with “the fullness of life”. Asked what it is they should do he can’t say, but assures them that he would give them a hug “because you are very precious, you just don’t realise that now”. A strangely life affirming experience, Dear Loneliness is a gentle hand in the darkness pointing the way for those who feel hopeless and alone back towards a place of light and safety to be found, it seems, in your local indie bookshop.


Dear Loneliness streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Wild Sparrow (野雀之詩, Shih Li, 2019)

“Sparrows are wild birds so they keep hitting against the cage” the introspective hero of Shih Li’s Wild Sparrow (野雀之詩, Yě Què Zhī Shī) is told while perhaps witnessing the same effect in his own life as his flighty mother tries but repeatedly fails to break free of the various forces which constrain her. Young Han’s mother is, in some ways, an embodiment of a destructive modernity, wandering into his rural paradise and then eventually dragging him away from it towards the dubious promise of the city where birds meant to fly free flutter against the bars but rarely find escape. 

Han (Kao Yu-hsia) has been living with his great-grandmother deep in the Taiwanese mountains, but as much as she loves him she’s getting old and, owing to rural depopulation, the local school is set to close the following term so all things considered it’s best if he goes to live with his mother, Li (Lee Yi-chieh), in the city. Questioned by the neighbourhood ladies, however, Han doesn’t want to go. After all, he doesn’t really know his mother all that well. She rarely visits, and in any case she doesn’t seem terribly keen to have him. While out walking one day he hears the frantic squawking of birds caught in a net, taken away by a mysterious man. Finding a sparrow injured on the ground he takes it home and attempts to nurse it back to health, but shortly after his mother’s visit the bird passes away. He takes it into the forest in a shoebox and builds it a cairn, gazing at the birds flying free above the canopy.  

Han asks his great-grandmother why someone would capture wild birds, but she simply tells him not to. The birds are the guards of the gods of the land, sent out to hunt demons that force people to eat dirt, she explains. At the marketplace where his great-grandmother sells her bamboo, Han comes across a man selling caged birds for the purpose of being set free as part of a Buddhist ritual, Han’s face contorting in confusion as he ponders the irony. In the city all he ever sees are birds in cages, much as he perhaps feels himself to be taken out of his natural environment and imprisoned in the urban landscape where his mother alternates between neediness and resentment, so obviously ill-equipped to care for a soon-to-be teenage son while continually conflicted in the contradictions of her life. 

When Han first arrrives, Li makes a point of introducing him to her current boyfriend, Kun, wealthy and much older than her though kind to Han if slightly patronising in his gift of a remote control car for which he is probably a little old and in any case not much interested. A thoroughly rural boy, Han is also mystified by the upscale restaurant they take him to where he is embarrassed to admit he has no idea how to eat the steak that’s been ordered for him. While Li entertains fantasies of marriage, we realise that Kun seems to already have a family and as much as he makes the effort with Han Li is not much of an escape from his domestic responsibilities if she’s also hoping he’ll be a father to her son. Li returns to her life as a bar hostess, often leaving Han home alone and returning late drunk to resentfully yell at him that perhaps her life would have turned out differently if he were not around. She becomes involved with various dangerous men, eventually pushed into sex work by a violent boyfriend who stalked her while working at the club. Han finds himself witnessing his mother with her lovers as she disregards his presence, seeking temporary escape in the arms men while he can only lock himself inside his room, cowering on his bed framed behind bars like a bird resigned to the cage.  

Yet on his return to his mountain paradise he’s distressed to realise the body of the sparrow he buried is no longer in the cairn, comforted only by his grandmother’s assertion that it has already returned to the sky. Death is nothing to be afraid of she tells him, for the dead will always protect the living. Gaining a lesson in life, death, and transience, Han remains imprisoned, framed within the window of his grandmother’s cottage as he watches a soul free itself and return to its natural home, but retains his wildness in his own compassionate desire for freedom, fluttering against the bars if not yet able to escape.


