The Gangs, the Oscars, and the Walking Dead (江湖無難事, Kao Pin-chuan, 2019)

You remember that film back in the ‘80s where those guys go to their boss’ house for a party only he’s dead but they want to have a good time without being murder suspects so they pretend that he’s alive, only it turns out he was going to have them killed because they found out about his massive fraud and embezzlement? The Gangs, The Oscars, and The Walking Dead (江湖無難事, Jiānghú Wú Nán Shì) is kind of like that, if lacking the mild critique of rampant consumerism. 

Our heroes are BS (Roy Chiu), a film producer, and his director/childhood best friend Wenxi (Huang Di-yang). Wenxi is a lifelong film buff who decided he had to grow up and make a zombie movie after falling in love with hopping vampires from Hong Kong. BS has been trying to make his friend’s dream come true, but the production gets derailed when the lead actor is engulfed by a sex scandal and the guys end up taking on odd jobs to make ends meet one of which involves filming the funeral of a recently deceased mob boss who later joined the boy scouts to give back to the community. The job goes just about as wrong as it’s possible to go seeing as they manage to set fire to the corpse, but somehow they manage to impress Boss Long (Lung Shao-hua) who agrees to fund their movie on the condition that part of it is shot in Japan, and his girlfriend Shanny (Yao Yi-ti) gets to play the lead. 

The second part is more of a deal breaker than the first because Wenxi’s long gestating zombie script revolves around a pure and innocent high school girl who quickly gets zombiefied during the initial outbreak but somehow retains her humanity while a heroic PE teacher/gangster falls in love with her as they fail to survive the apocalypse. Shanny is many things, but passing for a high schooler will be a stretch and in Wenxi’s eyes at least she is neither beautiful nor “pure”. To be fair, Shanny does look as if she may have suffered a lot in her life, but Wenxi’s peculiar obsession is with a mole on her face which he seems to find unsightly. In any case, it’s not a problem for very long because Shanny ends up dying during a freak accident at the launch party leaving the guys with several problems of a different order. Afraid of Boss Long, they decide to hire a top SFX artist and manipulate Shanny’s body as if she were a puppet so no one knows she’s dead. 

Sadly the film has little sympathy for Shanny who is treated more or less as a human plot device, a ridiculous figure of fun who seems to have sealed her own fate by being an “immoral” woman involved with a man like Boss Long who is, we find out, using her in more ways than one as are his not so loyal henchmen. Latent misogyny later gives over to mild homophobia as the boys figure out that Shanny got her unusual looks after getting plastic surgery to look like her favourite drag queen, so they decide to try asking him to help out, playing into an extended joke about Boss Long being fooled into canoodling with a man.

The theme, however, is brotherhood and loyalty not only between BS and Wenxi, but also Boss Long, Shanny/drag queen Hsiao Ching, and the gang. You have to die to figure out who your real brothers are, according to Boss Long, and it’s a lesson which gets put to pretty good use by just about everyone. At the end of Wenxi’s screenplay, everyone is supposed to become a zombie – the ultimate end of the world pay off for anxiety suffers, at least you won’t have to worry about getting zombified anymore, but is intended to render everyone “equal” so the world is “fair”. There is something quite ironic therefore in their unwitting zombification of Shanny, exploiting her body even after death while playing at being tough guy gangsters so they can make a film with zombies in it they are certain will win an Oscar. Aside from all that, however, the Wenxi gets his “happy” ending which eventually honours Shanny’s memory while cementing a feeling of brotherhood and acceptance placing Hsiao Ching firmly at the boss’ side as they look forward to a bright new movie making future founded on the ashes of the violent past.


The Gangs, the Oscars, and the Walking Dead was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Your Name Engraved Herein (刻在你心底的名字, Liu Kuang-hui, 2020)

Taiwan is often thought to be the most socially liberal of Asian nations and was the first to legalise same sex marriage in 2019, but a little over 30 years ago things were very different. Many thought that the lifting of martial law which had been in place for 38 years would usher in a new era of freedom only to discover that society is slow to change and despite a gradual opening up the old prejudices still remain. So it is for A-han, the hero of Liu Kuang-hui’s Your Name Engraved Herein (刻在你心底的名字, Kè Zài nǐ Xīndǐ de Míngzi) who finds himself struggling to accept his sexuality as young man coming of age in changing times. 

