The Great Buddha+ (大佛普拉斯, Huang Hsin-yao, 2017)

Great Buddha + posterFor some, the good life always seems a little out of reach, as if they showed up late to the great buffet of life and now all that’s left is a few soggy pastries and the salad someone’s aunt brings every year that no one really likes. Still, even if you know this is all there is, it doesn’t have to be so bad so long as you have good friends and something to do every day. The “heroes” of documentarian Huang Hsin-yao’s fiction feature debut The Great Buddha+ (大佛普拉斯, Dà fó pǔ lā sī) are exactly this sort – men in late middle age who’ve never quite grown up but have eased into a perpetual boyhood safe in the knowledge that there’s nowhere left for them to grow up to.

“Pickle” (Cres Chuang) is something of a holy fool. His major preoccupation in life is his elderly mother whose increasing medical bills he is continually worrying about paying. He’s taken to banging a drum in a local marching band with a big line in funerals for extra money at which he is terrible but seeing as there’s no one else his job is probably safe for the minute. His “occupation” is nightwatchman at a factory owned by “Kevin” (Leon Dai) – a renowned sculptor working on a giant Buddha statue. Nothing ever happens at the factory at night so no one is very bothered what Pickle does there, which is mostly being “entertained” by his “best friend” Belly Button (Bamboo Chen). Belly Button doesn’t really have a job but earns money through collecting recyclables and selling them on. Looking for a new source of vicarious fun, Belly Button talks Pickle into stealing the SD card from the dash cam on Kevin’s fancy car so they can enjoy riding along with him in their very own private sim. This turns out to be more fun than expected because Kevin is also a womaniser with a thing for car sex even if the cam only captures the audio of his exploits. Nevertheless, the guys inevitably end up seeing something they shouldn’t.

Huang shoots in black and white but switches to vibrant colour for the dash cam footage, somehow implying that nothing is quite so real to guys like Pickle and Belly Button as a fantasy vision of someone else’s glamorous life. After all, if it’s not online it didn’t really happen. Trapped in the gutter of small town life, both men have either failed to move on from or wilfully regressed into a perpetual adolescence in which they waste their days idly on pointless pursuits – leafing through ancient porn mags, gossiping, and eating half frozen curries from half-filled Tupperware boxes. A mild mannered man, Pickle is so innocent that he never quite understands Belly Button’s lewd jokes while Belly Button, who is picked on and belittled by everyone else in town, takes delight in being able to boss him around.

Together the pair of them can only marvel at a man like Kevin with his wealth and talent which allows him to gain the thing they want the most – female company. Kevin, however, is not quite as marvellous as they might assume him to be even if they remain in awe of his caddish treatment of women while perhaps feeling sorry for those unfortunate enough to fall in love with him. In tight with the local bigwigs, Kevin is simply one link in a long chain of bureaucratic corruption in which business is done in the bathhouse surrounded by floozies. Kevin never explicitly lets on whether he knows that Pickle and Belly Button have stumbled on his secret, but their lives begin to change all the same. Their easy nights in the security cabin have gone for good and they feel themselves under threat in a chilling reminder of how easily a little guy can disappear or fall victim to an accident after asking too many questions about a vain and powerful man with money.

Meanwhile, Pickle is left worrying what’ll happen to his mum if he falls out with Kevin. Even if he wanted to speak out about a great injustice, he’d be putting his mother in the firing line. Then again, after a brief visit to Belly Button’s home in which he cocoons himself inside a mini UFO filled with the prizes he’s won from UFO grabber games (he says it’s like “therapy”), Pickle is forced to wonder how well he even knew him – his only friend. As Huang puts it in his melancholy voice over, we might have put men on the moon, but we’ll never be able to explore the universe of other peoples’ hearts.

Huang’s deadpan commentary is among the film’s strongest assets with its New Wave associations and determination to wring wry humour out of the increasingly hopeless world inhabited by Pickle, Belly Button, and their similarly disenfranchised friends. Filled with meta humour and a deep sadness masked by resignation to the futility of life, The Great Buddha+ is a beautifully lensed lament for the little guy just trying to survive in a land of hollow Buddhas and venial charlatans.


