Gaga (哈勇家, Laha Mebow, 2022)

“Children will find their own way” a grandmother reassures while her community fractures all around her in Laha Mebow’s lighthearted drama, Gaga (哈勇家). “Gaga” refers to the traditional rules of the Atayal people which find themselves under increasing pressure from the wider society. While one granddaughter returns after living abroad in New Zealand and is caught between her affection for her family and her desires for her future, her cousin is devotes himself to his culture but may end up marooned amid encroaching modernity. 

As the film opens, Enoch is hiking with his grandfather Hayung on the mountain where he tells him that he used to come to catch fish in his youth but not anymore. Back then, he explains, it was considered important not to transgress on another’s turf. If someone had set fish traps already, you’d be expected to move yours somewhere else. But it doesn’t work that way anymore, as the family discover on entering a dispute with a neighbour who’s engaged a surveyor to essentially annex a third of their land. Father Pasang appeals to the mayor, but is given short shrift and reminded that making an offering is no longer sufficient to mark a boundary. This crisis informs Pasang’s fateful decision to stand for mayor himself which places increasing strain on family relations especially in the wake of Hayung’s death. 

With Hayung gone, there is a sense that the traditional practices of the Atayal people are being lost. His grandson, Enoch, has a Christian name but is close to his grandfather and seems to be devoted to preserving their culture, often seen playing his mouth harp, singing traditional songs and dancing. His cousin Ali, meanwhile, has been studying abroad in New Zealand and seems increasingly at odds with the traditional ways of the village not least when it is discovered that she’s become pregnant out of wedlock with her overseas boyfriend who is also of an Asian background but is unable to speak Mandarin let alone the Atayal language. Ali isn’t sure she wants to keep the baby, but abortion is against Gaga while her father is chiefly worried about his electoral prospects amid a scandal concerning his only daughter. 

Pasang’s response hints at the inherent corruption in the electoral system. Resolving to neutralise a scandal before it takes hold, he decides to slaughter 10 pigs as a sacrifice and give the meat to other villagers, holding what is staged as a wedding reception for Ali and her oblivious boyfriend Andy who suddenly arrives for a surprise visit. Local politics is essentially transactional, villagers are accustomed to voting for whoever gives them the most stuff rather than whoever offers them the best prospects for their future perhaps cynically deciding to take what they can get having little faith that those in power are really going to have their best interests at heart. Pasang plays the game, but the game costs money endangering not only his own financial security but that of his family and most particularly his younger brother Silan whose land was at issue in the first place. Pressured by his mother, Silan is emotionally blackmailed into “helping” his brother with the promise that he will pay him back when he wins which he must do or else they are all ruined. But Pasang soon discovers that taking power over one’s life is not so easy, because those who already have power will be forgiven for breaking the rules while those who do not will not. 

On some level, Pasang is still expecting Ali to stay in the village and Andy to move there to be with her, while Andy, a little older than Ali, is seemingly unfazed by the prospect of youthful fatherhood but wants to take his family home to New Zealand. Communication issues are only part of the problem, the indigenous community switching between their own language, Mandarin, and Taiwanese Hokkien while adding English into the mix but eventually discovering that in the end they don’t need really words to communicate with Andy but are satisfied that he loves their daughter while the choice should be hers alone. Ali meanwhile is beginning to feel railroaded, as if everyone is trying to make her choices for her. Grandma has already named the baby after Hayung seemingly assuming that she will raise it to be an Atayal adult in the village. 

In parallel, Enoch’s sister Agnes is forced to enlist in the military in order to support the family following their financial ruin each of them accepting that Enoch is not suited to life outside the village and can do nothing other than continue their traditional way of life. But then again, it’s also clear that as an alternative revenue stream the villagers are forced to parade their culture as entertainment for tourists. Pasang even strikes a funding deal agreeing to host a temple on his land where tourists can stay, while attempts to construct a “traditional” Atayal house in the central square to provide cultural education are co-opted by builders from the city who ignore all of Hayung’s advice about how to build. Part of the roof collapses during the opening ceremony. Enoch asks why some of the children are excited about the “real” New Year which they think of as the Spring Festival pointing out that the Atayal celebration takes place after the harvest, Christmas is for Westerners and Dec. 31 the Japanese. In the end it’s up to him alone to stoke the fires of his culture amid an uncertain modernity. 


