Days Before the Millennium (徘徊年代, Chang Teng-Yuan, 2021)

Perhaps deceptively titled, Chang Teng-Yuan’s bifurcated epic traverses the millennial divide in the company of two Vietnamese women each with very different stories but eventually agreeing “your generation or mine things were not easy for us” as they share their stories of migration amid the changing fortunes of Taiwan-Vietnam relations. Beginning in the mid-90s, Days Before the Millennium (徘徊年代, Páihuái Niándài) finds a mail order bride dreaming of a better life on an “island of riches” but soon finding herself trapped by an overbearing mother-in-law and violent husband, while another woman two decades later arrives happily married for love and well educated but often frustrated in her attempts to help those like herself struggling to adapt to a changing society. 

As Tue (Annie Nguyen) puts it, she exchanged her youth for a future of hope in Taiwan escaping a childhood of war for a more peaceful existence abroad. At the time she arrives, however, Taiwan is not so peaceful as relations with Mainland China continue to decline with many fearing military escalation. Meanwhile, the “mysterious man” to whom she was to be married, is a sullen construction worker filled with a sense of impossibility. Ming (Chiang Chang-Hui) patiently lays one brick on top of another attempting to build his home but finds himself under the watchful eyes of a couple of “surveyors” with eyes on his land. Alone in their van, the two men often debate the modern society the one decrying increasing globalisation while looking down on women like Tue complaining that half the town is now Vietnamese, “polluted”, as if they think they’re losing something even as they attempt to snatch Ming’s land out from under him to build, one assumes, some of the half-completed apartment blocks “private investigator” Lan (Nguyen Thu Hang) drives past 20 years later. 

Tue’s attempts to reclaim some of her agency through opening a small business selling street food only further irritate the already frustrated Ming whose internalised rage eventually turns violent while his mother (Chen Shu-fang) looks on saying nothing, later berating Tue for not having fulfilled the role for which she was desired pointing suggestively at an empty crib which seems to have been in the corner ever since she came. It’s at this point that her marginalisation intersects with that of women born on the island as her Vietnamese friend attempts to get her help by talking to the local police in the light of new legislation recently passed against domestic violence. Though the officer is sympathetic he can do little for her seeing as she has no material evidence while Tue blames herself and is otherwise trapped knowing that leaving her husband before completing her period of residency means potential deportation. Later doing just that she finds solidarity first at a buddhist temple and then a woman’s refuge, but even that is later disrupted by natural disaster.  

Tue’s story becomes a source of inspiration 20 years later for recent immigrant Lan, Chang transitioning to the post-millennial city during a storm which seems to narrow the screen now in a boxy 4:3 rather than the strangely oppressive widescreen with which the film opened. Unlike Tue, Lan has a degree in Chinese and an extensive resume having apparently met and married her Taiwanese husband in Vietnam. She applied for a position at a detective agency, the same agency which once offered to “help” Tue “fight for her rights” but didn’t really want to rent her an apartment, because she wants to help other women like herself in inter-cultural marriages find better solutions to domestic friction but finds her goals at odds with those of her capitalistic boss. Perhaps for these reasons, her first job does not go to plan as she accompanies a Vietnamese mail order bride on a mission to spy on the husband she suspects of having an affair, failing to stop her confronting him after discovering that he is a closeted homosexual who married her to please his parents but now feels guilty and conflicted in his treatment of her. 

This is of course another marginalisation, but one that Lan is ill-equipped to process while the woman she hoped to help is, as Tue once was, faced only with her broken dreams for better life in Taiwan. The Vietnamese news remarks on Taiwan’s geopolitical positioning as a delegation is awkwardly asked to leave an international conference because of Mainland pressure, while it also seems that a Taiwanese factory is responsible for a toxic waste spill that has damaged local fishing stocks and caused widespread illness in Vietnam. When Lan and Tue eventually meet they talk of the changing fortunes of their nations, Lan explaining that the port town where she’s from is now a bustling big city, the Vietnamese economy now much improved while Taiwan’s is falling behind. 20 years between them their fortunes are entirely different, even so they each agree things have not always been easy if differing ways. Nevertheless, their mutual sense of solidarity and desire to improve the circumstances of those like them offers a ray of hope in what might otherwise seem a difficult and hopeless future, Chang’s sometimes experimental, etherial tale of historical echoes and awkward symmetry finally allowing each of its heroines the sense of the better future of which they once dreamed. 