In 1987, as martial law is repealed, A-han (Edward Chen) is a student at a Catholic boys boarding school run along military lines. Many things are changing, but the school is much the same, as the principal Dirty Head (Ta Su) makes plain in conducting an impromptu inspection of the boys’ bunks looking for anything untoward. Nevertheless, A-Han and his friends sneak out at night to play in a band and hang out with girls. A-Han’s reticence is put down to shyness, but the reason he’s not much interested is that he’s taken a liking to a rebellious student, Birdy (Wang Shih-shien), only he’s not quite sure how to interpret his feelings or how to come to terms with them. 

This is in part because the school itself is extremely homophobic with the boys actively policing suspected homosexuality as a means of homosocial bonding. When the gang are caught sneaking out, band leader Horn (Barry Qu) targets an effeminate boy he accuses of dobbing them in, beating him up in the bathroom little knowing that A-han is hiding in a nearby stall after bringing ointment to Birdy who has also been caned. A-han emerges from the stalls after Horn hears a noise and is encouraged to join in the fun, handed a baseball bat and asked to participate in a literal act of queer bashing to prove his manhood. To his shame, A-Han prepares to comply, only to be saved by Birdy who breaks cover to rescue the other boy while casting scornful looks at Horn and the gang but most especially at the hypocritical A-Han. 

Taking his nickname from the Alan Parker film, Birdy may indeed be as “wild” as his namesake, but his rebelliousness has its limits and perhaps masks an internalised sense of shame. Nevertheless, he connects with the conflicted A-Han and the boys generate an intense friendship that of course has tension at its centre. A trip to Taipei to mourn the death of the president brings them closer, but also makes them feel ashamed as they witness a protester holding up a sign to the effect that homosexuality is not a disease and marriage is a human right being carted off by plain clothes police while the uniformed kind lurk in the shadows behind. Martial law may be over, but not everyone is free. As A-Han grows bolder, Birdy finds himself travelling in the opposite direction, dating a rebellious female student, Banban (Mimi Shao), as a kind of beard in the frustrated hope that he may “save” A-Han from his homosexuality by denying their feelings before they can fully develop. 

The central irony is that because of the changes to the educational system the high school is now required to take female pupils and the hardline Catholic, militarist teachers are paranoid about “misbehaviour”, even putting up a chainlink fence to divide the girls from the boys. Romance is forbidden even for heterosexual couples, and homosexuality unthinkable. A-Han finds himself trying to talk to his priest, Father Oliver (Fabio Grangeon), who would like to be more sympathetic but cannot offer him much by the way of advice. Later we discover that Father Oliver left his native Montreal to escape religious oppression and joined the priesthood to mask his own homosexuality, finally leaving the Church to live a more authentic life only many years later when such things were more acceptable. 30 years on A-han travels to a much changed Montreal where he sees lesbians dancing happily in bars and men kissing in the street with no one batting much of an eyelid. He reflects on all that’s changed and all the wasted time he and others like him were forced to endure hiding who they were, living in a world without love. A melancholy lament for the lost opportunities of a repressive society, Your Name Engraved Herein ends on a note of hope in which first love can blossom once again in a less restrictive world where all are free to love without shame.


Your Name Engraved Herein made its World Premiere as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original Trailers (English subtitles)

Detention (返校, John Hsu, 2019)

“Have you forgotten or are you scared of remembering?” a mysterious supernatural force seems to ask the heroine of John Hsu’s ironically named Detention (返校, Fǎn Xiào). In fact, the Chinese title means something close to “back to school”, hinting at its central message which uses the, it argues forgotten, tyranny of the “White Terror” to remind us that freedom is hard to win but harder still to keep. An unfortunately timely message given the assaults on democracy across the world but even more so given the recent protests in Hong Kong which have found support in Taiwan as it too looks back on its complicated history.

