Ohong Village (蚵豐村, Lim Lung-yin, 2019)

Familial legacy and frustrated dreams conspire against father and son in Lim Lung-yin’s striking 16mm debut, Ohong Village (蚵豐村) . Set in a small oyster farming community on the southern shore of Taiwan, Lim’s anti-urban panorama is an ambivalent contemplation of small-town existence as its trio of frustrated male protagonists find themselves caught in an existential riptide torn between a nostalgia for a simpler life and the lure of the new and the modern far away in the cities. 

30-year-old Sheng (Lin Yui-Hsu) left the village seven years previously and has rarely visited during his time away but has now come home for his sister’s wedding where he boasts of his vast success, his claims of earning millions daily ringing somewhat hollow. As it seems, things have not gone entirely well in Taipei and Sheng most likely is not intending to return. His old friend Kun (Chen Hsin-Tai) who stayed in the village, similarly boasting of the vast sums he too earns as a top oyster shucker, has a business proposition for him, hoping to capitalise on the recent tourism craze by renovating the raft his father left him and turning it into a tourist boat selling the oyster farmer experience to people from the cities. Meanwhile, the oyster business seems to be on its last legs, Sheng’s embittered father Ming (King Jie-wen) unceremoniously dumped by a business contact who flatly tells him that his oysters are no longer plump enough and he’ll be going across town to source his catch in future. 

Ming’s sense of hopeless disappointment is additionally acute because, as we’re told, his father was a big man on the island whose catch extended far and wide. Grandma (Wu Mei-he) laments that in the old days the community were happy working together on the salt flats but now the fields are flooded and those who were wealthy left the village never to return. Angry with himself for his perceived failure to live up to his father’s legacy, Ming is also resentful of his son whom he sent to the city to make a better life for himself only to see him return with nothing other than disappointment and a sense of internalised inadequacy. Frustrated by his hollow self aggrandising he snaps at Sheng to cut the “bullshit”, but otherwise pushes him away, discouraging his friendship with Kun who he sees as everything he wanted Sheng not to be, and pouring scorn on the boys’ newfound dream of tourist boat entrepreneurship. 

For his part, Sheng begins to reconnect with his grandfather’s legacy perhaps literally given direction by the old compass he finds among his possessions which leads him to a distant shore on which sits a giant and mysterious statue. Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “faith”, Sheng had been otherwise sceptical of traditional thinking, snapping at Ming for talking to a tree in communicating with his late father and unconvinced by Kun’s divinatory claims asking who it is who’s making his decisions him or God. Nevertheless, a drunken voyage through the neon-lit streets provokes in him visions of the upcoming festival, while he too later finds himself taking refuge in ritual and risking all to protect a lonely tree from an oncoming storm. 

Kun asks his friend why he didn’t ask him to come when he left, and Sheng gives him the unconvincing excuse that Kun is a man who loves his freedom and wouldn’t have taken well to the city where there are rules which must be followed. Kun agrees that there’s freedom in the village, but he doesn’t know what to do with it. While Sheng begins to find his direction, accepting his legacy and his place, Kun travels in the other direction doing something stupid and chasing the dreams Sheng has now abandoned though there’s no real way to know if his own claims of vast riches are yet more “bullshit” or an ironic boon that mirrors Sheng’s progress towards inner peace. 

Shot on grainy 16mm and scored with a mix of traditional folk instrumentation, synths, and retro pop, Ohong Village is imbued with a sense of melancholy nostalgia for a way of life that has in a sense already disappeared but also with frustration and youthful ennui as the two young men search for hope and possibility while Ming is left only with lonely middle-aged disappointment and an ambivalent desire for his son both to go and to stay. Reimagining the village as a space of both purgatorial ruination and possible salvation, Lim’s etherial drama finds little other than despair and emptiness in its flooded vistas but offers perhaps also a strange sense of melancholy warmth if only in the intensity of its longing. 


Ohong Village streamed as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Boiling Water Lama (開水喇嘛, Lu Adiong, 2019)

A lone monk provides spiritual healing in a decaying world in Lu Adiong’s enigmatic documentary Boiling Water Lama (開水喇嘛, Kāishuǐ Lǎma). Living in wooden house built by his followers high up in the small village of Xiongtuo on the Tibetan plateau, the Lama provides both pastoral care and traditional medicine to residents of the region many of whom have travelled over the mountains to visit him in hope of gaining his wisdom. 