Days Before the Millennium screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (dialogue free)

Taipei Story (青梅竹馬, Edward Yang, 1985)

“Just a fleeting hope. The illusion that you can start over” the hero of Edward Yang’s melancholy drama of the costs of modernity, Taipei Story (青梅竹馬, Qīngméizhúmǎ), eventually laments. Yang apparently chose the English title himself in a deliberate echo of Yasujiro Ozu’s equally pessimistic drama, yet the original title literally translated as “childhood sweethearts” also has its poignancy in hinting at the loss of innocence and hopeless impossibility of the fracturing love between its twin protagonists. 

Yang begins and ends in an empty room, for an empty room is always a possibility. As the film opens, high-flying career woman Chin (Tsai Chin) is buying her own apartment, already envisioning her life there in pointing out to her boyfriend Lung (Hou Hsiao-hsien) where they’ll put the TV and VCR so they can watch movies in bed hinting at a new level of consumerist success. More practically minded, he points out that the place needs a little work but Chin is confident she can manage it, saving up and paying in instalments having no immediate anxiety about her income. 

Yet Yang seems to suggest that this burgeoning economic powerhouse is built on shaky ground. The construction firm at which Chin works has recently been hit with a potential lawsuit about a lethal building error, while Chin’s mentor has already moved on and the firm has been bought up by another company presumably intent on some shady business of its own. This Chin discovers to her cost on hearing the not entirely unexpected news that the new bosses don’t understand her job title and want to demote her to the role of secretary which, she suspects, is just a way of pushing her to resign (which she then does). 

Shoddy business practices are also it seems responsible for her father’s present moment of financial insecurity though he only further alienates his daughter by talking entirely with Lung when the pair come to visit stopping only to ask awkward questions about marriage and children. Later we realise that part of Chin’s resentment towards her father is due to a long history of domestic abuse, her mother later crying silently prompting Chin to withdraw some of her savings something she would not have done had her father asked it. Yet Lung, old-fashioned in many ways and not least in his filiality, feels duty bound to help his not-quite father-in-law provoking a row between the pair when he gives him money he’d saved in the forlorn hope of going into business with his brother-in-law in America. 

Once childhood friends and now seeking a new start, the couple begin to dream of a new life though as Lung later says, America, like marriage, is not a panacea. Chin is in a sense torn between past and future neither of which have much possibility, in a committed relationship with Lung yet jealous over his past with a mutual childhood friend, and also carrying on an affair with an unhappily married man at work. A high-flying executive and independent career woman, she is determined to keep moving forward while Lung is stuck in the past hung up on baseball glory and morally righteous to a fault, helping out Chin’s feckless father while knowing it will do no good while his attempt to help a friend sort out his complicated family life leads only to tragedy. It’s obvious that he does not fit in with Chin’s yuppie friends, one particularly obnoxious male colleague describing him as having the face of a yam farmer and needling him to the point that it eventually leads to an altercation in a karaoke bar. Chin doesn’t seem particularly upset about the fight, comforting Lung as he confesses that he ends up in fights in order to stick up for himself or else because of his love of justice, but continues hanging out with her unpleasant friend for otherwise unclear reasons. 

But it’s less a love of justice than frustrated masculinity that eventually seals Lung’s fate, unwisely picking a fight with a young tough not so much in order to protect Chin as to preserve his own sense of wounded male pride. Realising the futility of his situation, he is unable to move forward into the new society, whereas Chin eventually finds herself substituting his role as her former mentor shows her around a potential new office space just as she had him her apartment envisioning how they will exist within it, where their offices will be along with the state of the art computer room. “It’s actually nice here,” she assures her, “now we have a big American company right in our hometown. Why go abroad?”. Yet Chin perhaps remembers her dejected colleague lamenting that all the new buildings look the same and he can’t even remember which ones he worked on so anonymous has the landscape become. In this Taipei story, the city is devoid of life or character a highly corporatised arena of increasingly dehumanising capitalism where everyone dreams of escape abroad to America or Japan, yet all Chin can do lowering her sunshades is to gaze from the window of her new office onto the lonely streets below and ask herself where it is she thinks she’s going. 


