The Price of Democracy (狂飆一夢, Liao Jian-Hua, 2019)

What does a revolutionary do after the revolution? Lacking direction in his own life, director Liao Jian-Hua finds himself asking the question of those who fought for an end to martial law in Taiwan, wondering if the price they paid for their idealism was really worth it. Following two now elderly protestors both of whom continued with activism after the advent of democracy, he discovers that the battle was never really won and that each has their share of loss if not quite regret for the sacrifices they made to try and bring about the better world. 

The first of Liao’s subjects, Hsin-i, is a popular novelist though perhaps unexpectedly known for romance featuring working class women rather than anything more overtly political. Daughter of a Mainland soldier, she was married with two children when she first began to become disillusioned with Taiwan’s political situation after realising the extent to which the authorities would go to rig elections. Unfortunately, the family she married into was staunchly nationalist, actually members of the KMT, and after her husband read a satirical story she wrote for a magazine the marriage broke down. Fearing reprisals, Hsin-i’s husband and in-laws emigrated to America and took her children with them while she remained in Taiwan and deepened her involvement in the movement for democracy. 

Kang, meanwhile, is a Minnanese man from the South who came to Taipei for work. Staunchly leftist, he lives up to his ideals even in his 60s earning no more than the minimum wage and living in a kind of commune with other gentlemen of a similar age, often allowing those in need to stay giving up his bed to make space for them. Like Hsin-i, his activism eventually cost him his family though he admits that his marriage was perhaps a mistake to begin with with. Showing Liao pictures of his youth he reveals himself to be quite the dandy and caught up in the consumerist revolution of an increasingly prosperous society (another wealthy girlfriend even bought him a Renault when they first came to Taiwan), only to be converted to socialism after leaving the army. He admits that he married his wife largely because she was pregnant but was uncomfortable with her upper-middle class lifestyle, her father attempting to railroad him into running a convenience store. Given their ideological differences, the marriage failed and Kang lost contact with his son who would now be in his early 30s. 

Other members of the activist group swap similar stories, that their wives and families complained that they “changed” after getting into activism or accused them of neglecting their familial duties for the political. Kang describes this as a choice between “small” love and “big”, familial love versus the societal. He and his friends chose big love at the expense of the small, devoting themselves to bettering their society. Hsin-i meanwhile doesn’t see it quite the same way and harbours a degree of guilt and regret for not having been as present as she might have liked in the lives of her family, often torn between activism and caring for her elderly mother while obviously missing her children even now forlornly looking up the Facebook profile of the daughter who declined to have contact with her. 

Though each of them continued with activism after the end of the martial law period, both Hsin-i and Kang also have traumatic memories of what was obviously a very intense time, recalling the tragic death of one young man who self immolated in protest against oppressive KMT regime. While Kang seems to accept his act with sadness, it led Hsin-i to question the movement and her place within it that others knew this young man planned to take his life in such painful way and did nothing to discourage him. From the vantage point of a very different Taiwan following the victory of Tsai Ing-Wen’s Democratic Progressive Party in 2016, now regarded as the most liberal of Asian nations, Liao wants to ask them if they feel all their suffering was worth it but discovers perhaps that he’s asking the wrong question when the costs of betraying one’s ideals may not be worth contemplating. There is always work to do, and whatever it may have cost them, both Hsin-i and Kang have remained true to themselves as they continue to do what they can to bring about the better world filled with a big love for the whole of their society. 


The Price of Democracy (狂飆一夢, Kuángbiāo Yī Mèng) streams in the UK 28th November to 5th December as part of Taiwan Film Festival UK

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Path of Destiny (不得不上路, Yang Chun-Kai, 2017)

Taiwan’s indigenous culture is an all too often neglected facet of the island’s history, but as Yang Chun-Kai’s documentary Path of Destiny (不得不上路, Bùdébù Shànglù) makes plain, it is sometimes unknown even within its own community. Following researcher Panay Mulu who has been studying the Sikawasay shamans of the Lidaw Amis people in Hualien for over 20 years and has since become a shaman herself, Yang explores this disappearing way of life along with the (im)possibilities of preserving it for later generations in the fiercely modern Taiwanese society. 

A member of the indigenous community though from a Christian family, Panay Malu recalls witnessing Sikawasay rituals in her childhood though only at the harvest festival. Her family’s religion made the existence of the Sikawasay a taboo, viewed as a kind of devilry to be avoided at all costs. Yet running into an entirely different kind of ritual, Panay found herself captivated not least by the beautiful ritualised music and thereafter began trying to gain access to the community who were perhaps understandably frosty in the beginning. Eventually she gave up her teaching position to devote herself to research full time and was finally inducted as a shaman becoming a fully fledged member. 