Gaga screens at USCD Price Center Theater Nov. 6 and Ultrastar Mission Valley on Nov. 7 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

As We Like It (揭大歡喜, Chen Hung-i & Muni Wei, 2021)

“It’s the crazy madness we call love” according to a series of bemused bystanders in Chen Hung-i and Muni Wei’s modernist take on the Shakespeare play, As We Like It (揭大歡喜, Jiēdàhuānxǐ). As the reframing of the title implies, no longer pleasing “you” but “we”, Chen and Wei’s all-female adaptation is an attempt to reclaim the stage taking a swipe at the Elizabethan prohibition on actresses while undermining the notion of a gender binary as the various lovers pursue their romantic destiny in defiance of heteronormative ideas of sex and sexuality. 

Rather than palace intrigue, however, the force which sends Rosalind (Puff Kuo) into the forest is romantic failure coupled with filial and financial anxiety. Her father, the Duke, has been missing for seven years and will shortly be declared dead at which point his company will be divided between the father of her best friend, Celia (Camille Chalons), and a random young man named Orlando (Aggie Hsieh) she was previously unaware of. Hoping to locate him, she winds up at a street fight in which she becomes Orlando’s eyes and he falls in love with her at first sight. For unclear reasons and drawing inspiration from traditional Taiwanese opera, Rosalind then decides to pose as a man, taking the name of Roosevelt, and later teaming up with Orlando in the hope of finding the Duke. 

Despite its best intentions, the awkward irony at the centre of As We Like It is that it accidentally ends up re-inforcing the patriarchal ideology it otherwise seeks to critique in that Rosalind’s romantic adventure turns out to be a series of manipulations at the hands of her long absent father. A romantic exile, it is she who remains unsure of her feelings, unwilling to admit the possibility that she is finally in love with Orlando and hiding behind the mask of masculinity in order to test her would-be-lover’s sincerity. The strange scavenger hunt the pair are forced to follow in order to find their way to the Duke amounts to a forced courtship, each of the pitstops another level up in terms of romantic intimacy culminating in an oddly eroticised ear cleaning date. While Orlando vacillates over whether it’s OK to fall for a boy because he reminds you of a girl, Rosalind is tasked with rediscovering her faith in romantic love which she does but only after talking to her father first. 

Celia, by contrast, seizes her own agency by defiantly seducing sometime antagonist Oliver (Joelle Lu) and becoming pregnant by him even before marriage. In this instance, Oliver is still the villain attempting to steal the business, even going so far as to send his thugs to chase Orlando down, the implication being that Celia’s love softens and then corrects him so that he might reconcile with his brother. Yet the final showdown introduces a new villain in the figure of Charles (J.C. Lei), Oliver’s chief thug apparently harbouring an unrequited crush on his boss and therefore extremely resentful of Celia. Yet her taunting of him asserting that hers is the final victory because she has done what Charles never could in conceiving Oliver’s child seems to fly in the face of the film’s otherwise egalitarian views on love, negating not only same sex love but also love between those unable to produce children uncomfortably heading back into a gender binary which makes maternity the essence of womanhood. This message is perhaps undercut by the closing moments in which Oliver and Celia argue about whether to buy boy clothes or girl clothes for the baby only for the shop assistant to advise a neutral white and cede the “choice” to the child in time but nevertheless seems an odd means of defeating the spectre of the unexpected antagonist driven to a dark place by the “madness” of love. 

Love’s “madness” may be the central theme though the sense of a world turned upside down is undermined by Celia’s maintenance of her position as a princess rather than relegation to the role of a peasant even as it affords her unexpected agency over the surprisingly pliable Oliver. The world’s uncanniness is fulfilled by its unreachability, set in an “internet-free” district of near future Taipei enhanced with frequent onscreen graphics where people send each other “slo-express” letter-pressed telegrams in place of “text messages” delivered by the human touch, implying perhaps that our increasingly depersonalised society is actively frustrating the path to love even while the idea of the idyllic and utopian Forest of Arden seems to have been co-opted by venal developers. Nevertheless, journeys end in lovers meeting to quote another play and love’s madness is eventually cured in its fulfilment. 


