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)

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Show (瘋狂電視台瘋電影, Hsieh Nien Tsu, 2019)

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Show poster 1New Year comedies are usually about food and community, but for those lonely souls with no one to go home to, perhaps TV can fill the void. That’s certainly been the way for kindhearted TV variety show producer Yeh (Ou Han-Sheng). As a young boy he was often all alone at home and turned to TV for comfort, but with the industry as soulless as it is, is it still possible to lose yourself in the glow of the television screen?

In truth, Yeh’s programming has never been very successful which is perhaps why he finds himself unexpectedly promoted to director by his shady boss Lo (Lin Yu-Chih) who abruptly fires almost everybody else while suddenly insisting on round the clock programming. Unbeknownst to the crew, Lo has fallen foul of eccentric gangster David (Yen Cheng-kuo) who has showbiz ambitions and is determined to buy Crazy TV at a rock bottom price. Lo promoted Yeh in the hope that he’d fail so the ratings would crash and the station would go bust. Yeh’s programming, however, while not exactly a smash begins to find its audience largely through the zany schemes he comes up with to make the most of his budget like substituting repetitive ads for a “signal problem” warning, running cutesy phone-in kids TV, and a deliberately boring overnight program narrated by a guy in a sheep costume and featuring complicated maths problems and military history designed to send you straight to sleep.

Meanwhile, the backstage drama kicks off as Yeh begins to get closer to aspiring Malayasian actress Diva (Lin Min-Chen) while still nursing a broken heart over a failed relationship with a rising star who dumped him for her career. The main issue is, however, his obsession with television as a lifelong friend. As lonely child, TV was there for him, and it was still there for him as an ambitious adult, but somehow it’s lost its way and Yeh isn’t sure how to guide it home. Eventually he has to consider selling his house and earning his living as a noodle vendor while he waits for TV to rediscover its sense of self.

Filled with references to retro Taiwanese television and Western movies, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Show (瘋狂電視台瘋電影, Fēngkuáng Diànshì Tái Fēng Diànyǐngwears its love of the medium on its sleeve but is clearly unafraid to stick the knife in as Crazy TV lives up to its name with a series of bizarre skits created to make up for the fact they have no actual reporters so cannot actually report the news. The only way back in for Yeh, his aspiring actor friend Abi (Liu Kuan-Ting), and Diva is to enter a competition where they have to go head to head with Mr. David reenacting The Godfather, a singer, a guy reading a book, and a pair of gamers. They choose the surreal with a high risk strategy inspired by the movie Money Monster which eventually goes in an unexpected direction. 

A chance meeting with an old friend currently shooting an indie movie brings home to Yeh what exactly has been missing in his TV life – “value”, as in everyone has something valuable in their hearts that ought to be expressed but often isn’t in the increasingly commercialised TV industry. The veteran director deposed during Lo’s mass purge eventually says something similar, that the audience for their programming is mostly the elderly and children and that therefore they should accept a little more responsibility for the programmes that they air and do their best to send positive messages rather than focus on sensationalist stunts designed to win short-term ratings.

Yeh’s epiphany comes a little late, but eventually leads him to realise that if TV was a friend to him it can be a friend of everyone else and then they can all be mutual friends bonding in shared enjoyment even if they’re apart. In true New Year spirit, it really was all about community after all. Adapted from the stage play by variety TV legend Hsieh Nien Tsu, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Show is a warmhearted tribute to the healing power of silly TV, bringing tired people together through shared bemusement as they eagerly tune in to the next crazy onscreen antics as an antidote the increasingly surreal offscreen reality.


It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Show screens on 4th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival. It will also be screened in Australia on 26th July as part of the Taiwan Film Festival in Sydney.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)