Listening to the stories of the old ladies, they explain that those who become Sikawasay often do so after sufffering from illness, one of the main rituals involving a shaman using their mouth to suck out bad energy and cure illness. Yet they are also subject to arcane rules and prohibitions that they fear put younger people off joining such as refraining from eating garlic, onions, and chicken, and being required to avoid touch prior to certain rituals. Under traditional custom, widows are also expected to self isolate at home often for a period of years to avoid transmitting the “bad energy” of their grief to others. 

Perhaps for these reasons, Panay is the youngest of the small group of Sikawasay who now number only half a dozen. A poignant moment sees her looking over an old photograph from a 1992 ritual featuring rows of shamans dressed in a vibrant red smiling broadly for the camera. The first row and much of the second are already gone, Panay laments, and as we can see there are only old women remaining with no new recruits following Panay in the 20 years since she’s been with them. Even one of the older women confesses that she would actually like to give up being a Sikawasay, it is after all quite a physically taxing activity with the emphasis on ritual singing and dance, but she fears being punished with illness and so continues. This lack of legacy seems to weigh heavily on Sera, the most prominent among the shamans, who breaks down in tears complaining that she often can’t sleep at night worrying that there is no one behind them to keep their culture alive save Panay who is then herself somewhat overburdened in being the sole recipient of this traditional history as she does her best to both preserve and better record it through academic study. 

It’s a minor irony then much of her recordings exist on the obsolete medium of VHS, but one of the other old ladies is at least hopeful while taking part in the documentary that people might be able to see their rituals on their televisions in their entirety and the culture of the Sikawasay will not be completely forgotten. Panay expresses frustration that, ironically, their own culture is often explained back to them by external scholars from outside of the community, while another Amis woman praises her implying that their own traditional culture is something they have to relearn rather than simply inheriting. An old lady who says her husband was once a shaman though her son neglected his shamanic nature and left to study describes the Sikawasay as the “real Amis people”, vowing never to give up on shamanism though acknowledging there’s nothing much she could do about it if it disappears. In any case, through Yang’s documentary at least and Panay’s dedicated research, the rituals of the Sikawasay have been preserved for posterity even if their actuality risks extinction in the face of destructive modernity. 


Path of Destiny streams in the UK 28th November to 5th December as part of Taiwan Film Festival UK

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Looking For? (你找什麼?, Chou Tung-yen, 2017)

“Looking for?” (你找什麼?, Nǐ Zhǎo Shénme?) is a common enough ice breaker on gay dating apps but when you get right down to it it’s a difficult one to answer. Struggling with the question himself as someone who came to the app scene fairly late, director Chou Tung-yen interviewed 60 men from all around the world to ask them what it is they’ve been looking for, why they use dating apps, and how they really feel about them. 

As might be assumed, many of the men are using the apps for casual hook-ups citing the convenience as a major motivating factor. In the old days you wrote letters and hoped to get a reply to your PO box, or you went to a bathhouse, or invested time in someone at a bar, but now you just exchange messages and get what you need when you need it. One older user even likens the experience to that of a supermarket or even ordering fast food, an entirely disposable satisfaction of needs. He’s not necessarily making a criticism, but others ask if the commodification of the community is really a good thing. Most assume that in a more open society and most especially within your own community there ought to be more freedom to be your authentic self, but the apps are so interested in finding a perfect match that they try to force those who use them inside their narrow lines, tagged as a particular brand with some feeling as if they have to change themselves to be “marketable” or no one is ever going to be interested in them. 

Social media of all kinds can foster feelings of inadequacy, but paradoxically others report that they use dating apps precisely in order to boost their self esteem. They like it when people like their photos and enjoy the feeling of being desirable, counting the messages roll in from various suitors to whom they may or may not choose to reply. Those who’d previously felt themselves unattractive have learned to find their niche and become more comfortable in their bodies able to own their sensuality in all areas of their lives. But then some have run the other way, obsessively working out becoming perhaps dangerously addicted to online praise as they continue to alter their physicality to better conform to an external idea of conventional attractiveness. 

And then there are the other dark sides, the inherent danger and the potential toxicity of a party culture that encourages excessive drug use. One young man who appears only in silhouette, his voice disguised, reveals that he thoughtlessly had unprotected sex while high, while another man explains that he eventually decided to leave rave culture behind after a friend took his own life while under the influence and another died of a short illness caused by longterm drug use during which his friends continued to take him out partying despite knowing that he was seriously ill. 