Taipei Story streamed as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Dear Tenant (親愛的房客, Cheng Yu-Chieh, 2020)

Taiwan introduced marriage equality in 2019 and is often regarded as the most liberal of Asian nations but that does not necessarily mean that it’s free of prejudice or homophobia whether internalised or otherwise. Cheng Yu-Chieh’s melancholy family drama Dear Tenant (親愛的房客, Qīn’ài de Fángkè) begins in fog, mirroring it seems the hero’s sense of numb confusion consumed as he is with guilt and grief but also perhaps reflecting the miasma of his life in which he is forced to remain silent, prevented from fully expressing himself by a persistent sense of shame and anxiety. 

Chien-yi (Mo Tzu-yi) has been caring for his mother-in-law Mrs. Chou (Chen Shu-fang) and Yo-yu (Bai Run-yin), the son of his late partner Li-wei (Yao Chun-yao), for the past five years, but is described by them merely as a “tenant”, a lodger occupying the upstairs annex not really part of the family. His liminal status is fully brought home during the New Year dinner which he cooks and serves but, as Li-Wei’s brother Li-gang (Jay Shih) has decided to make a rare visit home from an extended stay in China, later excuses himself from as if he were the help not entitled to sit at the family table. Mrs. Chou, meanwhile, grumpily invites him to stay low-key resentful of Li-gang suspecting he’s only come to ask for more money, suspicions which are deepened after he starts talking about retirement apartments. When Mrs. Chou passes away suddenly a few months later Li-gang returns again and is both annoyed to learn that Chien-yi has already adopted Yo-yu and distressed to realise that his mother put the house in Yo-yu’s name which means he’s not getting the inheritance he assumed would be his. Consequently, he accuses Chien-yi of killing his mother to get his hands on the house, a series of events complicated by the autopsy report which suggests Mrs Chou’s death may have been hastened by over medication. 

A shy and reticent man, Chien-yi perhaps has reasons for his silence and his reluctance to speak openly with the police, who are needlessly aggressive and belligerent in their treatment of him, is easily understandable. Questioned by the relatively sympathetic prosecutor he is pressed about his “relationship” with the family and remains somewhat coy, later explaining that Mrs Chou had asked him not to tell Yo-yu that he and his father were lovers continuing to refer to him only as her “tenant” even as he took care of the household. The prosecutor asks him why he didn’t leave after his lover died, a question Chien-yi rightly feels to be absurd asking her if she’d ask the same question of a woman who stayed to look after her husband’s family after her husband died. Of course she wouldn’t, it would be ridiculous and insensitive.

It’s impossible to escape the sense that Chien-yi falls under greater suspicion solely because of his sexuality, the lead police officer quite clearly getting a bee in his bonnet about this particular case. They find him evasive and uncooperative, insensitive to the reasons he may have not to trust them that are later justified by their treatment of him as they again make moral judgements about his use of a dating app they likely would not make if he were picking up women though they might perhaps make of a woman in the same situation. Incongruously hanging out in a gay bar they hassle a former hookup who happens to be a drug user, blackmailing him into incriminating Chien-yi while Li-gang has Yo-yu taken to a psychiatrist in the suggestion that he may have been abused, explaining that he doesn’t want him raised in an “abnormal” environment. Chien-yi finds himself in handcuffs less for the alleged crime than for being a “suspicious” person who must surely be guilty of something even if it’s only his existence. 