As We Like It screens on July 8 and streams online in Switzerland until July 10 as part of this year’s Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival (NIFFF). Readers in London will also have the opportunity to see As We Like It at Genesis Cinema on 16th July courtesy of Chinese Visual Festival & Queer East

Original trailer (English subtitles)

No. 76 Horror Bookstore: Tin of Fear (76号恐怖書店之恐懼罐頭, David Chuang & Hung Tzu-peng, 2020)

The first in a potential franchise, David Chuang & Hung Tzu-peng’s chilling anthology 76 Horror Bookstore: Tin of Fear (76号恐怖書店之恐懼罐頭, 76-Hào Kǒngbù Shūdiàn zhī Kǒngjù Guàntou) adapts four short stories from the online novel series of the same name. Somewhat interconnected and featuring some of the same cast, the four episodes each present a different kind of horror but all featuring a rather grisly spin from the secrets contained in the grim apartment building of the first instalment to the heartbreaking familial drama of the last as a collection of contemporary lost souls attempt to make sense of life, death, and that which exists somewhere in between. 

Titled “Rent”, the first chapter sees single mother Miss Ho (Esther Huang) leave her young son behind to travel to Taipei hoping to earn money through sex work in order to buy a house in which they can live together. Unfortunately, however, her city existence is even grimmer than expected, inhabiting a rundown apartment block overseen by an extremely creepy landlord (Lai Hao-Zhe) who informs her that the previous tenant, whose belongings are still in the room, abruptly disappeared without trace. “When your son grows up, he’ll be able to protect you” the landlord adds in rather sexist fashion finally getting round to fixing the lock on her door while singing unsettling nursery rhymes about slow rats getting eaten alive. Gradually Miss Ho becomes aware that the building is home to a dark secret connected with the sad fate of one particular family who apparently attempted to resist the urban renewal programme but ironically finds that her own victory lies in a sense with complicity. 

Meanwhile, in Hunger a convict (Joe Chang Shu-Wei) wakes up on the outside after a traumatic episode only to discover that in this version of reality food has been declared illegal. The clerk at a convenience store (Troy Liu Tzu-Chuan) reacts to his polite request for sustenance with shear horror as if he’d just asked him where he might be able to find the weapons grade plutonium or high grade explosives. A strangely dressed man hanging round outside explains that there’s no more food for another 76 days, but he can supply him with some tins for a small fee. Gesturing at the sign inside the store which is currently counting down to a ghost festival might have clued the man in on where he might be if only he had his thinking cap on, but sure enough he finds himself trapped in a purgatorial hellscape and eventually faced with an ironic confrontation as he resolutely fails to take the opportunity to overcome his baser instincts. 

Shifting into teen supernatural romance, Hide and Seek takes a less grisly though no less cruel turn as a bunch of kids head out on an adventure to celebrate the 18th birthday of Xiaoqi (Eric Lin Hui-Ming). Best friend Shaohua (Troy Liu Tzu-Chuan) has organised a camping trip to a supposedly haunted former dormitory yet the conflict here is of a more ordinary kind in that both the boys had unwittingly intended to declare their love to the same girl. Nevertheless, as the haunted house adventure proceeds Xiaoqi begins to to wonder who is haunting who, unwittingly forced into a delayed confession of his repressed emotion. 

Something similar befalls Hsin-chieh (Annie Ting-ni), the 30-something heroine of final instalment Taxi who has recently discovered she is pregnant and is subsequently consumed with maternal anxiety that reflects the loss of each of her parents in very different circumstances along with a possible sacrifice of independence and individual identity. Nagged by the aunt who raised her and seemingly cajoled by her perfectly pleasant, vaguely supportive boyfriend Ah-Shu (Wang Wei), Hsin-chieh leans towards an abortion, ending the relationship and getting a flat of her own but soon finds herself haunted by a creepy little girl and a host of other strange goings on until finally forced to face the legacy of abandonment in order to make peace with the traumatic past, ending a painful cycle of guilt and retribution in a bloody confluence of death and rebirth. Filled with surreal and nightmarish imagery, Taxi is at heart all about forgiveness and moving forward, a fitting end these four gloomy tales of supernatural harassment and guilty consciences finding at least a ray of hope in new life unburdened by fear or shame.