Wild Sparrow streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Images: © Dot Connect Studio Ltd.

Turning 18 (未來無恙, Ho Chao-ti, 2018)

How much do you really owe a family that has failed you? A difficult question at the best of times, it’s one that continues to play on the mind of teenager Chen, one of two young women from indigenous communities at the centre of Ho Chao-ti’s documentary Turning 18 (未來無恙, Wèilái Wúyàng). Following the two girls who each come from challenging family backgrounds from the ages of 15 to 18, Ho perhaps draws a slightly uncomfortable contrast in the differing paths their lives eventually take after they briefly meet during an internship at funeral home but nevertheless presents an all too often ignored perspective on a hidden side of the island nation.  

Forced to grow up far too soon, both young women are children of single parent families in which there has been a history of domestic violence and, as we later discover, in Chen’s case sexual abuse. In response to her difficult family circumstances in which her mother has become an alcoholic and she has become the primary carer for her eight siblings, Chen has grown serious and mature. She intensely resents her mother’s drinking, not least because it plays into a racist stereotype about indigenous people while also trapping them in desperate poverty. Chen has had to take time out of education to look after her siblings and is grateful for the internship opportunity after which she will return to high school. 

Pei, meanwhile, has moved in with her possessive boyfriend, Wei, and his despairing mother. She is slightly less enthused about the internship, but dutifully completes it. Unlike Chen she never returns to school but remains with Wei who later becomes a delinquent and encounters trouble with the law. Pregnant before her 18th birthday, Pei finds herself navigating teenage motherhood and economic instability while the increasingly irresponsible Wei gravitates towards a life on the margins of crime. 

As such, it seems almost as if we’re being pushed towards judgement of the unlucky Pei for, perhaps, making the same mistake as her mother in unwisely depending on an unreliable man though they are both only teenagers, while it is undoubtedly much easier to get behind the earnest Chen who is determined to make something of her life while fiercely defending her family. Nevertheless, their marginalised status as members of an indigenous community is quickly brought home to us. Ho throws in a few snippets from post-war propaganda programs regarding the development of Hualien which describe the local Tayan population alternately as savage and uncivilised and then simple and innocent, apparently grateful for their “civilisation” at the hands of the KMT government which recommends Hualien to industry leaders as a source of cheap labour. 

Both the young women suffer at the hands of a patriarchal social code and fractured economy. Forced to compromise her education, Chen resents her mother for being unable to hold down a job of her own while it seems clear that she has little education herself and that her drinking is in part a response to her despair. Having escaped abusive spouses, the mothers of both girls have been left without effective means to support themselves in the absence of men, Chen’s mother depending on the support of her extended family who, we later learn, were also abusive. When the abuse is brought to light, Chen’s mother encourages her to lie to the court in order to protect her family members afraid perhaps of the shame but equally of the impossibility of surviving without them. 

Yet Chen continues to try to love her mother no matter how much she disappoints her, sorry only that her mother could not learn to love herself enough to save herself and determined never to make the same mistake. Finding an outlet in Taekwondo which she sees as another way to protect her family, Chen discovers another side of herself in dating another girl, at this young stage of her life incongruously insisting on referring to her as a “boyfriend” though the relationship appears to be accepted by her classmates as entirely normal. We never see how Chen’s family feels about her sexual identity save that she later affirms her desire to march in the Pride parade in Taipei precisely because she wants them to understand she loves women and that’s not something that will change, no one has the right to tell her who to love or who to marry. 

In this at least, Chen appears to have broken the cycle in definitively embracing her identities as a queer indigenous woman while also continuing to love and support her problematic family. Pei meanwhile is in a much less advantageous position, having perhaps repeated the same behaviour patterns in being letdown by an unreliable man and left to bring up a baby on her own though little more than a baby herself. Nevertheless, Ho’s camera is never judgemental in capturing this largely hidden side of Taiwanese society in which systemic male failure and entrenched patriarchy contribute to the marginalisation of the indigenous community even in the contemporary era. 