Based on a popular survival horror video game, Detention’s first hero is idealistic student Wei Zhong-ting (Tseng Ching-hua) who we quickly learn was picked up and tortured by the military police for reading books banned by the regime as part of an underground club run by two of his teachers – mild-mannered artist Zhang (Fu Meng-po) and stern musician Yin (Cecilia Choi Sze-wan). Set in 1962, the film finds itself at the height of the “White Terror”, a period of martial law which lasted for 38 years, during which any resistance real or perceived towards Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang government was brutally suppressed with thousands tortured, imprisoned, or killed by the regime.

Wei finds himself in a lucid nightmare, trapped in his school building which has become derelict and seemingly abandoned while cut off by a raging flood. Gradually he starts to piece together memories of what must have happened, realising that his fellow club members seem to be absent and something must have happened with the military police. While in the school he runs into a fellow classmate, Fang Ray-shin (Gingle Wang Ching), though she doesn’t quite seem to remember him. Having apparently fallen asleep and woken up in this nightmare world, Fang seems even less clear about what’s going on than Wei but desperately wants to find their teacher, Zhang, with whom, we learn, she has fallen in love. 

Plagued by horrifying visions that maybe repressed memories or simple nightmares, the pair are chased by giant monsters dressed in KMT uniforms standing in for the terror of living under an authoritarian regime. Only, these particular nightmare soldiers are literally “faceless” in that their hollowed out skulls, which themselves sit on fetid, rotting corpses, are filled only by a mirror making plain that the faces of the “faceless” regime are our own. Fang and Wei become convinced that someone has betrayed them by giving one of the illicit books to arch militarist teacher Inspector Bai, but they can’t be sure who it was, finally doubting even themselves in their inability to remember the exact circumstances which brought them here. 

Flashing back to the “real” world, we discover that one sort of oppression cannot help but lead to others. Fang’s father is a respected soldier and supporter of the ruling regime, but he’s also abusive towards his wife, enforcing a rule of fear and violence even within his own home. Her mother has taken to religion in order resist him, regretting her marriage and furiously praying that he will soon be “gone for good”. “Gone for good” becomes a kind of mantra for others straining to free themselves from obstacles to their desires. Fang learns all the wrong lessons from her parents, allowing herself to be corrupted by their twin failures – her father’s in being a willing participant in the oppression of others, and her mother’s in subverting the world in which she lives in an attempt to free herself from violence. 

Yet, as Zhang later tells her, no one is really at fault because they are all victims of the oppressive rule of the KMT. The ruined schoolhouse becomes a kind of repository for the orphaned memories of a forgotten past. You can tear it down and build a fancy apartment complex over the top, but the ghost of authoritarianism is always lurking on the horizon, and capitalist success will not safeguard your freedom. Those left behind have to tell the story so  this never happens again because those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Zhang imagined himself a narcissus, living in his own world without caring what other people thought and claiming that the solidarity of silent understanding is the best cure for loneliness, but he lived in times in which he had no freedom in which to live, sacrificing his own future to become the selfless roots of emancipation blooming only for those who will come later.


Detention screens in Amsterdam on March 5/7 as part of this year’s CinemAsia Film Festival. It will also screen in Chicago on March 26th as part of the 10th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tarzan and the Treasure (泰山寶藏, Liang Zhefu, 1965)

Nothing is guaranteed to turn people against each other faster than hidden loot. So it is for the children of two wartime conscripts inheriting a dubious legacy from their departed fathers in the enticingly named Tarzan and the Treasure (泰山寶藏). The world was beginning to open up in 1965, but in cinema at least there was still space for the “mysterious East” even when seen from the relative proximity of Taiwan. 

A Taiwanese businessman travels to Macao in search of the missing half of a map said to lead to treasure hidden in the Malayan mountains by the Japanese at the end of the war. The man’s brother, Zheng, and the father of the man he’s supposed to meet, Fan, served together as conscripts to the Japanese army and agreed to tear the map in two because they were afraid that their descendants may try to do each other out of their shared inheritance. That proves truer than they could ever know seeing as they both died young. The businessman is shot dead by crooks including Fan’s son (Chin Tu) who planned to steal Zheng’s half of the map and get the treasure for himself, but thankfully he didn’t have it on him, leaving it with his niece Shufen (Liu Qing) for safekeeping. Fan’s son is also killed by his gangster boss who takes his leads about Shufen and her young cousin Hong-luk (Ba Ke) heading to Malaya and runs with them. 

