Listen Before You Sing (聽見歌 再唱, Yang Chih-lin, 2021)

A remote mountain school facing closure pins its hopes on showcasing the singing ability of the local indigenous community in Yang Chih-lin’s gentle social drama Listen Before You Sing (聽見歌 再唱, Tīngjiàn Gē Zài Chàng). Set almost entirely within its mountain village, Yang’s cheerful tale is as much about embracing an indigenous identity as it is about the consequences of rural depopulation, economic inequality, and the importance of community while also prioritising the necessity of giving children the confidence of external approval as they learn to discover their own voices. 

There are however only about 50 children left in the small rural village inhabited by the Bunun indigenous community which is why the local school is under threat of closure even though the nearest alternative is over two hours away. The headmaster laments that the reason this school in particular will be merged with another is that they have “nothing special” to offer as reason to save it. Where other schools boast professional sports players among their alumni, the best they can do is that their volleyball team is considered above average for the area. Seeing as the indigenous community is famed for its beautiful polyphonic singing, someone suggests starting a choir hoping that they may be able to gain a reprieve if they demonstrate some kind of success on a national level. Luckily, they’ve just been sent a new substitute music teacher, Yunfan (Ella Chen Chia-hwa), who agrees to provide accompaniment but they also need a conductor and no one it seems is very keen to take on the role until PE teacher Bukut (Umin Boya) reveals an unexpected musical talent. 

Just arrived from the city for a new job at a school which may be about to close, Yunfan is less than impressed with the early preparations for the choir fearing first of all they don’t have enough kids and that there aren’t enough strong singers in the group. Bukut even ropes in his volleyball team to bulk out the numbers but tells them to remain quiet and just mime rather than actually sing lest they disrupt the harmony. The other problem they face is that each of these children has their own particular circumstances with many needing to return home after school either to help with farm work or to care for elderly relatives. Many of them are living either with grandparents or more or less alone while their parents are in the city for work. Of the ones that remain, the father of two boys from the volleyball team is unhappy with them participating in the choir in the first place, viewing it as a waste of time and possibly not as a suitable activity for his sons. 

Even so, the reason for their failure in an early concert is attributed to their attempt to conform to the standard singing style of the other schools rather than embracing the uniqueness of their traditional culture leaving them as the judge puts it failing to stand out from the city kids. Though the indigenous community maintains its traditions, many of the children do not really speak Bunun, communicating with each other in Mandarin if understanding when the elders talk to them in the indigenous language, and perhaps feel insecure in their cultural identity. Only by embracing their Bunun heritage does the choir start come together, reminded that it’s important sing with your ears, picking up the harmony from those around you rather than each singing independently as a collection of individuals. 

While Bukut deals with some personal trauma concerning his musical ability and a bullying teacher, and Yunfan does her best to integrate into the indigenous community which is extremely warm and welcoming eager to share their culture with her, they eventually learn to put themselves and their fears over their job insecurity to one side while doing their best to help the children shine as they learn to find their voices through reconnecting with their indigenous roots. The school may still have to close, there may be no real answer as to how to mitigate the effects of rural depopulation or as to how to preserve traditional culture in an increasingly capitalistic society, but rather than simply giving up the children learn to embrace and be proud of their difference while learning to sing in harmony as part of a community founded on love and mutual respect.

Listen Before You Sing screens in San Diego on Oct. 29 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

High Flash (引爆點, Chuang Ching-shen, 2018)

High Flash posterThe little guy is often at the mercy of big business, but the conspiracy runs still deeper in Chuang Ching-shen’s high stakes thriller High Flash (引爆點, Yǐnbàodiǎn). Set in the relatively unglamorous world of a small fishing village, High Flash begins with a mysterious death but quickly spirals outwards to ask questions about the connections between industrial conglomerates and the political establishment both local and national. Those who seem keenest to root out corruption may in fact be no less self serving than those who take advantage of it but perhaps there’s nowhere free of greed and selfishness when there are such gains to be made.

The action opens with a fierce protest by the local fishing community towards the large scale Tonglian petrochemical plant which they believe has been polluting their waters, ruining their health and livelihoods. While the newly elected mayor, Chen (Lan Wei-hua), is giving his best at the megaphone, a commotion breaks out when a burning boat collides with protestors and is later found to be harbouring the body of one Ah-hai (Bokeh Kosang / Hsu Yi-Fan) who is assumed to have committed self immolation in protest of the plant’s continued intransigence.

Earnest medical examiner Chou (Chris Wu Kang-Ren) isn’t sure that’s the case. His evidence suggests Ah-hai, who was already terminally ill with liver cancer, did not die of burns or smoke inhalation while his kidneys also exhibited strange florescent spots later identified as copper sulphate. Chou’s findings are music to the ears of jaded prosecutor Jin (Yao Ti-Yi), who also happens to be Chou’s former fiancée. She too is convinced there’s more to this than the elaborate suicide of a man whose life had been ruined by the heartlessness of big business.

Chuang quickly sets up the expected contrast between the scientifically minded Chou who claims to assess only hard evidence without emotional baggage, and the passionate Jin who is desperate to expose the truth at any cost though the romantic drama between the pair never quite ignites even as the past continues to inform their present relationship and the case at hand. Despite his insistence on hyper-rationality, Chou is not is a cold or unfeeling man as he proves by tenderly introducing himself to Ah-hai’s body and asking for his cooperation in investigating why he died, but his rigidity is perhaps to have unexpected consequences despite his best intentions which see him taking a special interest in Ah-hai’s unfortunate wife and son.

Ah-hai’s illness and that of his little boy who is suffering from a brain tumour are not explicitly linked to the illicit activities of Tonglian but the implication is clear. Industrial pollutants have destroyed not only the local fishing industry but with it a community which is now suffering with a large number of serious and unexplained illnesses. Tonglian, as might be assumed, is not particularly bothered, assuming it can rely on friends in high places and a complex web of thuggery and corruption to deal with any more serious opposition. Meanwhile, Ah-hai’s death is already being repurposed for political gain. The village regards him as a hero and a martyr who sacrificed himself in the most painful of ways in order to bring attention to their plight and the evils of Tonglian. None of which, however, is much use to his wife and son who are now unable to claim on his life insurance and are left without an income.

Vested interests exist on both sides – those keen to uphold Ah-hai as a hero and a martyr at the cost of his wife and son, and those keen to minimise the effects of his death in ensuring Tonglian is able to go on doing its (extremely dodgy) business with the same bottom line. While top execs boast about making a killing on the fluctuating company stocks and spending it on yachts, horses, and vintage wine, Ah-hai’s wife and son are left at the mercy of prevailing forces and fearful for their futures. The village might well feel that seeing as Ah-hai is dead anyway making a martyr of him whether he was one or not might be worth it if it helps expose Tonglian’s various transgressions but then again they may have overestimated the extent to which anyone really cares about big business corruption and the complicity of the state.

Nevertheless, in true conspiracy thriller fashion getting too close to the truth can prove dangerous and Chuang perhaps missteps in the case of whom he allows to pay the price, but his anti-corruption messages and warning about the cynical hypocrisy of big business eager to claim it cares about the little guy and his environment are sadly universal, as are his world weary implications regarding the eventual corruption and diminishing efficacy of longterm protests.

High Flash screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on March 28, 7pm at AMC River East 21 where director Chuang Ching-shen & actor Chen Chia-kuei will be present for a Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)