Turning 18 screens at London’s Riverside Studios on 3rd November as part of this year’s Queer East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Shepherds (牧者, Elvis Lu, 2018)

Among the most liberal of Asian nations, Taiwan became the first to legalise same-sex marriage in 2019 but that doesn’t mean that it’s always easy to be LGBTQ+ particularly if you come from a religious background and wish to maintain your faith. Elvis Lu’s documentary The Shepherds (牧者, Mùzhě) follows a small group of religious leaders who are or have been involved with a progressive church, Tong-Kwang, which was the first in Taiwan to expressly embrace the LGBTQ+ community on its foundation back in 1996. Unfortunately, however, the pastors have faced significant barriers in their personal and professional lives because of their views on homosexuality which face staunch opposition from mainstream religious organisations. The founder of Tong-Kwang Yang Ya-hui, a heterosexual female pastor, eventually took her own life because of the discrimination she later faced within the religious community which made it impossible for her to continue working and support herself without compromising her beliefs. 

Discrimination is also something which has affected pastor Huang Guo-yao and his wife who now work for Tong-Kwang but began their careers in Hong Kong. Huang was forced to give up his ministry after advocating for LGBTQ+ rights brought him into conflict with the more conservative local Churches, eventually making the decision to migrate to Taiwan while his children remained in Hong Kong. He laments that the situation in which he found himself may have had a negative effect on his now grown-up sons, the younger one he worries having become increasingly withdrawn and unwilling to talk about his feelings. 

Zeng Shu-min, meanwhile, is in a similar position unable to find employment with more conventional churches as an openly gay pastor. While officiating at same sex weddings, he’s had to look for other employment to support himself and generally lives an ascetic existence, dependent on the kindness of friends such as Hsiao-en, a lesbian advocate for LGBTQ+ Christians who was herself ejected from the seminary for her liberal views. Running the Light Up project, she provides a more positive religious presence at rallies where conservative voices loudly protest against the advancement of rights for LGBTQ+ people and the movement for marriage equality. Presenting a united front in their priestly outfits, conservative preachers openly commit to undermining the seats of local politicians sympathetic to LGBTQ+ issues, some advancing that they want to “protect” the LGBTQ+ community who must be living “very painfully”, while they refuse to compromise the “basic values” of their society. 

As part of her outreach, Hsaio-en also liaises with the parents of LGBTQ+ children who often find themselves ostracised from their church community solely because of their children’s sexual orientation. Like Shu-min, she also has to work a regular job to support herself while feeling guilty for not being able to devote herself to activism full time and lamenting that hard as she works it often feels as if she isn’t getting anywhere and her efforts don’t make much difference. Yet Tong-Kwang in itself provides a valuable safe place for LGBTQ+ Christians, running a hotline those in distress can call for relief when experiencing difficulty in their personal or religious lives and affirming that their sexuality need not conflict with their faith nor is it a barrier to God’s love. 

With a mixture of observational footage and talking heads interviews, Lu bookends the film with poetic black and white re-enactment featuring the words of pastor Yang Ya-hui taken directly from her autobiography, positioning her as a kind of martyr for the rights of LGBTQ+ people in Taiwan and particularly for LGBTQ+ Christians. The film ends with the passing of the marriage equality act, but is quick to point out that that does not mean that prejudice and discrimination evaporated overnight, Hsiao-en in particular worried that organisations such as hers will come under greater pressure from conservative religious voices intensifying their opposition. Nevertheless, despite the sometimes great toll on their personal lives and those of their families, each of the shepherds remains committed to defending the rights of LGBTQ+ people not only to occupy an equal place within their society but also within their faith as members of a compassionate and progressive religious community. 


The Shepherds streams in the UK 30th October to 5th November courtesy of Queer East and Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Original trailer (English subtitles)