It doesn’t seem to matter that Chien-yi tenderly cared for Mrs Chou even while she rejected him, angrily sniping that no matter how good he is to her it won’t bring her son back, or that he’s the only father the nine-year-old Yo-yu has ever really known having lost Li-wei when he was only four, he is condemned for his silence and his “secrets” ostracised by the previously warm parents at the piano school where he teaches after being outed by the insensitive police investigation. Consumed by grief and guilt he does his best to care for Li-wei’s family in his place, but is continually othered by a society which recognises him only as a “tenant” denying him his rightful place as bereaved spouse and step-father. As the melancholy ending perhaps implies, justice and equality are still very much works in progress even a rapidly liberalising society. 


Dear Tenant streams California until May 2 as part of San Diego Asian Film Festival’s Spring Showcase.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Wild Sparrow (野雀之詩, Shih Li, 2019)

“Sparrows are wild birds so they keep hitting against the cage” the introspective hero of Shih Li’s Wild Sparrow (野雀之詩, Yě Què Zhī Shī) is told while perhaps witnessing the same effect in his own life as his flighty mother tries but repeatedly fails to break free of the various forces which constrain her. Young Han’s mother is, in some ways, an embodiment of a destructive modernity, wandering into his rural paradise and then eventually dragging him away from it towards the dubious promise of the city where birds meant to fly free flutter against the bars but rarely find escape. 

Han (Kao Yu-hsia) has been living with his great-grandmother deep in the Taiwanese mountains, but as much as she loves him she’s getting old and, owing to rural depopulation, the local school is set to close the following term so all things considered it’s best if he goes to live with his mother, Li (Lee Yi-chieh), in the city. Questioned by the neighbourhood ladies, however, Han doesn’t want to go. After all, he doesn’t really know his mother all that well. She rarely visits, and in any case she doesn’t seem terribly keen to have him. While out walking one day he hears the frantic squawking of birds caught in a net, taken away by a mysterious man. Finding a sparrow injured on the ground he takes it home and attempts to nurse it back to health, but shortly after his mother’s visit the bird passes away. He takes it into the forest in a shoebox and builds it a cairn, gazing at the birds flying free above the canopy.  

Han asks his great-grandmother why someone would capture wild birds, but she simply tells him not to. The birds are the guards of the gods of the land, sent out to hunt demons that force people to eat dirt, she explains. At the marketplace where his great-grandmother sells her bamboo, Han comes across a man selling caged birds for the purpose of being set free as part of a Buddhist ritual, Han’s face contorting in confusion as he ponders the irony. In the city all he ever sees are birds in cages, much as he perhaps feels himself to be taken out of his natural environment and imprisoned in the urban landscape where his mother alternates between neediness and resentment, so obviously ill-equipped to care for a soon-to-be teenage son while continually conflicted in the contradictions of her life. 

When Han first arrrives, Li makes a point of introducing him to her current boyfriend, Kun, wealthy and much older than her though kind to Han if slightly patronising in his gift of a remote control car for which he is probably a little old and in any case not much interested. A thoroughly rural boy, Han is also mystified by the upscale restaurant they take him to where he is embarrassed to admit he has no idea how to eat the steak that’s been ordered for him. While Li entertains fantasies of marriage, we realise that Kun seems to already have a family and as much as he makes the effort with Han Li is not much of an escape from his domestic responsibilities if she’s also hoping he’ll be a father to her son. Li returns to her life as a bar hostess, often leaving Han home alone and returning late drunk to resentfully yell at him that perhaps her life would have turned out differently if he were not around. She becomes involved with various dangerous men, eventually pushed into sex work by a violent boyfriend who stalked her while working at the club. Han finds himself witnessing his mother with her lovers as she disregards his presence, seeking temporary escape in the arms men while he can only lock himself inside his room, cowering on his bed framed behind bars like a bird resigned to the cage.  

Yet on his return to his mountain paradise he’s distressed to realise the body of the sparrow he buried is no longer in the cairn, comforted only by his grandmother’s assertion that it has already returned to the sky. Death is nothing to be afraid of she tells him, for the dead will always protect the living. Gaining a lesson in life, death, and transience, Han remains imprisoned, framed within the window of his grandmother’s cottage as he watches a soul free itself and return to its natural home, but retains his wildness in his own compassionate desire for freedom, fluttering against the bars if not yet able to escape.


Wild Sparrow streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Images: © Dot Connect Studio Ltd.