We Are Champions (下半場, Chang Jung-Chi, 2019)

What is the best way to “win”, team work and camaraderie or authoritarian austerity? Two brothers find themselves on different paths in Chang Jung-Chi’s high school basketball drama We Are Champions (下半場, Xiàbàn Cháng), but in true manly fashion eventually end up repairing their fracturing familial relationships through sporting competition as a healthier substitute for physical violence (though that too is not entirely absent). Who wins and who loses might not be as important as it first seems, but then again perhaps there is more than one way to “win”. 

Close in age, big brother Hsiu-yu (Fandy Fan Shao Hsun) and little brother Tung-hao (Berant Zhu Ting-Dian) live with an aunt and uncle in the backroom behind their seamstressing factory and spend most of their free time playing basketball out in the street with other youngsters. The boys’ mother passed away when they were small and times being what they are, their dad has had to travel to find work and is not able to check in on them very often. The reason the guys play basketball so much is that they hate living with their permanently angry uncle and want to move out, putting the money they make through street games and part time jobs into an escape fund. 

Things begin to change for them when they’re spotted by a basketball coach from a local high school who gives them a few tips and offers them a shot at joining the team. Tung-hao is keen, but Hsiu-yu has given up on his dreams of basketball glory because of a hearing injury that saw him mercilessly bullied on the middle school courts. Tung-hao ends up getting scouted by an elite school, Yuying, but the authoritarian coach flatly tells him that there’s no space for Hsiu-yu because he doesn’t allow disabled people on his team. Tung-hao is conflicted, but ends up joining after fighting with his uncle and storming out of the house. He’s sorry for his brother, but all he wants to do is play basketball so he’s taking his chance. Hsiu-yu is happy for him and wishes him well, eventually taking the sympathetic coach who spotted them at the outdoor court up on his offer to play for decidedly small but scrappy high school team Kuang Cheng. 

Kuang Cheng isn’t perfect, Hsiu-yu still gets bullied because of his hearing aid at least to begin with, but unlike Yuying they run on a principle of solidarity. The coach is a supportive, paternal presence that Hsiu-yu finds particularly useful in the continuing absence of his father and motivates his players through trying to give them the confidence to be all they can be. Over at Yuying, meanwhile, they all wear identical black uniforms, have buzz cuts, and spend all their time drilling with military discipline. The coach has no time for the personal lives of his players, abruptly kicking one guy off the team simply because he was late to practice. Yuying is, to put it bluntly, a bedrock of ruthless authoritarian elitism. They think they’re entitled to win because they’re the best, and they won’t hear any arguments to the contrary. 

These ideological differences continue to place a strain on the brothers’ relationship with Tung-hao remaining conflicted about his decision to leave his brother behind and doubling down on the manly militarism of his coach’s philosophy to make it seem worthwhile. Having not seen him in a long while, Hsiu-yu calls out to his brother across the basketball court but Tung-hao ignores him, eventually answering only after Hsiu-yu returns to let him know that he’s just had a call about a relative being seriously injured and taken to hospital. Tung-hao tells him he’s not interested in family drama because he’s here to practice with his new buddies before crossing the line back towards the other side. 

Despite all of that, however, good brother Hsiu-yu never gives up on family feeling and continues to support Tung-hao in his heart even while they’re rivals on the court. Tung-hao is increasingly conflicted by his coach’s determination to destroy his brother, even using his hearing problems against him, but is eventually healed by Hsiu-yu’s forgiveness even as he prepares to shatter all his dreams. Sometimes you can “win” by being the better man, or by accepting someone’s forgiveness, or just doing your best, and other times you can throw a ball through a hoop all on your own. Victories come in all shapes and sizes, but true champions are the ones who know how to lose with grace and win with magnanimity. 


Originally scheduled as the centrepiece of the suspended Season 10, We Are Champions streams for free in the US on June 12 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Mini-Focus: Taiwan Cinema Online. Viewers in Italy will also be able to catch it streaming as part of this year’s online Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Who Killed Cock Robin (目擊者, Cheng Wei-Hao, 2017)

“Everything in this world has already been decided, no one is free” according to a jaded, psychopathic killer in Tag Along director’s Cheng Wei-Hao fatalistic neo-noir, Who Killed Cock Robin (目擊者, Mùjīzhě) . As the English title implies, each has their part to play when it comes to the orchestration of death, but the peculiar confluence of circumstances sees the central “witness” corrupted by his decision to alter his position, becoming part of the story in a way a journalist never should.