The man whose face appears in silhouette laments that he no longer thinks it’s possible to find true love online, though there are those for whom that is exactly what they were looking for and some of them seem to have found it. Several couples report that they met through a dating app and then stayed together, even later got married. Others however find that while using the app their desire to find a monogamous partner decreased, they enjoyed the ability to have various experiences instead. Still more are looking for friendship or companionship more than romance, someone just to have dinner or share a deep conservation with. 

Towards the end, one interviewee reveals he no longer uses dating apps because he couldn’t figure out what it was he was looking for. Others drift away from them either because they found a stable relationship, began to age out or lost interest in the scene, whether having figured out what they want(ed) or not. Chou asks each of the respondents what love is, many of them talking wistfully about first love but seemingly jaded about grown-up romance or at least resigned to a cooler kind if perhaps still chasing that first flush of passion. Concentrating mainly on the interview sessions, Chou intersperses brief theatrical dance sequences and shots of himself captured alone at various points of transit in different cities, discovering at least a kind of commonality in the community of dating app users the world over who can understand each other even in the absence of shared language. Chou may not have discovered what it is he’s looking for, but has perhaps learned something else in his voyage through the trials of 21st century dating in that in the end you get out what you put in, which is to say what you’re looking for finds you whether you recognise it or not. 


Looking For? streams in the UK via Rio Player 20th – 26th November as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Thousand Cuts (Ramona S. Diaz, 2020)

“Your concern is human rights. Mine is human lives” President Rodrigo Duterte disingenuously intones as part of his State of the Nation address, as if in the end they weren’t the same thing. Ramona S. Diaz’ clearheaded yet incendiary documentary A Thousand Cuts follows unfazable journalist Maria Ressa, head of online news site Rappler as she finds herself firmly within the president’s sights for her determination to challenge his “fake news” only to be accused of the same herself. Yet Ressa refuses to back down, holding the line even in the face of extreme threat to her person ranging from spurious prosecution to attempts to intimidate serious enough to have her wearing a flack jacket while travelling only by official car. 

As Ressa points out, the danger is not unique to the Philippines though through her investigations we see her map out the networks of bots and bad actors that allowed populism to prosper through social media, the most online nation apparently a guineapig for geopolitical manipulation. Remarkably even-handed in her presentation, Diaz introduces us to Ressa’s opposite number in Mocha Uson, a former pop idol turned rightwing blogger ensconced in the Duterte camp but scoffing at the idea her job is to spread pro-Duterte propaganda. Like fellow candidate Bato, a former police chief turned head of corrections, she likes to put on a show, a series of K-pop-style dance routines praising the president gracing her social media feeds. Cheerful scenes of dancing and celebration are directly contrasted with the disgruntled face of a female opposition candidate appearing directly below them as if in disapproval of their frivolous merrymaking.

Then again, the problem is the president is often overly “honest”, casually implying that he has personally killed and has no qualms doing so again as Ressa attempts to question him as if he were an ordinary politician. He is crass and sexist, constantly boasting of his sexual prowess at the podium while emphasising his virility,  literally playing the macho strongman, yet even as he says directly that he will kill people keep supporting him presumably believing that he means he’s going to kill other people but not them. One older woman even gets up to a mic at an event where Ressa is speaking to point out that the extra judicial killings may be awful but her pension’s gone up and she personally feels quite safe as someone unconnected to drugs so she struggles to see what the problem is. Meanwhile, the reporters recount the personal toll covering the killings can take on them as they witness the bodies lining the streets, discovered by wailing relatives protesting that their sons, husbands, and brothers were good people who didn’t deserve to die this way, not that anybody does. Not so much a war on drugs as a war on the poor, but populist politicians don’t hang on to their power by making things better, only by making them worse and then blaming someone else.  

Simply by reporting on the injustice of the killings, Ressa becomes a figurehead for the hate directed against Rappler and other news organisations prepared to challenge the president’s narrative. We see him humiliate a young reporter, answering her questions with an accusation of a lack of patriotism, before having her excluded from government briefings. The reporter later breaks down, revealing the strain placed on her by constant paranoia not just of becoming a direct target for government action but that she may someday make a mistake that would be used heavily against her. Yet she too is buoyed by the relentlessly positive presence of Ressa who refuses to be cowed, insisting that it’s not too late and that hope will win in the end. Don’t be afraid, she insists in the face of Duterte’s mantra that there must be fear, violence is his strength. Yet as the film’s title implies, the death of democracy comes in a thousand tiny cuts rather than a single blow, the cornerstones of accountability quietly chipped away while our attention is pulled in a thousand different directions. The parallels are obvious, populism on the march all over the globe, but there are at least those like Ressa willing to speak truth to power no matter what power might do to stop us listening. 