Shufen meanwhile has been warned by a policeman from Macao that her uncle is dead and gangsters may be on her tail. Inspector Khoo tells her to go and wander around in the jungle as bait while he is supposedly going to protect her and her cousin. Hong-luk privately dreams of finding the treasure, but Shufen reminds him they’re here for “revenge” and to smoke out the gangsters, not to get rich. While in the jungle, however, they encounter many more dangers than the alien element of invading criminality. Despite being firmly set in the modern era, Shufen and her cousin repeatedly run into members of a primitive tribe, some of whom turn out to be predatory. A hero is, however, forever on the horizon and whenever Shufen finds herself shouting for help “Tarzan” (Gao Ming) swings out of the jungle to rescue her. 

Somewhat surprisingly, “Tarzan” speaks perfect Taiwanese but wears only a leopard print loincloth and a few bangles. He is apparently, and for obvious reasons, a popular guy but only has eyes for So-bi, his increasingly jealous girlfriend with an equally jealous sister constantly outraged on So-bi’s behalf. Tarzan never falls for the the “Jane” figure of Shufen standing in for urban sophistication but remains her protector, not only from the predatory members of his own tribe but from the gangsters too even as they bring unwelcome modernity in the form of guns into this idyllic paradise. 

As they said, Shufen and her cousin haven’t come to find the treasure, only to get justice and in the hope of figuring out what happened to Shufen’s father and brother who came to Malaya some years ago after Fan’s death made getting the second half of the map impossible. The treasure itself, unearned wealth with a less than ideal genesis, is the corrupting influence which has caused so much pain and suffering. Zheng may have given his life for it, his brother and Fan’s son were shot for it, and now amoral gangsters from Macao may make sure that Shufen pays for it too even though she seems to have no interest in striking it rich. The lesson seems to be that going off to foreign countries to pull dollars out of the hillsides is a meaningless and risky business. Shufen has the right idea in that she’s gone to Malaya to restore her family and if possible bring it home while paying her respects to her late uncle. 

Greed, romantic jealousy, and the dangers of the jungle, however, threaten her mission. Wise for his years, little Hong-luk is increasingly convinced they’ve been double-crossed and that “Inspector Khoo”, if that’s his real name, must be in league with the gangsters, having tricked them into coming into the mountains all alone without the promised police “protection” even while they’re supposedly acting as bait for vicious Macao gangsters. Rest assured, however, that the authorities are eventually vindicated while Shufen remains just as innocent as the guileless Tarzan but standing up to the forces of corruption as long as she is able. The “treasure” that she discovers is family unity, preparing to leave the exoticised “Eastern paradise” for the urban sophistication of “civilisation” in Taiwan, but taking something of Malaya with her as she goes.


Screened as part of touring retrospective Taiwan’s Lost Commercial Cinema

The Rice Dumpling Vendors (燒肉粽, Hsin Chi, 1969)

What could be more wholesome and comforting than a rice dumpling? To support their desperate family, a father and daughter become, unbeknownst to each other, Rice Dumpling Vendors (燒肉粽), hoping to buy back their innocence through honest work but secretly ashamed of the depths to which they’ve fallen. Rising economic prosperity has it seemed provoked a moral decline and resulted in an arrogant entitlement that allows wealthy men to assume they can do as they please, but one ordinary businessman is about to get an unexpected humbling when confronted by the consequences of his moral transgressions. 

Tsibing (Yang Ming) is outwardly successful. He dresses in suits, has a large house and chauffeur driven car, can afford to employ a nanny, and comes home to an elegant middle-class wife (Jin Mei) and three adorable children. Despite all of that, however, he’s about to ruin everything. His mistress is secretly part of a criminal gang. She gets her boyfriend to pretend to rob the place, knocking out Tsibing’s wife and undressing her, leaving a pair of underpants on the bed to make it look like her lover has thrown his clothes on in a hurry and jumped out of the French doors to avoid being caught out by Tsibing’s unexpected arrival. Tsibing doesn’t stop to ask questions. He rounds on his wife, beating her violently in front of their young son whom he also kicks in the ribs for trying to defend her. Hypocritically pointing out that his taking a mistress is no justification for her to take a lover a too, he throws her out of his house, only to be thrown out himself when he realises that his mistress has stolen all his money. Ruined and penniless he moves into a shack with the three kids and tries to keep things together while meditating on his mistakes. 

