A collection of conflicted urbanites find themselves lost in a rapidly changing society in Edward Yang’s bitterly ironic social drama, A Confucian Confusion (獨立時代, dúlì shídài). Floundering in the post-martial law society, they struggle with the new freedoms of the democratic future torn between the blind obedience of the authoritarian past and the risky business of having to figure out who they are and what they want in a Taipei that seems to have its lost soul to rapidly advancing consumerism.
Much of the confusion is centred on Chi-chi (Chen Shiang-chyi), a demure young woman admired by all for her radiant quality yet herself under-confident and worried that on some level others might resent her assuming that her genial persona is in someway an affectation. Chi-chi’s tragedy is that she is genuinely nice and relatively authentic in comparison to those around her only she’s beginning to realise that she doesn’t really know herself and has no idea what it is she really wants. “I didn’t have views of my own, it doesn’t mean I agreed with you” she eventually fires back at her ultra-conformist boyfriend Ming (Wang Wei-ming) after he takes the step of resigning for her when she expresses reluctance to accept a job offer set up by his father’s girlfriend.
“You weren’t like this before” Ming continues to berate her, telling another woman, Feng (Richie Li), that feels he no longer understands the changes in Chi-chi’s mind. A symbol of old school patriarchal thinking, he attempts to overrule all her decisions while frustrated that she can’t see he’s only acting in the best interests of her future. Ming thinks that everyone being the same is a good thing, determined to follow the conventional path for a “stable” life as a civil servant but carrying a degree of personal baggage that his politician father was once sent to prison for corruption. He tells Feng, the one person most at home with the duplicities of the modern society, that he chased Chi-chi because she most conformed to the image of his ideal woman which does rather imply that he preferred her to appear as an extension of himself not having any particular thoughts or opinions of her own. The realisation that she does indeed have individual agency seems to destabilise him even as his allegiance to the social conformity of the authoritarian era is shaken on witnessing the hypocrisy of contemporary corporate culture in which his straight-talking friend (Chen Yi-wen) is forced to pay for Ming’s own mistake.
It’s the hypocrisy which seems to weigh heaviest on the mind of a struggling writer (Hung Hung) who finds it impossible to accept the democratic revolution and has given up the cheerful romance novels which made his name to write “serious” books. Now living in a tiny apartment without electricity, he has become estranged from the wealthy woman he married as a student (Chen Li-mei) who defied her family to turn down an arranged marriage just to be with him. She now hosts a fairly conservative TV programme aimed at housewives pushing family values which is one reason it would be a problem if their separation became public knowledge. The man she was supposed to marry, Chin (Wang Bosen) the foppish son of a business associate of her father’s, is now engaged to her sister, Molly (Ni Shu-Chun), and mainly conducts his business in Mainland China looking ahead to a kind of “One Country, Two Systems” future which may in a sense be a return to a more authoritarian society albeit one fuelled by corporatism.
In any case, more than anyone Chin is caught between old and new desperately trying to make his engagement to Molly work by hoping they will eventually fall in love while she is more or less just going along with it while convincing him to continue investing in her failing business. In this very confusing environment, communication is never direct. Molly, who is also a childhood friend of Chi-chi and Ming, never really discloses her feelings but according to Chin’s sleazy business manager Larry (Danny Deng) is too “unique” for the times in failing to appreciate the necessity of emotion as a corporate tool. Yet she goes along with the arranged marriage unable to fully break with feudal norms as her much more conservative sister had ironically done even if she is no longer happy with her choice. As is so often pointed out, anything can happen anytime. Sudden reversals and accidental revolutions are just a part of life.
Conformity had perhaps been a way of coping with life’s uncertainty, but in its way only created more misery and resentment. Ironically the radiant smile Larry so admires in Chi-chi is also the symbol of a societal defence mechanism. The angrier you get, the wider your smile, Larry had tried to teach Chin who nevertheless remains the most “emotional” of all the protagonists, eventually breaking with feudal past in ending his engagement to Molly after randomly falling in love with a voice on a telephone. “We’re all so lonely” Ming admits, disillusioned with his life of dull conformity and edging towards seizing the new freedoms open to him to finally be “independent” no longer bound either by lingering Confucianism or the authoritarian past. The writer’s last book had followed Confucius as he found himself in the modern society but discovered that the people no longer believed in his sincerity, seeing him as a kind of motivational speaker and wanting to learn the quick fixes of his philosophy. Yet in meeting his own destiny, the writer hits on an epiphany that the best weapon against hypocrisy is to live honestly and authentically. Finally integrating into the democratic future, each is finally becoming accustomed to making their own decisions but informed by a kind of mutual solidarity in navigating the still confusing landscape of a changing Taipei.
A Confucian Confusion screens at the Museum of Photographic Arts on Nov. 11 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.
Restoration trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)