Lu opens however with a lengthy shot of the desolate landscape, frosty and seemingly devoid of human presence home only to mud, smoke, and rubble. Later he will cut to a series of similar shots featuring a family of wild boar encroaching into the village, seemingly free to roam as if nature is already reclaiming this crumbling settlement. The Lama meanwhile remains hidden to us, crammed in as we are with a tightly packed group of followers awaiting his advice in a darkened room alight only with the warm yellow glow of the surrounding walls. The problems they bring him are many and varied, often related to the process of death and dying wanting to know which sutras they should read for a late relative, or intensely curious to know when and where their deceased loved one might have been reborn. Perhaps because of the obvious demands on his time, the Lama’s replies are often curt, imbued with unexpected efficiency as he simply consults his charts and recommends an appropriate sutra. He does not appear to recognise his visitors even when they remind him that he himself oversaw a ritual for them sometime previously, though he is always patient and kind, pausing to give a small boy receiving medical treatment some pocket money to buy sweets on the way home. 

Meanwhile, he also treats the sick attaching suction cups to the affected area to suck out the “bad blood” while explaining to another complainant that his problem is he is like a car engine with not enough oil and too much petrol. Cauterising the wound with incense sticks, he completes his treatment by spitting boiling water over the broken skin, handing over some paperwork to the husband which he apparently does not need to return in person. Other callers meanwhile are burdened with emotional dilemmas, a man wanting advice about the marriage of two village youngsters who’ve fallen in love but the girl’s parents aren’t keen and in any case would prefer that she and her new husband live independently rather than with his family as the in-laws wish. The Lama does not give the man the answer he was perhaps hoping for nor does he have a very favourable prognosis for another who visits wanting to know if it’s in the cards for him to patch things up with the wife who’s apparently left to return to her parents though as he tells it not because there was anything wrong in their relationship. 

True to his name, the Lama keeps the kettle boiling while a collection of visitors gather outside his home waiting for the climactic purification ritual in which men and women remove their shirts and endure the scalding water on their bodies, some directing it to the site of their ailments, baring their knees or ankles. Others have brought their children who scream in pain and terror, the water clearly far too hot for them to bear while the Lama spits out the last of the boiling liquid into the eyes of those there afflicted. In contrast to the traditional setting, many of the villagers can be seen photographing or filming the event on their smartphones to record the occasion. As if to refute the final image, however, of the Lama overseeing the landscape as the villagers return home, Lu breaks the intense Japanese folksong playing over the end credits with a whimsical, snow covered scene in which a cow eventually appears and fixes its gaze directly into the camera lens. An enigmatic exploration of a disappearing way of life in all of its various contradictions, Boiling Water Lama finds no answers to its central questions leaving only the Lama as he metes out his judgements to all who come seeking his advice. 


Boiling Water Lama screens on 12th December at London’s Rio Cinema as part of Taiwan Film Festival UK 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Rock Me to the Moon (一首搖滾上月球, Huang Chia-chun, 2013)

“Finally, I understand to be strong is to be gentle” sings the lead vocalist of Sleepy Dads, a rock band comprised entirely of middle-aged men who are each fathers of children with rare medical conditions. Documentarian Huang Chia-Chun first encountered the men while working as a volunteer with Taiwan Foundation for Rare Disorders where he was struck by their intense love for their children continuing to give all for their families while also obviously facing their own difficulties as they try to balance economic support with the emotional. Charting the Sleepy Dads’ quest to play at a high profile rock festival, Rock Me to the Moon (一首搖滾上月球, Yī Shǒu Yáogǔn Shàng Yuèqiú) is not only an exploration of living with disability but also a quiet re-evaluation of notions of masculinity as the fathers find themselves members of a minority when it comes to their children’s care. 

That was in fact one of the motivations which led to the founding of the band, one of the dads remarking that as they looked around at various support groups it was almost all mothers with very few men, lamenting that unfortunately many fathers either reject their children or abandon their families entirely. A news report later in the film, meanwhile, relates the tragic story of a single-father who was pushed towards suicide because of the difficulties of caring for his daughter alone which left him unable to earn the money to support them both and eventually overburdened with debt. Though one of the Sleepy Dads is a school teacher with a steady job, many of the others are in precarious freelance employment struggling to balance the need to earn money with the physical need to be there for their children each of whom has differing needs especially as some of them have more than one child suffering with longterm illness. 

The band provides a place where the men can come together to relax with others in a similar position, finding mutual support and solidarity while investing themselves in mastering a new skill. Guided by Spark, the lead singer of top rock band Quarterback, who offers them the opportunity to open at one of their concerts, the Sleepy Dads do their best to perfect their skills with the hope of eventually playing at a top festival despite their comparatively advanced age and lack of experience. Training hard to achieve their goal, it’s less the end point that matters than the process as they work through their difficulties together with good humour and determination. 