The Rice Dumpling Vendors is, somewhat unusually, a melodrama of male failure in which Tsibing experiences a humbling which pulls him away from the amoral capitalism of the post-war era towards humanistic compassion. The couple next-door, a balloon seller (Chin Tu) who dresses as a clown and his feisty wife (Siu Chu), were unable to have children of their own and quickly take to the young family, feeling sorry for Tsibing and often helping him out particularly with buying formula milk for the baby. “I always thought people were selfish” he confesses while lying on a hospital bed after sustaining a serious workplace injury, finally seeing a different, less materialistic way to live. 

As the closing song reminds us, however, you can’t do anything without money. Attempting to walk away from failure, Tsibing finds himself in an impossible position. He can’t find work that can support a family, and even once he finds a job he gets himself injured leaving him entirely unable to provide. Oldest daughter Hsiu-chuan (Dai Peishan) tries to take the burden on herself, selling lottery tickets and heading out at all hours to hawk rice dumplings to passersby in the streets, unconvincingly telling her father that she’s going to help a classmate who is sick in the hospital with their homework. Hsiu-chuan’s earnestness stands in complete contrast to her father’s increasing desperation compounded by guilt and regret. In a low moment, he even considers abandoning the baby in front of the house of a wealthy childless couple in the hope that they will adopt her.

Strangely, Tsibing never considers asking the childless couple from next-door who already dote on his children if they’d be willing to look after the baby, but determines straight on placing himself at the mercy of the wealthy. The couple at least seem nice – they want a child and would spoil it with both love and money, but they are also arch materialists. Their first thought is that they should give Tsibing money in compensation, as if they were buying a pet. It doesn’t quite occur to them that he might change his mind, after all they can give his baby a quality of life he currently cannot in which she’ll be well fed and taken care of. Is it selfish of him to deny her that? Hsiu-chuan and her brother, however, aren’t having any of it. They’re taking their sister home where she belongs, vowing to give up on school and double down on their part time jobs to make sure they can afford milk to feed her. 

Tsibing too lowers himself once again, selling not only lottery tickets but later rice dumplings, telling Hsiu-Chuan, who is doing exactly the same thing, that he’s got a job as a nightwatchman in a warehouse which is why he’s out all night. Humbled and encouraged by the warmhearted altruism of his kindly neighbours, he’s learning to renounce the materialist life and re-embrace what’s important. The mistress, meanwhile, making an unexpected reappearance, pays a heavy price both for her amoral materialism, and for her transgressions as an “immoral” woman whose attempts to use men provoke only jealousy and violence. Meanwhile, the wife is eventually vindicated and seems to have retained both her wealth and her class status even after being unfairly thrown out by Tsibing. 

What we’re presented with is a seemingly uncomplicated family reunion, completely ignoring Tsibing’s brutal use of violence against his wife and son which is itself intended to demonstrate his “manliness” and patriarchal authority. He reminds his wife of the cultural double standard that insists that a man may take a mistress but a wife must be faithful, punishing her not for betraying their family but for making a fool of him. Little does he know however that he’s already been made a fool of by a “wicked” woman, and it’s entirely his own fault for acting irresponsibly, regarding a mistress as little more than a status symbol. Nevertheless, now humbled he has a new appreciation for what it means to be a family man, seeking not riches but simple wholesome pleasures like rice dumplings and friendship surrounded by kind and honest people always willing to lend a hand to those in need.