No. 76 Horror Bookstore: Tin of Fear streams in the US March 27 – 31 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Han Dan (寒單, Huang Chao-liang, 2019)

Han Dan poster 1Military deity of wealth “Han Dan” is said to be afraid of the cold, so those who worship at his altar try to keep him warm with firecrackers during a ritual still practiced in the Eastern cities of Taiwan in which young men embody the god and brave the fiery assault in a daring show of their masculinity. Some volunteer to play the god for money, others for pride, and a few for atonement but there are some crimes you can’t simply burn away either with fire or by hate. The heroes of Huang Chao-liang’s Han Dan (寒單) bond through tragedy and try push past their pain through brotherhood but only one of them is aware their present relationship is founded on twisted hate fuelled revenge even as a genuine connection forms underneath.

Nerdy, earnest school-teacher-to-be Zheng-kun (George Hu Yuwei) has been fostering a lifelong crush on the girl next door, Xuan (Allison Lin), who went away to Taipei and only rarely returns home. Too shy to declare himself, he is enraged and hurt to discover that she has been secretly dating a guy they went to high school with – popular kid Ming-yi (Cheng Jen-shuo) who used to bully him for being only a trash collector’s son. Ming-yi is set to play Han Dan at this year’s Lantern Festival and his show of manly bravado is almost more than Zheng-kun can bear. In a moment of madness, he throws his lighter into a pile of firecrackers hoping to injure his rival, but Xuan runs to warn him and is caught in the crossfire. She dies from her injuries, leaving both men feeling guilty and bereft though no one else knows that it was Zheng-kun who started the fire. 

While Zheng-kun gives up on his teaching career and retreats into gloomy introspection, Ming-yi, who lost his hearing and the use of his hand in the accident, has become a drug addict and petty criminal. Riddled with guilt, Zheng-kun commits to “saving” his former enemy – locking him up while he goes cold turkey and then bringing him into the recycling business he’s started on his father’s land, but still harbours hate in his heart both for himself and for the man Ming-yi used to be.

“If only we were real friends” Zheng-kun mutters under his breath during an otherwise idyllic moment at the river. Learning more about his “blood brother”, Zheng-kun discovers that a toxic family situation is what made him such a terrible person in high school which might ordinarily have fostered compassionate forgiveness but only makes things worse for Zheng-kun who continues to hate Ming-yi to avoid having to think about how much he hates himself for what he did to Xuan. In an effort to atone, he forces himself through the Han Dan ritual year after year, scorching his body with firecrackers but finding little in the way of cathartic release.

“Feeling the pain means I’m alive” he tells a melancholy woman who seems to have had a thing for him ever since he was a shy student with a part-time job in the sleazy snack bar where she works. Now violent and angry, he’s not such a sensitive soul anymore but she loves him all the same and resents the intrusion of the late Xuan into their awkward relationship. Like the lovelorn hostess and the song they find themselves listening to, Zheng-kun too has a secret in his schoolbag that’s becoming impossible to keep but speaking it threatens to upset the carefully balanced semblance of a life that he’s forged with an oblivious, wounded Ming-yi.

Both men struggle to move on from the past, unable to forgive themselves not only for what happened to Xuan but for the choices they did or didn’t make in their youths that leave them afraid to move forward and locked into an awkward brotherhood bonded by love and hate in equal measure. A final cathartic explosion may provide a path towards a new life but only through shattering the fragile bond born of shared tragedy and irretrievable loss. A beautifully lensed morality tale, Han Dan is an acutely observed portrait of the corrosive effects of guilt and trauma but also a tragedy of misplaced male friendship as two lost souls find each other only in losing themselves as they battle the inescapable shadows of the past.


Han Dan screens as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival on June 30.

Original trailer (English subtitles)