A Confucian Confusion (獨立時代, Edward Yang, 1994)

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)

Increasing Echo (修行, Chienn Hsiang, 2021)

Marriage is a curse from which there is no cure in Chienn Hsiang’s horror-inflected pandemic-era social drama Increasing Echo (修行, xiūxíng). Though the English-language title may hint at the spiralling quality of the shared resentment between a husband and wife no longer, if they ever had been, happy with each other, the Chinese reflects on the heroine’s spiritual journey as she searches for a release from her internalised imprisonment but finds it increasingly difficult to “become a little bird and fly away”. 

Reuniting with Exit’s Chen Shiang-chyi, Chienn opens the film with a surreal scene of a collection of people dressed in white stumbling around zombie-like in a park while some kind of guru instructs them to listen to the voice inside which will guide them towards their own tree. One of the blindfolded devotees, Mrs Yan (Chen Shiang-chyi) eventually embraces a trunk but subsequently faints after a cicada lands on her arm. Encounters with the natural world will prove increasingly ominous, yet we can infer from Mrs Yan’s distress that even if she has managed to find her own tree or at least a solid trunk to hang on to it has not given her the sense of release that she is seeking. With her son about to be married, she finds herself trapped in a loveless relationship with her equally depressed husband Fu-sheng (Chen Yi-Wen) who sips from a hip flask all day at the office, ignores his wife’s calls, and sits in a depressing convenience store cafe every evening to delay having to go home. 

As we later discover the major source of discord between the pair is Fu-sheng’s infidelity, Mrs Yan having discovered his affair with his secretary, Ke-yun (Huang Rou-Ming), some years previously after hiring a private detective. Never really healed, the wound is reopened when Mrs Yan receives a surprise phone call from Ke-yun’s sister who is stuck abroad due to COVID-19 and wants Fu-Sheng to visit his former mistress who has been living in a nursing home for some years having sustained some kind of brain injury that has left her largely unable to communicate. Though originally outraged, Mrs Yan pays a visit to Ke-yun herself and then goads Fu-Sheng into accompanying her though whatever it was she intended the event only forces Fu-sheng into revolt taking off with the dog in tow leaving her all alone in the family home. 

For his part, Fu-sheng quite clearly identifies with the family dog, Terry, surreptitiously feeding him junk food in the park after being admonished for giving him salty table scraps. Where Mrs Yan would prefer to keep him safely at home, Fu-Sheng keeps letting Terry escape to wander freely with the result that he ends up with a canine venereal disease. The vet advises Mrs Yan have him neutered, but this is obviously something Fu-sheng can’t countenance himself feeling fairly emasculated and trapped within his marriage. In this the film perhaps leans uncomfortably leans into patriarchal social codes in implying that Mrs Yan is at fault for limiting her husband’s sexual freedom with even the private detective she hires to find him telling her that it’s good to let him stay out a little and that he’ll come home once he’s got bored and had enough which sounds like statement more applicable to a randy dog like Terry or a child who’s wandered off in a huff than a cheating husband indifferent to his wife’s feelings and willing to risk his relationship with his son by not showing up for any of the wedding prep. 

The implication that Mrs Yan has brought this on herself is further deepened by her gradually fracturing sense of reality born of the array of pills we see her taking each morning and her investment in a cult-like new age religious practice which is later betrayed when she returns to her spiritual home and discovers someone’s put it up for rent. Her world is full of eeriness and ominous symbols from the pigeons which seem to follow her around, to the ghostly corridors at the hospital to which Ke-yun has been consigned with Mrs Yan perhaps also harbouring a sense of guilt though each of them is themselves imprisoned if in an obviously different sense. In this age of social distancing, Mr and Mrs Yan appear to have had a lengthy head start, their alienation from each other later leading towards an act of violence which provides no sense of release only further constraint. Broken by the anxious knelling of Buddhist prayer bells, Increasing Echo hints at the radiating legacies of emotional betrayal but paints the marriage of Mr and Mrs Yan as a kind of maddening curse for which there is no cure only perpetual misery amid the impossibility of separation. 


Increasing Echo screens in Chicago April 9 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (不散, Tsai Ming-Liang, 2003)

Goodbye, Dragon Inn poster“So much of the past lingers in my heart” laments the melancholy song which closes Tsai Ming-Liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn, (不散, sǎn) “I’ll remember with longing forever”. What is cinema if not an expression of irresolvable nostalgia, a kind of visual hiraeth for something that probably never quite existed but is so painfully missed. Everything in here stayed the same, but everything outside changed and now the present seems to be literally raining in leaving the last few fugitives from reality lost in halls of memory like lonely ghosts trapped on the wrong side of the screen.

On the wrong side of the screen is where we find ourselves. We begin in darkness with the opening narration from King Hu’s 1967 wuxia masterpiece Dragon Inn before the curtain in front of us begins to flicker and reveal an entire theatre filled with people. We pull back, and eventually the people are gone leaving just a few desperate souls returning to watch this now classic picture on what could be its very last evening as this theatre – now so unsuitable for the modern cinema environment, will be closing “temporarily” as soon as the reels stop turning.