Screened as part of touring retrospective Taiwan’s Lost Commercial Cinema

Stand By Me (陪你很久很久, Lai Meng-jie, 2019)

“Teenage days we all need a romance that hurts” exclaims a rejected teen, too shy to declare her crush directly but trying to achieve a kind of closure by literally shouting it from the rooftops in Lai Meng-jie’s charming teenage rom-com, Stand By Me (陪你很久很久, Péi Nǐ Hěn Jiǔ Hěn Jiǔ). For Jiu-Bing (Mason Lee), however, his romance has gone on a little longer than just his teenage years. He’s been silently in love with Bo-he (Ivy Shao Yu-Wei) since he was 12, but their relationship has remained at the innocent level of childhood friendship. Nevertheless, all of his subsequent decisions have been taken with one aim in mind, being at Bo-he’s side to protect her. Now that they’re grown, he’ll have to come to terms with the fact that their relationship is inevitably going to have to change in one way or another. 

As with most youngsters, those changes arrive as they set off for university (he’s enrolled in the same one as her for that reason alone). No matter how close you are, it can be quite claustrophobic having someone buzzing around you all day and Bo-he is beginning to get fed up with Jiu-Bing’s continuing immaturity. He’s promised to “protect” her, but often ends up in trouble himself and needs her to rescue him. It’s Bo-he that finds him a place to stay after he accidentally blows up his new student dorm and gets kicked out, only it turns out to be half of a teenage girl’s bedroom above a family bakery, rented out by high schooler Xia-Tian (Tsai Jui-Hsueh) without her father’s (Chu Chung-heng) permission as an enterprising way to get a little more pocket money. Meanwhile, Bo-he has fallen for a handsome, heroic classmate, Mai-zi (Edison Song Bai-Wai), who is, in every stereotypical way, the perfect man. 

In an ironic twist, Jiu-Bing’s part-time job is as a “pacer”, supporting other runners as they make their way towards the finish line but eventually dropping back himself. He takes pride in being there for people, protecting and encouraging them, but still struggles to accept the fact that his chosen role inevitably means he’ll spend his life celebrating the successes of others rather than his own. Jiu-Bing eventually has this fact thrown in his face when a romantic rival describes him as nothing more than a rebound guy, implying that Bo-he only sees him as a fallback she can rely on when some other boy breaks her heart but will never really want to be with in the long term. 

On one level, Jiu-Bing is fine with that. He really does just want Bo-he to be happy even if it’s with someone else, but still struggles with the decision of whether to speak his feelings out loud and risk ruining their friendship or keep silent and live with the pain of being just her friend forever. As one of his eccentrically nerdy friends puts it, companionship is the “dark matter” that supports a relationship, but the jury’s still out on whether companionship alone is enough to go the distance. Meanwhile, he remains entirely oblivious to the fact that Xia-Tian is beginning to develop feelings for him that place her in exactly the same place as he is with Bo-he. Maybe he just thinks of Xia-Tian as a crazy little sister, and maybe Bo-he just thinks of him as a troublesome little brother who will always need looking after despite his constant protestations that all he wants is to be able to “protect” her. 

What Jiu-Bing learns however is that being a pacer is no bad thing. It’s much better to run with someone than to run alone, but there are times when you just need to set a pace for yourself so you can figure out how far you can run. There are more ways to love than just the romantic, though maybe that’ll come in time but perhaps not from the direction you’d expected. “Being heard and accepted is nothing we can decide” Xia-Tian adds, and what is teenage romance other than coming to an acceptance that sometimes you love people who don’t love you back? But then sometimes they do, and if you never say anything you’ll never know. Jiu-Bing has some growing up to do, and a few decisions to make so he can figure out where it is he ought to be – supporting from the sidelines or waiting with flowers near the podium. Either way, Lai Meng-Jie’s charming teenage rom-com is a refreshingly progressive take on the genre which allows it’s “nice guy” hero to find solace in the authenticity of his generosity while its heroine embraces her own sense of agency entirely independent of her romantic destiny. 


Stand By Me screens at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center on Feb. 17 where the full lineup for the upcoming 10th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema will also be unveiled. Director Lai Meng-jie will be in attendance for an introduction and post-screening Q&A.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Zone Pro Site: The Moveable Feast (總舖師, Chen Yu-hsun, 2013)

In these high speed days, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that “cooking means something” or at least it should do according to “Doctor Gourmet” Hai (Tony Yang). A warm tribute to the Taiwanese tradition of bandoh outdoor banquets, Zone Pro Site: The Moveable Feast (總舖師, Zǒng Pù Shī) positions the figure of the chef as a kind of conduit bridging the gap between people through the art of well cooked food. Heroine Wan (Kimi Hsia Yu-chiao), however, thoroughly rejected the ambitions of her top chef father and determined on a life in the city with her heart set on becoming a famous model, actress, and celebrity. 