A Thousand Cuts streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Turning 18 (未來無恙, Ho Chao-ti, 2018)

How much do you really owe a family that has failed you? A difficult question at the best of times, it’s one that continues to play on the mind of teenager Chen, one of two young women from indigenous communities at the centre of Ho Chao-ti’s documentary Turning 18 (未來無恙, Wèilái Wúyàng). Following the two girls who each come from challenging family backgrounds from the ages of 15 to 18, Ho perhaps draws a slightly uncomfortable contrast in the differing paths their lives eventually take after they briefly meet during an internship at funeral home but nevertheless presents an all too often ignored perspective on a hidden side of the island nation.  

Forced to grow up far too soon, both young women are children of single parent families in which there has been a history of domestic violence and, as we later discover, in Chen’s case sexual abuse. In response to her difficult family circumstances in which her mother has become an alcoholic and she has become the primary carer for her eight siblings, Chen has grown serious and mature. She intensely resents her mother’s drinking, not least because it plays into a racist stereotype about indigenous people while also trapping them in desperate poverty. Chen has had to take time out of education to look after her siblings and is grateful for the internship opportunity after which she will return to high school. 

Pei, meanwhile, has moved in with her possessive boyfriend, Wei, and his despairing mother. She is slightly less enthused about the internship, but dutifully completes it. Unlike Chen she never returns to school but remains with Wei who later becomes a delinquent and encounters trouble with the law. Pregnant before her 18th birthday, Pei finds herself navigating teenage motherhood and economic instability while the increasingly irresponsible Wei gravitates towards a life on the margins of crime. 

As such, it seems almost as if we’re being pushed towards judgement of the unlucky Pei for, perhaps, making the same mistake as her mother in unwisely depending on an unreliable man though they are both only teenagers, while it is undoubtedly much easier to get behind the earnest Chen who is determined to make something of her life while fiercely defending her family. Nevertheless, their marginalised status as members of an indigenous community is quickly brought home to us. Ho throws in a few snippets from post-war propaganda programs regarding the development of Hualien which describe the local Tayan population alternately as savage and uncivilised and then simple and innocent, apparently grateful for their “civilisation” at the hands of the KMT government which recommends Hualien to industry leaders as a source of cheap labour. 

Both the young women suffer at the hands of a patriarchal social code and fractured economy. Forced to compromise her education, Chen resents her mother for being unable to hold down a job of her own while it seems clear that she has little education herself and that her drinking is in part a response to her despair. Having escaped abusive spouses, the mothers of both girls have been left without effective means to support themselves in the absence of men, Chen’s mother depending on the support of her extended family who, we later learn, were also abusive. When the abuse is brought to light, Chen’s mother encourages her to lie to the court in order to protect her family members afraid perhaps of the shame but equally of the impossibility of surviving without them. 

Yet Chen continues to try to love her mother no matter how much she disappoints her, sorry only that her mother could not learn to love herself enough to save herself and determined never to make the same mistake. Finding an outlet in Taekwondo which she sees as another way to protect her family, Chen discovers another side of herself in dating another girl, at this young stage of her life incongruously insisting on referring to her as a “boyfriend” though the relationship appears to be accepted by her classmates as entirely normal. We never see how Chen’s family feels about her sexual identity save that she later affirms her desire to march in the Pride parade in Taipei precisely because she wants them to understand she loves women and that’s not something that will change, no one has the right to tell her who to love or who to marry. 

In this at least, Chen appears to have broken the cycle in definitively embracing her identities as a queer indigenous woman while also continuing to love and support her problematic family. Pei meanwhile is in a much less advantageous position, having perhaps repeated the same behaviour patterns in being letdown by an unreliable man and left to bring up a baby on her own though little more than a baby herself. Nevertheless, Ho’s camera is never judgemental in capturing this largely hidden side of Taiwanese society in which systemic male failure and entrenched patriarchy contribute to the marginalisation of the indigenous community even in the contemporary era. 