At 30-ish, Chi (Kaiser Chuang Kai-hsun) is a jaded paparazzo tuning in to the police scanners for the latest scoop on potentially scandalous crime. He thinks he’s hit the jackpot in pulling off the road and discovering a local politician in a car wreck with a beautiful young woman he later realises is a top glamour model, but his insistence on pushing the story without proper background checks comes back to haunt him when the politician comes out with documents proving he married the model in secret some months earlier and signals his intention to sue. All of a sudden, Chi’s bright future is slipping away from him. His mentor retires, and he’s abruptly made redundant, effectively fired for the problematic politician scoop. It’s at that point he starts looking back at photos he took of another car crash nine years earlier when he was still a rookie and realises his boss may have deleted some behind his back. 

As his mentor, Chiu (Christopher Lee Meng Soon), eventually tells him, Chi isn’t the sort of man who’d fight for justice for someone he didn’t even know. He’s in this for petty revenge in hoping to expose some kind of scandal involving the boss who got him fired. He’s also, however, meditating on the earnest young man he once was and the jaded hack he’s since become. As an intern he wanted to do hard journalism and make a difference, but after falling in with Chiu he became corrupted by urbanity, seduced by the fancy suits, celebrity contacts, and stylish parties. He does his business by forming “relationships” with useful people such as law enforcement officers though homosocial bonding, i.e. drinking and women. 

Chiu also, perhaps ironically, thanks his wife for helping him make the “relationships” which have enabled his successful life. These complex networks of interwoven corruption are what keeps the city running, but they’re also a web that can be unravelled to reveal the dirty secrets at its centre. Chi seems to know that fate is coming for him. “Things that happened to you come round in circles” he drunkenly laments on learning not only that the used car he was duped into buyng is an illegally remodelled vehicle but also that the chassis belongs to the one from the accident he witnessed all those years ago. Car accidents plague him, as if implying his life is one long car crash bracing for the impact. 

Yet, as Chiu cautions him, he only has a part of the truth. He is lied to and misled, left to reply on the reporter’s instinct he has long since allowed to become rusty. His investigation places others in danger, not least a young woman who was beginning to think she’d escaped the accident’s wake and built a nice life for herself free of past transgression. But Chi still has to make a choice, try to expose this world of infinite corruption for what it is while accepting his own complicity within it, or decide to unsee what he worked so hard to uncover and go back to being the hack reporter dependent on that same web of corruption whose entanglement he was so keen to escape. 

“I just want to know the truth” Chi claims, as a good reporter should, but his subjects ask him “what’s the point?”, “everyone wants to know the truth, but once you know then what?”.  It’s a good question, and one perhaps that Chi doesn’t know the answer to, reducing his dilemma to a sheepish grin and a cynical joke. “I prefer to remember happier things”, he admits. An infinitely compromised figure, Chi finds himself on dark and fatalistic path towards discovering, at least, his own truth. “I believe in myself” he later tells an equally corrupted colleague but something tells us we perhaps should not. 


Who Killed Cock Robin streams online for free in the US as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Mini-Focus: Taiwan Cinema Online on June 11.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Gangster’s Daughter (林北小舞, Chen Mei-Juin, 2017)

Do little fish always get eaten by bigger ones, or can they manage to swim free into kinder waters? As the title perhaps suggests, The Gangster’s Daughter (林北小舞, lín běi xiǎowǔ) finds its young heroine battling parental mystery, stepping into her father’s world of crime and dubious morality while he grows ever more disillusioned with his duplicitous lifestyle and the price he has clearly been paying to survive it. Yet they are both in many ways victims of the corruptions of the society in which they live in which others play the system in less overt ways but to the same ends in order to manipulate individual privilege. 

Now a teenager, Shaowu’s (Ally Chiu) parents split up when she was little and she and her mother returned to live with her grandmother in Kinmen, an idyllic island village. Shaowu has no real memories of her father, Keigo (Jack Kao), a Taipei gangster and her grandmother is reluctant to enlighten her. The first time she sees him in many years is at her mother’s funeral at which he makes a notable appearance, an obvious “gangster” in dark sunglasses and sharp suit, backed by a dozen henchmen that, it later transpires, have been hired for the day by his overenthusiastic minions who thought he needed to look “good” while paying his respects to the mother of his child. 

