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)

Dust in the Wind (戀戀風塵, Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1986)

Geographical dislocation and changing times slowly erode the innocent love of a young couple in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s nostalgic youth drama, Dust in the Wind (戀戀風塵, Liànliàn Fēngchén). Hoping for a better standard of life, they venture to the city but discover that the grass is always greener while their problems largely follow them and the young man finally alienates his childhood love with his stubborn male pride, imbued with a general sense of futility in the inability to better himself because of the constraints of a society which is changing but unevenly and not perhaps in ways which ultimately benefit. 

Opening with a long POV shot of a train emerging from darkness into the light, Hou finds Wen (Wang Chien-wen) and Huen (Xin Shufen) travelling home from school she bashfully admitting that she didn’t understand their maths homework while he automatically shoulders the heavy rice bag her mother has asked her to collect on the way. Their relationship is indeed close and intimate, almost like a long-married couple, yet there’s also little that tells us they are romantically involved rather than siblings or merely childhood friends. Given his family’s relative poverty and the lack of opportunities available in the village, Wen decides not to progress to high school but move to Taipei in search of work while studying in the evenings. Some time later Huen joins him, but they evidently struggle to reassume the level of comfort in each other’s company they experienced at home, Wen permanently sullen and resentful while Huen perhaps adapts more quickly to the rhythms of urban life than he expected if also intensely lonely and fearful, no longer confident in his ability and inclination to care for her. 

Huen clearly envisions a future for the both of them of conventional domesticity, eventually writing to Wen after he is drafted for his military service that a mutual friend spared the draft because of a workplace injury is moving back to his hometown to get married and is planning to sell off land to build houses one of which will be for them. But Wen is still consumed with resentment, frustrated that he can’t make headway in Taipei and in part blaming Huen for highlighting his failure while also holding her responsible when the motorbike he’d been using for work as a delivery driver is stolen after he gives her a ride to town to buy presents for her family. They only seem to speak through the bars of a small window in the basement tailoring room where Huen works as if something is always between them while she complains of her loneliness, Wen apparently ignoring her for long stretches of time while studying for exams though ultimately electing not to apply for colleges. While he’s away in the army, Huen’s letters to him become increasingly infrequent until Wen’s start coming back return to sender, the other soldiers mocking him for his devotion to his hometown girlfriend while suggesting that she has most likely moved on, a supposition which turns out to be correct in the extremely ironic nature of her new suitor. 

Yet it’s not quite true that everything is rosy in the country and rotten in the city. On a visit home, Wen overhears his father and some of the other coal miners discussing a potential strike action feeling themselves exploited and under appreciated, while later that evening a group of boys who also left for Taipei lament their circumstances afraid to explain to their parents that things aren’t going well and that they’ve been physically abused by their employers. Ironically enough it’s Wen who can’t seem to gel with city life, becoming frustrated by Huen’s ability to go with the flow having a minor patriarchal tantrum when she accepts a drink from his male friends at a going away party for a man about to enlist. She responds by voluntarily removing her shirt for an artist friend to decorate, staring at him with scorn while waiting around in her vest. In the village everyone is disappointed, feeling as if Huen has betrayed Wen in failing to fulfil their romantic destiny though it is often enough he who has alienated her in his prideful stubbornness, continually cold towards her, leaving her lonely and afraid. Had they stayed, perhaps they would have married, had children, grown old and done all the expected things together and in that sense “modernity” has indeed come between them but then again they were children and what teenage lovers don’t assume they’re “supposed” to be? “What can you do?” come the words from stoical granddad (Li Tian-lu), explaining that his transplanted potatoes haven’t fared well in the recent storm. 

While Wen’s father can only lament the toll changing political realities took on his future prospects, literally moving rocks around in drunken bouts of frustrated masculinity, Wen must struggle with his familial legacy while wondering if perhaps it’s better in the village after all ensconced in the beautiful rural landscape far from the consumerist corruptions of increasing urbanity. But then according to granddad, the potatoes only accept the nutrient when severed from the vine, much harder to look after than ginseng, apparently. You have to wander in order to find a home, life is hard everywhere, sometimes painful and disappointing, but what can you do? Like dust in the wind, try your best to ride it out.


Dust in the Wind streams in the UK 25th to 31st October as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Cheerful Wind (風兒踢踏踩, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 1982)

A leading figure of the New Taiwan Cinema movement, Hou Hsiao-Hsien has sometimes been regarded as difficult or inaccessible but there has always been a kind of playfulness in his wistful romanticism and it is not perhaps as surprising as it might first seem to realise that like many directors of his generation he began his career with a series of idol movies starring top Hong Kong star Kenny Bee. Cheerful Wind (風兒踢踏踩, Fēng Ér Tī Tà Cǎi, AKA Play While You Play) reunites him with Cute Girl co-star and Taiwanese chart topper Fong Fei-fei* who, in true idol movie fashion, sings the title tune the refrain of which is heard frequently throughout. For all that, however, it’s a surprisingly subversive effort in what is often regarded as a conservative genre, painting its heroine as a free spirited modern woman and refusing to punish her either for her breezy approach to romance or for rejecting marriage in favour of individual fulfilment. 