Truth be told, no one much is even very interested in the movie. Some have merely come in to shelter from the rain, but unfortunately for them not even here is safe thanks to a leaky roof. The dazzling labyrinths of the backstage environment seem to have been co-opted by the local cruising community, men brushing past each other looking for another like them but needing to be sure their desires will be returned. Meanwhile they gaze at each other in the dim half light of the cinema screen, aching with unspeakable longing.

Longing is also something on the mind of an older gentlemen, seemingly the only one actually watching the film, who turns out to be one of its actors shedding a silent, solitary tear for time passed. Running into a friend much like himself outside he laments that “No one comes to the movies anymore”. Everyone has forgotten them, turning them into ghosts of cinema, immortal but unremembered. They have, in a sense, been attending their own funeral, entombed inside a moribund building lit only by spectres of the past.

All this is, however, secondary to the backstage drama of the lonely box office cashier (Chen Shiang-chyi) and her inexpressible crush on the projectionist (Lee Kang-sheng) who never seems to be around when she needs him. Sadly cutting into a celebratory bun, she saves half of it for him – the least ambiguous expression of love which seems to be possible within this space. Slowly climbing the stairs with a lame leg, she gazes fondly at the screen while the heroine fearlessly dispatches a series of bad guys, but the light cast on her face seems only to emphasise her lack of courage before she sadly retreats back to the ticket booth where no customers require her services.

Meanwhile, in the auditorium, a young woman (Yang Kuei-mei) munches peanuts and throws her legs over the backs of the seats in front much to the chagrin of the confused tourist whose confusion seems only to deepen when the crushing noise stops and the woman disappears (unbeknownst to him she’s on a mission to retrieve a lost shoe, or perhaps has evaporated into thin air). The first words spoken, which occur at the 45 minute mark, are to state that this theatre is haunted. Departed spirits all, the lonely denizens are indeed haunting the room and themselves as they attempt to escape the relentless march of the modern world through self-internment in a damp and crumbling mausoleum of cinema.

A lament for a dying world stripped bare by the passage of time, Tsai’s exploration of urban loneliness is a nostalgic elegy for a simpler age, filled with unresolvable longing and the ironic misconnection of an individualised communal activity. Stillness and solitude define all for these lonely, disconnected souls chasing oblivion. The past can never return, nor can the missed opportunities and brief moments spent bathed in celluloid splendour, but then perhaps you wouldn’t want it to anyway because then you couldn’t miss it. “I’ll remember with longing forever” – romanticism at its finest, but it’s a trap that’s difficult to resist.


Goodbye, Dragon Inn screened at Tate Modern as part of the Taiwan Film Festival UK 2019 and The Deserted film series.

International trailer (dialogue free)

Liu Lian by Yao Lee – the poignant song playing over the end credits.

Taiwanese Cinema About to Hit the UK in a Big Way

exit 1This is kind of another link post, but bear with me! First up Ang Lee’s first three films finally became available on DVD in the UK. Cunningly titled The Ang Lee Trilogy, you can now feast your eyes on Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman for the first time. Feast is the right word too as all the movies feature food in a very prominent way so make sure you have the proper supplies arranged before you sit down to watch them. You can read my review of the trilogy over at UK Anime Network. They’re all great, but I particularly like The Wedding Banquet because it’s just so funny!

Here’s an awful old school trailer for The Wedding Banquet (the film is better than this, I promise).

OK, moving on you can also pick up the award winning debut from Chienn Hsiang EXIT on DVD and VOD courtesy of Facet Films. I reviewed the film when it played at the Glasgow Film Festival and you can read that at UK Anime Network too. I also had the opportunity to interview the film’s star Chen Shiang-Chyi while she’s over here shooting The Receptionist. Contrary to expectations, Chen Shiang-Chyi was actually very chatty and super nice so the only reason the interview seems a little short is because she gave very long and detailed answers! You can checkout the interview over at UK Anime Network.

Which brings me on to the upcoming Hou Hsiao-Hsien season at the BFI which begins tomorrow. Pretty much everyone is expecting his new movie The Assassin starring his regular muse Shu Qi to appear in the film festival (it would be really strange if it didn’t right?) and I for one am really looking forward to seeing it.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien will be appearing in conversation at the BFI on 14th September (tickets apparently still available) ahead of a screening of one of his greatest films, The Time to Live and the Time to Die. I was lucky enough to see this one during the BFI’s extended season of Chinese films last year and though it’s not always an easy watch, Hou’s biographical tale of mainland refugees and their Taiwanese offspring is nevertheless a moving and fairly universal coming of age tale.

I’d also recommend Dust in the Wind 

and A City of Sadness

but I just have to post this scene from Three Times again because I love it so much

They’re also showing Hou’s Ozu tribute and Japanese set Café Lumière starring Tadanobu Asano if that’s more your speed.

That’s a lot of Taiwanese cinema all of a sudden right? It’s a good thing though! If you still want more I’ll direct you to the films of Edward Yang as mentioned in Chen Shiang-Chyi’s interview:

Yi Yi: A One and a Two

No trailers for a Confucian Confusion or A Brighter Summer Day though – both are a little more difficult to get hold of but worth the effort. A Confucian Confusion has a great Rom-Com style ending (though not as good as Comrades: Almost a Love a Story which has the best ending of any film, ever, but I digress) and A Brighter Summer Day which is an epic at four hours long but a total heartbreaker.