Turning 18 screens at London’s Riverside Studios on 3rd November as part of this year’s Queer East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Me and the Cult Leader (AGANAI -悪の陳腐さについての新たな報告, Atsushi Sakahara, 2020)

How can you continue to serve an ideology which you know is responsible for a heinous act that offends your sense of moral righteousness? That’s a question that Atsushi Sakahara, a survivor of the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway, finds himself asking in his documentary Me and the Cult Leader (AGANAI -悪の陳腐さについての新たな報告, Aku no Chinpusa Nitsuite Aratana Hokoku), as he meets with Hiroshi Araki, a current member of Aleph, the successor to Aum, the cult which planned and executed the 1995 act of terrorism which led to the deaths of 13 people and left 6200 injured, many like Sakahara with life changing consequences. 

Yet Sakahara’s purpose is the opposite of polemical, he merely reaches out to Araki in an effort to understand the mindset not only of someone who joined Aum in the early ‘90s and was a member at the time of the attack though not directly involved, but of someone who stayed and continues to believe in the teachings of cult leader Asahara who was executed in 2018 after years on death row along with other members responsible for Japan’s only exposure to domestic terrorism. Throughout it all, however what he seems to want is some kind of apology, or at least an act of contrition, something which proves elusive as the distant, thoughtful Araki largely refuses to engage as if afraid to accept that the ideology to which he has devoted all his adult life may in fact be corrupt and empty. 

Araki’s justifications run mainly to technicalities. He does not exactly deny that members of Aum were responsible for the attack, but explains that their guilt is the most logical explanation given the available evidence which includes their own confessions and so concludes it is likely the truth. The two men travel together on a kind of pilgrimage back to their respective hometowns which happen to be in the same area of the country, while in another coincidence they also attended the same university at the same time. A jovial presence, Sakahara attempts to hurry the near silent Araki along, pushing him to open up which he eventually does but failing to elicit from him anything which might begin to free him from the icy grip of his ideology. 

Sakahara subtitles his film “A modern report on the banality of evil”, and there’s certainly something of that as the film opens in a subway station, Sakahara and Araki merely two ordinary middle-aged men in anoraks waiting for a train. Yet Araki is clearly not an “evil” man. He appears to be thoughtful and sensitive, often breaking down in tears as the journey forces him to remember his life before he renounced the world, the vision of his grandmother waving him off at the station after a summer holiday leading back to that of his mother as he severed connection with her to join with Aum. He doesn’t quite explain what led him to join the cult save being overwhelmed by Asahara’s charisma when he gave a speech at Kyoto university in the early ‘90s, Sakahara having witnessed him arrive the year before but jokingly shouting out for the famously outlandish cult leader to show off his talent for levitation, save that he became disillusioned with consumerism after a pencil case he lusted over as a child lost its lustre when he got it home. The training, he goes on, caused him to lose the capacity for joy or pleasure, leaving him he explains with no other choice than to join the cult because there was no longer anything left for him in the outside world which had become unbearably painful as a result.

Yet knowing what he knows, how can he go on practicing Asahara’s teachings? Sakahara tries not to push him, only once or twice pressing for an answer as to whether or not he sees and understands his suffering and feels remorse, later introducing him to both his parents in an effort to prove that actions have wider consequences, that he is not the only victim but that others suffer because of his suffering. Meeting Sakahara’s equally compassionate mother and father does appear to move something with him, evoking a loose apology even if he immediately walks back on it with some manichean justifications that Sakahara is also responsible for everything that’s happened to him because it is all a result of his choices, good and bad. 

The unavoidable conclusion is perhaps that Araki is simply afraid to confront the implications of everything he’s seeing lest his entire worldview collapse and he realises he’s wasted all of his adult life serving a corrupt and empty ideology. Sakahara acts with total warmth and compassion for his dilemma, even at one point quite literally buying him a coat because he’s only brought his anorak despite it being freezing (Araki also constantly carries a sleeping bag because his asceticism seems to extend to beds and futons), patiently listening to his often sad stories of youth but every revelation is followed by extended silence, Araki shifting back inside himself unwilling risk bursting the bubble. Sakahara, however, remains patient hoping for the day that the cultist will finally see the light. 