Screened as part of the 2018 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

All Because of Love (痴情男子漢, Lien Yi-Chi, 2017)

All Because of Love PosterGrowing up is hard is to do – that is, unless you’re the hero of a teen movie, in which case growing up is merely “difficult” and everything is sure to be alright once the bullies have been vanquished and the last dance danced. Designed to appeal to its target audience, the world of the teen movie is usually black and white, free from the chaos and confusion which most experience during adolescence. All Because of Love (痴情男子漢, Cqíng Nánhàn) is, however, refreshingly honest in its fierce love of a messy situation, forcing its hero into a series of “difficult” circumstances while he plays the noble fool holding fast to an obviously unrequited love in the hope that his niceness will somehow capture his true love’s heart.

When we first meet Erkan (Kent Tsai), he’s a nerd and the member of an oppressed minority at his school, constantly targeted by the tough guys. He is hopelessly in love with popular girl Mandy (Gingle Wang), who is actually dating one of the bullies and doesn’t even really know who Erkan is. Despite his declaration to love her for a thousand years, Erkan’s attempts to woo Mandy end in spectacular and humiliating failure but still he does not give up. Shortly after graduating high school, Mandy abruptly rings him for “a date”. Erkan, still smitten, is excited but Mandy has an ulterior motive – she is pregnant with her jock boyfriend’s child and, abandoned by her own one true love, reckons Erkan might like to try out life as a baby daddy. She is correct in her assumption and Erkan would be buying a ring if he had any money but as it is they’ll have to make do with the gentle guidance of Erkan’s elopement expert grandad (Hsu Hsiao-shun) who takes them back to his seaside home town where they can hide out from Mandy’s overbearing (and very wealthy) family.

As the title implies, the rest of the film becomes a treatise on love – requited or not, familial and romantic, permitted or illicit. Erkan is thrilled, on one level, to have got it together with Mandy but on the other hand Mandy won’t let him near her and it’s clear she is only using him and taking advantage of his noble character to get her out of a fix. Meanwhile, staying at inn, Erkan gets to know another girl, Sing (Dara Hanfman), who is in a permanently gloomy mood thanks to her devastating ability to read minds, and hasn’t left her room in years. Sing, thanks to her ability, has fallen half in love with Erkan’s goofy goodheartedness but also knows he’s still hung up on Mandy, and that Mandy is still hung up on her ex-boyfriend. She is then in a difficult position but manages to strike up enough of a friendship with the lovelorn young man to spur her on to exploring the outside world once again.

Meanwhile, Erkan is also confronted by the eerie similarities between his present predicament and the circumstances of his birth. Having always lived with his granddad, Erkan assumed his parents had passed on but discovers there may be more to the story only he’ll have to go to Japan to find out. Erkan’s granddad kicked off the cycle by eloping with Erkan’s grandmother, leaving their hometown far behind to live a life of love far away, though his son and grandson do not seem to have had so much luck when it comes to romance and Erkan’s romantic answers perhaps lie in exploring his family history rather than re-examining his high school days and refusing to let go of his idealised teenage crush.

A heart to heart with Sing provokes a more grown up meditation of unrequited love even if Erkan is entirely oblivious to Sing’s delicately concealed feelings. Purehearted, Erkan insists that love does not need to be requited, merely loving without being loved is good enough for him (so he says, or perhaps he just doesn’t expect anything more). Sing tells him he’s wrong, that it takes two to love and that a one sided affection is nothing more than intense loneliness. Erkan agrees, missing Sing’s hidden meaning, but maturely admitting that it would be wrong to hold someone’s hand just because you’re lonely when your heart is elsewhere.

Erkan’s idealised love for Mandy is gradually revealed as an adolescent affectation while she is left battling various kinds of familial expectation and manipulation before discovering her former boyfriend is not perhaps the heel that everyone had assumed him to be. Meanwhile, Sing is doing something similar in trying to lay to rest the ghost of a friend who left long ago and Erkan is left trying to reclaim his identity though figuring out who he really is before learning to look at what’s right in front of him rather than indulging in a romantic fantasy. Lien Yi-chi sends Erkan on some very bizarre adventures, swapping genres at a moment’s notice from westerns to classic melodrama and musicals and then settling on something in the middle which feels oddly authentic and lived in despite its strangeness. Often absurd if not quite surreal, Lien’s warmhearted silliness is almost impossible to resist as is the cheerful innocence of the effortlessly romantic conclusion.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Alifu, the Prince/ss (阿莉芙, Wang Yu-lin, 2017)