The heroine, Hsiao Hsing-Hui (Fong Fei-Fei), is a keen photographer working for an ad company currently shooting a commercial for detergent in a traditional seaside village. Whilst there she catches sight of Chin-tai (Kenny Bee), a musician she later discovers to be blind and, therefore, not catching sight of her as she had first assumed. Somewhat problematically, Hsing-hui decides to use Chin-tai in the commercial, an essentially exploitative action that plays into various unhelpful stereotypes about the blind as they hope to show that “even” those who cannot see are aware of their brand despite being unaware of the branding. She does something similar after unexpectedly running into him back in Taipei and “helping” him to cross a road he had no intention of crossing, but this does at least provide the opportunity of a second meet cute which kick starts their relationship. 

Hsing-hui, however, is technically already attached to nerdy colleague Lo Zai (Anthony Chan Yau) with whom she is living though apparently in separate rooms. He is keen to move things forward and has already quit his job with the intention of taking Hsing-hui to meet his mother in Hong Kong who has apparently been nagging, but she is in no particular hurry and has in fact already agreed to fill in for her brother teaching at the primary school in her home town while he goes to Australia for a tennis competition. 

This new focus on international travel perhaps symbolises the growing ambitions of a newly prosperous, globalising society. Hsing-hui’s dream is not marriage but to see the world, which is one reason she’s staying with Lo Zai in that they plan to tour Europe together and she fears she may never have another opportunity. Back in Taipei, meanwhile, when Hsing-hui’s country bumpkin father (Chou Wan-sheng) arrives to take a look at Lo Zai, they take him to eat pizza and drink Coca-Cola in a trendy restaurant but he finds himself doubly displaced. He speaks mainly Taiwanese dialect and struggles to understand the capital’s preferred Mandarin, quickly lost after failing to understand directions while trying to find the bathrooms at the station and enduring a series of comic misunderstandings while trying to converse with Lo Zai who hails from Hong Kong. In fact, the family aren’t really that keen on the idea of her marrying a Hong Konger, but in a pleasantly modern touch Hsing-hui’s father is quick to tell her that it’s her own decision and as long she’s sure he’ll support it. 

Chin-tai meanwhile jokes about a wife needing good teeth as if she were a goat or a horse being sold at auction and as sympathetic as her father is, he also brings up dowries while attempting to negotiate with Lo Zai who goes along with it but isn’t actually that invested in the “hassle” of marriage anyway. “I prefer the old ways, they were more romantic then” Chin-tai confesses, and to an extent Hsing-hui does too, a hippieish free spirit even in the country where she’s taken to task by her new boss for getting the kids to paint an undersea mural on the playground wall rather than the government approved slogans they were supposed to be reinforcing. For all of this drive and positivity, this is still a nation trapped under martial law and would be for the next five years which makes the tacit approval of Hsing-hui’s desire to seize her own destiny romantic and otherwise all the more subversive. What she gets is a universal happy ending with a man who has no desire to trap her and vows to wait while she achieves her dreams in the hope that she will then return to him. Hou’s second feature sees him flirt with youthful post-modernist aesthetics and is so absolutely of its time that it almost hurts, but for all of its essential fluffiness is also an infinitely breezy affirmation of a woman being absolutely herself and the men just dealing with it as she steps bravely into a freer future entirely of her own choosing. 


Cheerful Wind streamed in its new restoration as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Festival teaser trailer (dialogue free)

Title song performed by Fong Fei-fei

*The standard pinyin romanisation of 鳳飛飛’s name is Feng Fei-Fei, but she is usually credited as Fong Fei-fei.

Cute Girl (AKA Loveable You 就是溜溜的她 Hou Hsiao-Hsien 1980)

f_10046820_1If you’re familiar with the name Hou Hsiao-Hsien, it’s probably for his role in the Taiwanese new wave and as one of the major directors of so called “slow cinema”. It might come as a surprise then that his first three movies were pop star vehicles, heavy on catchy tunes and universal humour but light on deep themes and social commentary. However, even if everything about his first film Cute Girl is intended to be just another run of the mill populist rom-com, many of the elements from Hou’s later films are already present from long lenses and longer takes to interesting ideas about composition and a noticeable town/country divide.

The story is predictable enough, poor boy Da-gang falls for wealthy Wen Wen who quite literally doesn’t give him a second glance. That is until she runs off to stay with an aunt in the country for a last holiday before her father has her married off to the son of an important businessman. Da-gang coincidentally ends up in the same village as part of a survey team for a new road (that’s going to go right through the middle of someone’s house). Being Da-gang he also gets bitten by a caterpillar and ends up being left behind to recover whereupon he begins a tentative romance with Wen Wen at last! However, disaster strikes when her father calls her home to meet her prospective husband – will Wen Wen and Da-gang ever find the happiness they deserve? The answer’s sort of obvious but it’s still fun finding out!

The film features pop stars Fong Fei-Fei and Kenny Bee (from Hong Kong) and is unsurprisingly heavy on pop music including the title track which recurs several times throughout the film. Though Cute Girl is undeniably formulaic and intended as nothing other than disposable entertainment hoping to capitalise on its stars profile and sell a few more records, the film has undeniable quirky charm. Full of strange, not quite slapstick humour and silliness you can’t help but find yourself hugely invested in the screwball style love story of Wen Wen and Da-gang.

No, it’s not a film for the ages. It doesn’t tackle the deep themes Hou would return to time and again in his later career but it does have a degree of heart and commitment that make it a very enjoyable example of the late ’70s/’80s Taiwanese musical romantic comedies.

For the extra curious, here is the undeniably catchy tune itself!

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.