 Me and the Cult Leader streams in the US until Oct. 31 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Shepherds (牧者, Elvis Lu, 2018)

Among the most liberal of Asian nations, Taiwan became the first to legalise same-sex marriage in 2019 but that doesn’t mean that it’s always easy to be LGBTQ+ particularly if you come from a religious background and wish to maintain your faith. Elvis Lu’s documentary The Shepherds (牧者, Mùzhě) follows a small group of religious leaders who are or have been involved with a progressive church, Tong-Kwang, which was the first in Taiwan to expressly embrace the LGBTQ+ community on its foundation back in 1996. Unfortunately, however, the pastors have faced significant barriers in their personal and professional lives because of their views on homosexuality which face staunch opposition from mainstream religious organisations. The founder of Tong-Kwang Yang Ya-hui, a heterosexual female pastor, eventually took her own life because of the discrimination she later faced within the religious community which made it impossible for her to continue working and support herself without compromising her beliefs. 

Discrimination is also something which has affected pastor Huang Guo-yao and his wife who now work for Tong-Kwang but began their careers in Hong Kong. Huang was forced to give up his ministry after advocating for LGBTQ+ rights brought him into conflict with the more conservative local Churches, eventually making the decision to migrate to Taiwan while his children remained in Hong Kong. He laments that the situation in which he found himself may have had a negative effect on his now grown-up sons, the younger one he worries having become increasingly withdrawn and unwilling to talk about his feelings. 

Zeng Shu-min, meanwhile, is in a similar position unable to find employment with more conventional churches as an openly gay pastor. While officiating at same sex weddings, he’s had to look for other employment to support himself and generally lives an ascetic existence, dependent on the kindness of friends such as Hsiao-en, a lesbian advocate for LGBTQ+ Christians who was herself ejected from the seminary for her liberal views. Running the Light Up project, she provides a more positive religious presence at rallies where conservative voices loudly protest against the advancement of rights for LGBTQ+ people and the movement for marriage equality. Presenting a united front in their priestly outfits, conservative preachers openly commit to undermining the seats of local politicians sympathetic to LGBTQ+ issues, some advancing that they want to “protect” the LGBTQ+ community who must be living “very painfully”, while they refuse to compromise the “basic values” of their society. 

As part of her outreach, Hsaio-en also liaises with the parents of LGBTQ+ children who often find themselves ostracised from their church community solely because of their children’s sexual orientation. Like Shu-min, she also has to work a regular job to support herself while feeling guilty for not being able to devote herself to activism full time and lamenting that hard as she works it often feels as if she isn’t getting anywhere and her efforts don’t make much difference. Yet Tong-Kwang in itself provides a valuable safe place for LGBTQ+ Christians, running a hotline those in distress can call for relief when experiencing difficulty in their personal or religious lives and affirming that their sexuality need not conflict with their faith nor is it a barrier to God’s love. 

With a mixture of observational footage and talking heads interviews, Lu bookends the film with poetic black and white re-enactment featuring the words of pastor Yang Ya-hui taken directly from her autobiography, positioning her as a kind of martyr for the rights of LGBTQ+ people in Taiwan and particularly for LGBTQ+ Christians. The film ends with the passing of the marriage equality act, but is quick to point out that that does not mean that prejudice and discrimination evaporated overnight, Hsiao-en in particular worried that organisations such as hers will come under greater pressure from conservative religious voices intensifying their opposition. Nevertheless, despite the sometimes great toll on their personal lives and those of their families, each of the shepherds remains committed to defending the rights of LGBTQ+ people not only to occupy an equal place within their society but also within their faith as members of a compassionate and progressive religious community. 


The Shepherds streams in the UK 30th October to 5th November courtesy of Queer East and Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Walking Dharma (如常, Hsieh Hsih-Chih & Chen Chih-An, 2019)

The image we hold of Taiwan is of a prosperous nation among the most liberal in Asia, yet behind the shining cities there are still those experiencing hardship who might perhaps have fallen through the cracks if it were not for the efforts of the volunteers from the Tzu Chi Foundation. In Walking Dharma (如常, Rú Cháng) documentarians Chen Chih-An and Hsieh Hsin-Chih spent 18 months shadowing some of the organisation’s members many of whom are themselves elderly and have experienced their own share of suffering but equally of mutual support which they have committed to passing on through helping others. 

Testament to changing times, the first recipient of the volunteers’ care is an elderly woman who has had a nasty fall. She later thanks them for all their help in Japanese, a reminder that she was born in another world, raised in the colonial era. She is also one of many isolated older people in the nation’s ageing population, living all alone either with no surviving family around to care for them or perhaps with children who for whatever reason are not able to leaving them entirely dependent on the kindness of the volunteers. The foundation organises a crew to come round and clear the large amount of debris in front of the woman’s home to make it safer for her so she won’t fall again while trying to sort out her medication and make sure she’s safe during an upcoming typhoon. 