As another of the fathers puts it, however, Taiwanese men are raised to be brave and strong but he’s also under an intense amount of pressure. Poignantly his wife, preparing to undergo medical treatment herself, expresses that she’d just like her husband to give her a hug but he says he doesn’t know how because he wasn’t brought up to show emotion in that way. She also worries that he sometimes doesn’t see that she’s under a lot of pressure too and prefers to think of her as a kind of superwoman with an innate ability to cope with anything life throws at her. Nevertheless, the Sleepy Dads have fierce love for their children and are never afraid to show it, doing everything they can to care for them while knowing in some cases that their kids may not survive them and so their time together is even more precious. As the song says, they’ve learned that true strength lies in being gentle. 

While one of the mothers laments that she feels isolated even within her own family because her in-laws will not accept the children, asking her not to bring them to a family gathering, the Sleepy Dads have formed an extended family of their own coming together to celebrate one of the dad’s moves into a new home he’s had designed to better meet his family’s needs with all the kids playing together happily. They don’t pretend that their lives are easy, but they share their joys and sorrows equally and work out their frustrations through the medium of song. A warm and empathetic tribute to these selfless men and their infinite love for their children, Rock Me to the Moon is also a celebration of friendship and solidarity not to mention the power of music to overcome all hardships. 


Rock Me to the Moon streams in the US Dec. 11 – 13 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema & TACCGC’s @Home with Taiwan Cinema: Love & Hope.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Reason Why I’m Home (回家的理由, Chang Ming Yu, 2019)

How do you learn to forgive after family tragedy? That’s a question Chen-yun the heroine of Chang Ming Yu’s documentary The Reason Why I’m Home (回家的理由, Huíjiā de Lǐyóu) begins to ask herself as she tries to come to terms with an extremely traumatic history while preparing to become a mother. As a close friend of his subject, Chang is both companion and chronicler, a quietly supportive presence as Chen-yun navigates these extremely difficult emotional waters, but also prompting her to think more deeply about the concept of family at the exact moment in which she begins to found her own. 

The reason Chen-yun returns home after a five year absence is that she is told her younger brother has been taken seriously ill. In fact, as it turns out he has passed away, apparently beaten to death by members of the cult her mother Fen-chueh belonged to though she also claims he had become a drug user. Fen-chueh accepts responsibility for her son’s death, but is said to have been under control of the cult’s crazed leader Chen-miao who according to Chen-yun brainwashed her brother to make him believe he was a bad person. Chen-yun suspects that like her he eventually wanted to leave but was unable to and was subsequently killed. She harbours a degree of guilt that she chose to leave him behind, telling him only that she was leaving to look for their father who had already escaped the cult. 

Expecting a baby with her policeman husband, Chen-yun is forced to deal with the fallout from the scandal of her mother’s crime, hounded by press determined to interview her about the case. Chen-yun’s father, technically the plaintiff in the case against Fen-chueh, signals his intention to sever ties with his former wife and advises Chen-yun to do the same while also telling her not to seem too happy which seems like an unfair request when she’s about to give birth to new life. After all as she puts it, life goes on. She hasn’t forgotten about her brother but you can’t go on mourning forever. Nevertheless, despite her earlier animosity in which she hinted that her mother had been abusive in her childhood and refused to say when questioned whether or not she still loved her, Chen-yun finds herself ringing Fen-chueh when she needs someone who can sign papers on her behalf at the hospital while her husband is unavailable. As healing an act as that might seem to be, it also has its share of awkwardness, a nurse accidentally asking a series of tactless questions necessary for the admission forms such as how many siblings Chen-yun has along with other details her mother is assumed to know but does not. 

Given what we know of her family background, it is perhaps surprising that Chen-yun continues to allow Fen-cheuh back into her life, even asking her to look after her baby son. Nevertheless in the brief time before Fen-chueh must report to serve her four-year prison sentence, Chen-yun begins to repair their fragile maternal bond, coming to understand her mother a little more now that she has become a mother herself and perhaps learning to forgive her for her role in her brother’s death. “No one taught us how to be parents” Fen-chueh later confesses to Chang in a private interview, having realised that though she thought she was doing the best for her daughter she may only have been causing her harm. 

As a new mother Chen-yun cannot help but think of similar questions as she begins to bring up her young son in the midst of her family legacy, taking him with her as she visits her brother’s grave and to visit her mother in the prison so he’ll get to know grandma even while she’s away. Mixing observational footage with brief conversational sessions between a behind the camera Chang and an often emotional Chen-yun, The Reason Why I’m Home focusses not on the tabloid fodder of the crime with its cruel cultists and legacy of abuse but on the slow process of healing as Chen-yun learns to forgive herself and her mother while repairing their fragile family bonds as she does her best to raise her son in love and safety.


The Reason Why I’m Home streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)