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)

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)

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.