Meanwhile, they are also there for children and families who find themselves in difficult circumstances particularly those in which a parent has passed away unexpectedly or is suffering with a chronic illness which both renders them economically vulnerable and places an undue burden on the children whose academic prospects are then reduced while they are needed to care for their parent and siblings. The organisation provides educational assistance to cover school fees for children who find themselves in difficulty, emphasising that education is their best path out of poverty. One young woman later makes a heartfelt visit to one of the elderly volunteers to thank him for all his support over the years which has helped her to gain a place at a prestigious university. Not everyone is convinced, however, including one elderly grandmother who is reluctant to allow her granddaughters to pursue education at high school and beyond, partly because she fears they will go off the rails like the mother who abandoned them to her, and partly for more selfish reasons in that she too will be left alone with no one to look after her in her old age. Thanks to the gentle advice of the volunteers, the grandmother eventually relents and allows the young women the freedom to pursue their dreams. 

Though the members are all obviously adherents of Buddhism and committed to the teachings of the Tzu Chi Foundation which is admittedly cast in an extremely uncritical light, they are prohibited from preaching while offering help as the organisation has a strict policy in place to pursue a secular outlook. The assistance they provide is offered without seeking anything in return save the greater happiness of those they help, gaining a sense of joy in human solidarity as they witness the difference their intervention can make in the lives of others. There are some who might not want what they’re offering, or at least all of it, including one young man and his hearing impaired father who insist that they’re fine with heating up water the old fashioned way and don’t see the point in getting it piped in with a modern heating system, but the volunteers take it all in their stride always respecting the wishes of those they’ve come to help while continuing to offer advice and companionship. 

Yet it takes its toll on them too, a doctor confessing that they often see members of the Tzu Chi Foundation coming in after pushing themselves too hard, failing to look after themselves in their commitment to helping others. All of the volunteers we meet are retirees, one elderly gentlemen later heartbroken when the decline of his own health prevents him from continuing to volunteer. Nevertheless, they all emphasise that helping others is what gives their life meaning, enriching their experience as they find joy in alleviating suffering. A gentle and heartwarming reminder that we’re all in this together, Walking Dharma is testament to the existence of goodness in an all too often indifferent world.


Walking Dharma streams in the US until Sept. 26 as part of the 11th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Whale Island (男人與他的海, Huang Chia-chun, 2020)

Taiwan is an island, but its people have lost touch with the sea according to one of the protagonists of Huang Chia-chun’s contemplative documentary. Whale Island (男人與他的海, Nánrén Yú Tā de Hǎi) argues that fear has blinded the populace to the beauty which surrounds it, robbing them of their natural freedoms in a symbolic act of repression, but love of the ocean has also cost both of Huang’s protagonists dearly as they find themselves having to prioritise leaving those they love behind on land while they immerse themselves in the solitude of the sea. 

Oceanoggrapher Liao refuses to be constrained. “During your lifetime it’s inevitable for you to be restricted.” he admits, “restricted by society, restricted by reality, restricted by age, restricted by body.” Liao laments that if only people could learn to lose their fear of the water, something he feels has been deliberately cultivated as a means of oppression, everything would be better. For his own part, he fell in love with the sea for the sense solitude. As a young man with language difficulties he longed to escape other people, dreaming of becoming a lighthouse keeper or perhaps a forest ranger before getting to know some captains of fishing boats and getting a job as a fisherman. These days he acts as a tour guide, running scenic trips for tourists showcasing the wonder that exists just off shore with its spinning dolphins and visiting whales. 

Ray, meanwhile, is a wildlife photographer specialising in underwater shots of marine animals. As a father to two young sons, however, he finds himself conflicted, putting his work on the back burner knowing that to do it all out would mean being away from his family for long stretches of time but watching other photographers push further ahead by hopping the planet chasing the seasons. A few weeks a year he travels to Tonga where, unlike Taiwan, it’s permissible to swim alongside the whales but the work is not without danger as he proves after getting whacked on the leg by a curious whale’s tail and being stuck on the shore while he recuperates. Ironically, his boys fear the water, not because its destructive capacity but because of the very real anxiety that that will swallow him whole, that one day he’ll disappear beneath the waves and never resurface. 

Like Ray, Liao also found himself with a kind of choice only in his case it was no choice at all. His marriage eventually broke down because of his obsession with the sea, damaging his relationship with his young daughter which was not repaired until she was a grown woman suffering a health crisis. Yet the sea was not something he could sacrifice, dedicating his life to unlocking its mysteries while insisting on his own freedom, refusing to be constrained by conventional social codes or the will of others. 