For herself, Shaowu is a rebellious teen who hangs out in a makeshift den where she keeps the various souvenirs she finds of a more violent time in scouring the corn fields for landmines. A pair of horrible boys appear to be bullying her as an orphan with an atypical family background, but Shaowu is unfazed until a nasty prank backfires and harms her only friend. In revenge, she dumps a pail of cow dung over the ringleader while he’s eating his lunch right in the middle of the classroom which would be funny if it weren’t that his dad’s a bigwig with political clout. Reluctant as she is, grandma calls Keigo to help her negotiate with the school, but it ends with a “recommendation” that it might be better Shaowu continue her education in the capital. 

Which is all to say, that father and daughter have quite a lot in common. Shaowu becomes fascinated with the gangster life, acting out scenes from movies with an umbrella only to be stunned when she tries the same thing after finding one of Keigo’s guns and it turns out to be loaded. She finds herself sucked into his homosocial gangster world, dining with big boss Ting who remembers her from when she was a baby and has just returned from an extended stay in Thailand, and making friends with the daughter of another gangster, while Keigo ponders new routes forward as a responsible father trying to protect his daughter from the dangers of the circles in which he moves. 

Twin crises arrive when his underling Dreamer gets into a fight a powerful corrupt cop, Chang, while Boss Ting edges towards moving the gang into drugs which is something Keigo, a noble gangster, cannot condone especially after he finds some stuffed into a cigarette packet one of Shaowu’s new friends asked her to look after. He tries do his best as a modern dad, patiently reminding himself that his daughter’s not a little girl and refraining from laying down the law, but is frustrated by her fascination for everything he regards as a fall from grace in his life as a petty gangster. He wants to get out and dreams of opening a restaurant with his girlfriend but discovers that the gangster world may not be done with him yet. 

Father and daughter are, it seems, divided by an increasingly corrupted society where bent cops like Chang are no better than gangsters themselves while snotty kids know they can do as like they because they have powerful fathers and will never be expected to take responsibility for their actions. Little fish like Keigo don’t stand any kind of chance especially when they insist on swimming against the tide in adhering to the same kind of romanticised ideas of gangsterdom that Shaowu idolises from movies hopped up on jianghu idealism. Taipei or Kinmen, it doesn’t really matter. You’ll still find yourself squatting in the tall grass while others plot against you in the open. In her first narrative feature documentarian Chen Mei-Juin delights in capturing local character from the faded grandeur of traditional island life to the sleazy, neon-lit underbelly of the modern capital but never shies away from the ugliness which underpins it all and disrupts even the most essential of bonds.


The Gangster’s Daughter streams online for free in the US as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Mini-Focus: Taiwan Cinema Online on June 10.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Murmur of the Hearts (念念, Sylvia Chang, 2015)

A legacy of abandonment frustrates the futures of three orphaned adults in Sylvia Chang’s moving drama, Murmur of the Hearts (念念, Niàn Niàn). Marooned in their own small pools, they yearn for the freedom of oceans but find themselves unable to let go of past hurt to move into a more settled adulthood, eventually discovering that there is no peace without understanding or forgiveness and no path to freedom without learning to let go of the shore. 

The heroine, Mei (Isabella Leong), is an artist living in Taipei and apparently still consumed with rage and resentment towards her late mother. She is in a troubled relationship with a down on his luck boxer, Hsiang (Joseph Chang Hsiao-chuan), who has abandonment issues of his own that are compounded by toxic masculinity which leaves him feeling inadequate in failing to live up to the expectations of his long absent father. Mei’s long lost brother, Nan (Lawrence Ko), meanwhile is now a melancholy bachelor in his 30s who, unlike all the other young men, never swam far from home, working for a tourist information company on Green Island which, though once notorious as a penal colony housing political prisoners during the White Terror has now become a tourist hotspot thanks to its picturesque scenery. 

Like one whole cleaved in two youthful separation weighs heavily on each of the siblings who cannot but help feel the absence of the other. Their mother, Jen (Angelica Lee Sinje), trapped in the oppressive island society, was fond of telling them stories about a mermaid who escaped her palace home by swimming towards the light and the freedom of the ocean. She tells the children to be the “angels” rescuing the little fish trapped in rock pools by sending them “home” to the sea, and, it seems, eventually escaped herself taking Mei with her but leaving Nan behind. Neither sibling has been ever been able to fully forgive her, not Mei who lost both her family and her home in the city, or Nan who stayed behind with his authoritarian father wondering if his mother didn’t take him him because she loved his sister more. 