Alifu posterAmong Asian nations, Taiwan has a reputation for being liberal and permissive but if you’re a minority within a minority life is far from easy even if you manage to find support from others in a similar position. So it is for Alifu (Utjung Tjakivalid) – the conflicted soul at the centre of Wang Yu-lin’s nuanced depiction of the road towards self acceptance and actualisation in the face of competing duties and obligations, Alifu, the Prince/ss (阿莉芙, Ālìfú). While Alifu struggles with the demands of being the heir to the Chieftainship of an indigenous tribe with all the rights and obligations that entails, her lesbian roommate struggles with a bad breakup and growing feelings for her transitioning best friend, a drag queen is conflicted about his sexuality, and a transgender bar owner worries for the future of those close to her after she is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Despite the multitude of difficult circumstances, each attempts to deal with their problems in a mature and rational fashion finding love and mutual support from their friends and community even if others sometimes require a little more time.

Alifu, born the son of a tribal chief, identifies as a woman and has been working in a hairdressers in the city to save up for gender reassignment surgery. Her plans for the future are thrown into disarray when she is abruptly called home, walking into a family meeting during which her father (Ara Kimbo) suddenly announces that he is stepping down because of poor health and that his son will be taking over. Though it is possible for a woman to succeed as chief, Alifu has not disclosed her intentions to transition to her traditionally minded father who wears a prominent wooden cross around his neck and does not seem to be particularly understanding of his child’s feelings or emotions, caring only for his appearance in the eyes of the tribe.

Alifu’s transition is subtly revealed in the lengthy opening in which she slowly sheds her “masculine” appearance by discarding her baseball cap, rearranging her hair and stepping into the ladies loos where she puts on colourful lipstick and hoop earrings before making her way to the hairdressers where she earns her living. Meanwhile, her lesbian roommate Pei-Zhen (Chao Yi-Lan) thinks nothing of leaving the house dressed in a way which best makes her feel comfortable only to cause a mini ruckus in the salon when her ex gives her the side-eye for openly flirting with another client apparently after “something special”. After hours, Alifu picks up extra money by doing hair and makeup for the drag acts at a local gay bar where she has also drawn close to the owner, Sherry (Bamboo Chen), who is in a long-term though apparently non-sexual relationship with a former gangster (Wu Pong-fong).

Alifu soon develops a liking for a new drag act at the bar, describing him as somehow “not like the others”. Chris (Cheng Jen-shuo), a local government worker, is a mild mannered sort apparently happily married to a piano teacher (Angie Wang) and living a conventional middle-class life, except that he likes to stay out late on Fridays performing at Sherry’s drag bar. Though it would be a mistake to assume Chris is gay just because he enjoys drag, his “secret life” eventually places a wedge between himself and his wife who is hurt to find out about his alter-ego through a third party. Chris’ wife doesn’t necessarily disapprove of his drag career but is disturbed to discover such a big secret in her married life and, understandably, has a lot of questions about the status of their relationship – something Chris isn’t keen on talking about leading to his wife finally throwing him out. Struggling to reconcile his drag persona with his need for a conventional life, Chris finds himself exiled and unable to integrate himself fully as whole person, torn between his conflicting desires. 

Meanwhile, Alifu’s ever supportive best friend Pei-Zhen has begun to develop feelings for her roommate despite the fact that Alifu has no interest in women and Pei-Zhen is a lesbian with no previous interest in male genitals. Seducing her, Pei-Zhen reassures Alifu that male or female she will always love her – something which becomes a minor theme in arguing for fluidity and self identification over culturally defined notions of gender, echoed in the relationship of Sherry and her partner which seems to be deep and loving but also celibate. Perhaps overly convenient, the union of Alifu and Pei-Zhen does at least provide an opportunity to experience the best of both worlds in allowing Alifu to fulfil her obligations to her tribe while also living an authentic life as a transgender woman.

Warm and filled with a particularly Taiwanese brand of humour, Alifu is a sympathetic exploration of life on the margins, both from the perspectives of the LGBT community and that of the indigenous peoples attempting to preserve their traditional culture whilst acknowledging their place in the modern world. Arriving at an important moment, Wang Yu-lin’s empathetic drama is a celebration of love and equality but most of all of the power of self-acceptance and actualisation in bringing about real social change.