Liao is convinced that if people turned to face the sea, lost their fear of it, then many things would change. Perhaps they would feel less oppressed, better able to express themselves and better equipped to live in freedom as he has learned to. According to the life philosophy communicated to him by a friend and mentor, the only way to survive a storm is to sail straight into it, turn the prow towards the source of the problem instead of trying to outrun it. Liao has done just that, attempting to raise awareness of the joys of the sea while fully aware of its concurrent dangers. Huang captures both the majesty of the Taiwanese landscape with its rolling seas, rocky inlets, and remote islands while marvelling at the prevalence of sea life found not so far off shore, neatly contrasting dolphins frolicking in the open seas with those forced to do tricks for tourists in nearby theme parks. A picturesque voyage along the island’s idyllic coastlines, Whale Island is a poignant reminder of the beauty that lies just over the horizon, constantly at the mercy of an ever changing world.


Whale Island streams in the US until Sept. 26 as part of the 11th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Diaspora: Arirang Road (디아스포라의 노래: 아리랑 로드, Lee Kyu-chul, 2019)

A song from home can be a powerful thing when you’re far away, as the various protagonists of Lee Kyu-chul’s Diaspora: Arirang Road (디아스포라의 노래: 아리랑 로드, Diaspora-eui Nolae: Arirang Road) make plain. Though they perhaps can no longer remember all the words, or are too overcome by emotion to be able to sing, each of Lee’s overseas Koreans has a deep connection to the melancholy folk song which sings, as one farmer puts it, of “the grief of living” but as others affirm is also full of life and hope if only in the solidarity of voices raised together in shared hardship. 

The guide, Korean-Japanese composer Yang Bang-ean, is on a quest to write his own version of Arirang, a new version which sings in the voices of the diaspora. Yang was himself born in Japan to Korean parents and is a member of the zainichi community committed to cross-cultural exchange. Unsurprisingly the first half of the film is dedicated to the Koreans who found themselves in Japan sometimes against their will, trafficked as forced labour during the colonial era and taking solace in Arirang while enduring harsh treatment and discrimination at the hands of the Japanese. In a brief reconstruction, a miner reads a letter to his mother in which he hides how much he is suffering, later likening himself to an octopus tricked into a pot, gradually consuming itself in a desperate attempt to survive.

Unlike many folksongs, little of Arirang is fixed aside from the distinctive chorus leaving melody and lyrics open to interpretation meaning there are thousands of different versions found all over Korea and beyond. The action later shifts to a perhaps forgotten diaspora community, the Koreans of Central Asia who travelled to Russia in search of a better life only to be moved on by Stalin in the 1930s as international tensions escalated. Packed onto a fetid train travelling for days on end with many dying during the journey from cold, stress, or hunger, they had only Arirang to unite them and offer hope that their lives would one day be better. 

As as someone puts it, Arirang is the “tragic history of a scattered people”, but also “a belief of our history and future”. According to another singer, it is “love. life. and living”, running like water with the rhythms of nature and leading those who share the song toward hope. Yang later re-characterises the song as both personal and universal, the singer in a sense becoming Arirang and Arirang the singer in a process of mutual change and evolution, something which is perhaps underway as he continues to write his own Arirang for those Koreans who remain outside of Korea. 

As many of the singers point out, there is much grief and sorrow in Arirang but also hope and a spirit of endurance. Lee Kyu-chul shows us two different burial grounds on different sides of the Earth, the first marked only with stones for Koreans buried anonymously in Japan, and the second a small city of walled headstones for those who died peacefully of old age in Kazakstan. Those who survived the train later prospered and endured, their grandchildren born and raised in Kazakstan but still united by Arirang as a marker of their culture while one young man enthusiastically belts out a K-pop tune to remind us they’ve not forgotten their roots. 

Yang concludes his performance with an intense jam session of various artists each forging a new Arirang together, testimony to the power the song has to bring people together as it has with Yang and the members of the Korean diaspora he has met from all over the world in some ways very like him and in other ways not but united in their Koreanness through the memory and the sentiment of Arirang no matter what lyrics they sang or what hardship they endured. A heartfelt tribute to the solidarity of voices raised in song and the cathartic properties of music, Lee Kyu-chul’s folksong odyssey rediscovers the invisible connections of the diasporic community brought together by the power of Arirang which offers, as Yang puts it, “the opportunity to hope” even in the depths of despair.


Diaspora: Arirang Road streams in the US Sept. 10 to 14 as part of the 11th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)