Mei, meanwhile feels rejected by her father after overhearing him on the phone saying he wanted nothing to do with either of them ever again. Idyllic as it is, the island wears its penal history heavily as a permanent symbol of the authoritarian past which is perhaps both why Mei has never returned, and why Nan has remained afraid to leave. Unable to make peace with the past they cannot move forward. Mei’s life has reached a crisis point in the advent of maternity. She is pregnant with Hsiang’s child but conflicted about motherhood in her unresolved resentment towards her mother while insecure in her relationship with the emotionally stunted Hsiang who, likewise, is terrified of the idea of fatherhood because of his filial insecurity. 

Only by facing the past can they begin to let it go. Chang shifts into the register of magical realism as a mysterious barman arrives to offer advice to each of the siblings, Nan indulging in an uncharacteristic drinking session while sheltering from a typhoon on the evening his father that his father dies and somehow slipping inside a memory to converse with the mother who was forced to leave him behind, coming to see the love in her abandonment. Jen told him that she wanted him to see the world, but he is reluctant even to go Taipei and afraid to seek out his sister. 

Jen’s battle was, it seems, to save her children from the oppressions of Green Island, to be their angel returning them to the great ocean she herself felt she’d been denied. She wanted her children to be “creative”, resisting her abusive, authoritarian husband and his fiercely conservative, patriarchal ideals but eventually left with no option other than to leave. Yet the children flounder, left without guidance or harbour. “I don’t know where my home is”, Mei laments, revealing that she only feels real and alive when angry. For all that, however, it’s Jen’s story that finally sets them free, showing them path away from the prison of the past and finally returning them to each other united by a shared sense of loss but unburdened by fear or resentment in a newfound serenity.


Murmur of the Hearts streams online for free in the US as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Mini-Focus: Taiwan Cinema Online on June 9.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Asian Pop-Up Cinema Announces Mini-Focus: Taiwan Cinema Online

Asian Pop-Up Cinema returns with another fantastic collection of movies streaming for free online while you do the responsible thing and stay at home as much as you are able. From June 5 to 12, you can catch a series of recent Taiwanese shorts and features available to stream in the US for a one-time viewing between 2pm and 10pm CDT on the named date only.

Friday June 5: Detention

Lonely high schooler Fang falls for guidance councillor Zhang who alone seems to understand her. She joins his secret study group to read banned books, but Zhang soon “disappears” while only Fang and another student seem to remember him in this gothic horror set during Taiwan’s repressive martial law period. Review.

Monday June 8: Shorts

  • Tea Land: undocumented workers from South East Asia form a small family while working on a mountainside tea plantation but their bond is disrupted when one is found dead.
  • Wild Tides: a boy who is disliked by everyone does his best to win approval.
  • Towards the Sun: Cannes selected short from 2017 in which two outcasts meet by chance and take a road trip through the Taiwanese countryside.

Tuesday June 9: Murmur of the Hearts

Sylvia Chang’s moving drama in which an artist separated from her brother in childhood struggles to resolve her lingering feelings of resentment towards her mother while trapped in a difficult relationship with a troubled boxer.

Wednesday June 10: The Gangster’s Daughter

Drama in which a young woman is sent to live with her gangster father in Taipei who tries his best to reform but is soon dragged back into the underworld in search of vengeance.

Thursday June 11: Who Killed Cock Robin?

Neo-noir thriller in which a reporter uncovers a series of mysteries after investigating a car accident he witnessed nine years previously.

Friday June 12: We Are Champions

Sporting drama in which two brothers find themselves on opposite sides as they try to seize their destinies on the basketball court. While one joins an elitist team in which nothing matters except winning, the other bonds with a fatherly coach who values compassion and solidarity.

Each of the movies is available to stream in the US on the named date only from 2pm to 10pm CDT and is free to view but registration is essential. After registering you will be emailed the link shortly before the viewing time and must activate it within the 8-hour window after which you will have 24 hours to finish watching the movie. You can find further information and registration links on Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s official website and you can also keep up with all the latest news by following them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.