Life in Taipei is however hard. Career success is hard to come by and duplicity lurks round every corner. Wan learns this to her cost when two shady guys turn up on the pretext of delivering a birthday cake only to explain to her that her boyfriend, whose loans she’s unwisely co-signed, has skipped town and left her with the bill. Confused and afraid, Wan decides to skip town herself, planning to head back to her hometown and ask her mother for help. What she discovers however is that her mother is on the run too after losing the family restaurant partly through her subpar cooking skills which could never match those of her late husband, and partly through the betrayal of his apprentice who poached all their best customers and set up on his own. Despite being “in hiding”, the only way Puffy (Lin Mei-hsiu) has been able to make ends meet is by putting on an impromptu dance show in the central square to promote her small noodle stall. Luckily for them both, Wan makes a chance encounter on the train with a nice young man, Hai, who turns out to be a “Doctor Gourmet” specialising in “fixing” failing restaurants.

His arrival comes at just the right moment as Wan and her mother get a visit from potential clients – a sweet older couple who first met 50 years previously at a wedding catered not by Wan’s father Master Fly Spirit, but by his now departed mentor. Wan’s mother was going to turn the request down because neither she nor Wan know how to make the traditional dishes the couple are looking for, but Wan makes an impromptu decision to try and make their wedding dreams come true, warning them that it might take a little extra time and not quite match up to their romantic expectations. 

Wan’s problem is that she always hated her family’s restaurant. She resented the heat and the smell and the grease, often placing an empty box over her head and retreating into a fantasy world to escape the chaos. Her father wanted her to take over, leaving her a notebook filled with his recipes which was unfortunately stolen by a homeless man who mugged her at the station, but she was dead set on escape and becoming a “someone” in the city. Unlike her mother, however, she has real talent for cooking and is equally skilled at using her good looks and sweet nature to get things done. Soon after her arrival at the noodle stand, she’s already got herself a gang of geeky groupies calling themselves “Animals on Call” who are ready to do pretty much anything she asks of them. 

That comes in handy when Puffy persuades her to enter a national cooking competition where her rival is none other than Tsai, the apprentice who betrayed them, backed up another famous ex-chef Master Ghost Head (Hsi Hsiang) who has a fiery temper and spent some time in prison which might be why he still dresses like an ultra cool motorcycle guy from the ‘70s. There were apparently three great masters, the other being the eccentric  Master Silly Mortal (Wu Nien-jen) who is later discovered living in a subway tunnel where he keeps the art of bandoh alive through a literal underground restaurant where his regulars bring him a selection of ingredients before sitting down to enjoy a communal meal. It’s Silly Mortal whose food is said to evoke human feelings who guides Wan towards a series of epiphanies about the nature of “traditional” food. According to him, there are no rules about what goes together, and having a “traditional” heart is really about embracing the true nature of bandoh. Only by having a heart full of joy can you make good food. 

Equally eccentric in some respects, Hai takes a back seat after reminding Wan that cooking is really a way of sending a coded message to its intended target. The two goons eventually join the team, working together earnestly to prepare for the biggest banquet of all which is both the old couple’s wedding celebration and the competition’s finale. Master Ghost Spirit talks about taking the “grief” out of meat through fine cutting, while Master Silly Mortal is all about putting positive emotions in, but the missing piece of the puzzle is Master Fly Spirit who sends his final message to Wan only after death as she rediscovers him through his recipes. Not quite giving up on her celebrity career, Wan embraces her inner chef, happy with the idea of making lunchboxes to sell at the station with her new friends and family rather than chasing money through oddly nihilistic cuisine as Tsai had done. In the end, it’s all about joy and togetherness, sharing tasty food in the open air where anyone and everyone is welcome to bring whatever they have to the table.


Zone Pro Site: The Moveable Feast screens in New York on Feb. 16 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival Winter Showcase.

International trailer (English subtitles)