Screened as part of the Chinese Visual Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Village of No Return (健忘村, Chen Yu-hsun, 2017)

健忘村_畫報風篇_RED_OK_VWouldn’t it be wonderful to just forget all the terrible/embarrassing things that have ever happened to you and live in a paradise of blissful ignorance? To put it bluntly, this is an experiment with historical precedent and one which has never yet worked out for the best. Absurd Taiwanese comedy Village of No Return (健忘村, Jiànwàng Cūn) is both a raucous life in the village comedy and subtle satire on the roots of tyranny, cults of personality, fake news and the evils of the art of forgetting that ultimately turns into a defence of the benevolent dictator.

Somewhere around 1914, the early years of the Chinese Republic, an ambitious warlord (Eric Tsang) has his sights set on capturing Desire Village which, he has been assured by a fortune teller, contains numerous treasures and will make him a king. Unfortunately, his village mole is the unscrupulous Big Pie (Ban Zan) who treks home with carrier pigeons he’s supposed to send back with the message “wait”, “come”, or “don’t come” only Big Pie can’t read. None of that really matters in the end because Big Pie is shortly to die in mysterious circumstances just as a mysterious monk, Fortune Tien (Wang Qianyuan), rocks up with a strange “Worry Ridder” device he claims can permanently ease anxieties.

The main drama revolves around melancholy village girl, Autumn (Shu Qi), who was married off to the ugly and abusive Big Pie against her will. Still pining for the son of the village leader, Dean (Tony Yang), who went off to become an official but has become displaced during the Revolution, Autumn has spent her life literally shackled to the stove and has begun to dwell on death as an antidote to the hopelessness of realising Dean is probably not coming back. Autumn is, however, the last to hold out against the lure of the Worry Ridder, reluctant to give up the memory of Dean no matter how painful it may continue to be.

Fortune Tien is nothing if not persuasive. Little by little he sells the virtues of his machine and quickly has the villagers eating out of his hand. Before long he’s erased the memories of life before he came and installed himself as village chief, presiding over a collection of beatific zombies content to do the literal spade work while Fortune Tien reigns supreme with an easy answer for everything. The parallels are obvious, even if Tien’s case is more extreme. History is rewritten, anyone who remembers differently has a faulty memory or is, perhaps, mad. Only Tien can be relied upon to arbitrate the truth of his false revolution.

The Worry Ridder itself is a fabulously designed piece of anachronistic technology, displaying memories like silent movies with scratchy sound and operated by a modern user interface complete with kitschy animation. Its evils can only be undone with the long lost “Soul Restorer” and its overuse seems to lead to an advanced senility. Though it does indeed erase memories and offer a kind of drugged up serenity, the machine cannot undo the underlying emotions and so those lingering feelings of love or attraction, misplaced or otherwise, remain even without the reasons for their existence. Love is the force which saves the day as Autumn, temporarily saved from her hellish life as the wife of Big Pie after becoming the “First Flower” of Tien’s dictatorial regime, continues to dream of her former love leading her to question Tien’s all powerful grip on the accepted truth.   

Meanwhile outside the village other threats are looming. Prior to their own revolution, the villagers had been excited to learn of the coming railways, mistakenly believing that randomly building an unconnected station (which is like a farm for trains!) would make them rich. The nefarious gangster quickly gets forgotten but he seems evil enough seeing as he’s flying kites made out the skins of his murder victims, though his biggest allies – the Cloud Clan, are led by a portly postmistress (Lin Mei-hsiu) to whom he presents an “iron horse” (i.e. a bicycle) which proves a surprisingly difficult challenge for her to master. The Cloud Clan’s main weapon is their sweet sound, beatboxing a background melody for the surprisingly beautiful voice of the postmistress often heard just before she whips out her giant machete and dispatches her foes with ruthless efficiency. An absurd satire on the ease with which tyranny makes use of human failings, Village of no Return ultimately wonders if blissful mindlessness is really all that bad if all your needs are met and you can count yourself “safe” and “happy”. A good question at the best of times, but one that seems oddly urgent.


Currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video in UK & US.

International trailer (Mandarin with English subtitles)