City of Lost Things (廢棄之城, Yee Chih-Yen, 2020)

A traumatised teenage boy attempts to escape his sense of alienation by relegating himself to the literal junkyard of humanity in the first animation from Blue Gate Crossing’s Yee Chih-Yen, City of Lost Things (廢棄之城, Fèiqì zhī Chéng). Not to be confused with tragic noir Cities of Last Things, Chen’s eventually inspirational drama resounds with positive energy as the embittered hero determines to love himself a little more in order to find the place where he belongs, where he can he strong and beautiful and “turn into something not trash”, while remaining unafraid to explore the darker edges of his loneliness and desperation as he searches for connection and community. 

As he explains in the opening voiceover, 16-year-old Leaf (River Huang) doesn’t like it at home where it seems his mother drinks, nor does he like it at school, or on the streets where he becomes the victim of violence. Coming to the conclusion he has nowhere else to go, Leaf is almost swept away by a giant rubbish truck along with a host of “other” refuse, accidentally saving a sentient plastic bag imaginatively named “Baggy” (Joseph Chang) which gets stuck under his shirt. Baggy guides him to Trash City where unwanted and discarded items live in a kind of ghetto ruled over by an oppressive guardian deity statue, Mr. G (Jack Kao), who also looks quite like the figure of legendary Chinese general Guan Yu. Baggy explains to him that he and many of the other pieces of “trash” trapped in the city long to escape the “siege” in order not to be “quiet trash” anymore but find a place they can be beautiful, and strong, and love themselves a little more. 

In contrast to the heroes of most children’s animation, Leaf is not a particularly sympathetic character, his obvious self-loathing of which “Trash City” is perhaps a metaphor beginning to boil over into something dark and potentially dangerous. In Trash City he finds a source of eternal escape, not wanting to leave but to remain in this place where he can feel at home, unjudged, and unbothered by the adult world while accepted by those around him as an equal. This is one reason he clings so fiercely to his new friendship with Baggy, immediately anxious on discovering his plan to leave Trash City in realising it must necessarily mean that they will one day have to say goodbye. Not wanting to lose this new friendship and return to loneliness he finds himself taking the self-destructive step of snitching on his friends little realising the consequences of his actions. 

Yet if Trash City represents Leaf’s sense of depression is also perhaps functions as a political allegory through the oppressive rule of Mr. G who refuses Baggy and the others permission to leave though he does so apparently for their own safety in order to evade the “armoured trucks” which literally suck up dissidents and crush them like rubbish in their rear compactors. In escaping Trash City, however, what Leaf must overcome is his sense of powerlessness and inconsequaility to believe that there is a place for him where he can lead a happy life surrounded by people who love him rather than regarding himself as human “trash” rejected by and unworthy of regular society. 

Nevertheless, there’s a slightly less cheerful metaphor in play in the obvious ironic twist that the place they’re looking for is a recycling centre which points to an external transformation rather than the change from within implied by Baggy’s constant messages of the importance of learning to love one’s self a little more. It also gives rise some awkward humour as Leaf looks for his friend in plastic buckets and subway seats which eventually leads to a slightly inappropriate adult joke likely to confuse younger viewers while uncomfortably implying that people and things only have value when they’re transformed into something “useful”. While the animation style is relatively simple, the charming worldbuilding and innovative production design of the almost steampunk city with its mannequin lamp guards and disco-crazy white goods help to smooth over any sense of hollowness while the overarching story of growing self-acceptance as the path out of despair is a refreshing take on potentially destructive adolescent angst as the hero resolves to find his place in the world rather than exiling himself from it. 


City of Lost Things screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Eternal Summer (盛夏光年, Leste Chen, 2006)

A trio of emotionally displaced teens find themselves swept into an awkward love triangle while longing to escape their loneliness in Leste Chen’s melancholy youth drama Eternal Summer (盛夏光年, Shèngxià Guāngnián). Each in someway marginalised and searching for acceptance, the teens struggle to define themselves as the world changes itself around them while bound by the paradoxical qualities of their circular relationships, their unspoken secrets continually driving them apart even as they continue to long for the intimacy born only of sharing their authentic selves. 

A quiet, studious boy, Joseph Kang (Ray Chang) is asked to befriend his deskmate Shane (Jopseph Hsiao-chuan) who has ADHD and has been labeled disruptive in the hope that creating social relationships with other children will help calm him down. The arrangement in a sense backfires, Joseph’s academic achievement falling while his friendship with Shane only grows in strength and intensity. By the time they are teenagers, the pair are inseparable but Joseph has also fallen in deep, unrequited love with his best friend, a secret he is afraid to share with anyone and ironically cannot share with the one person to whom he is supposed to be able to tell anything. The friendship is further disrupted by the sudden introduction of transfer student Carrie (Kate Yeung Mei-ling) who has returned to Taipei to live with her mother after years of living with her father in Hong Kong. Carrie first develops a fondness for Joseph while working with him on the school paper, but later figures out that he’s secretly in love with Shane and decides to support him as a friend while in another irony Joseph’s ongoing internal crisis eventually forces his friends together, Carrie secretly dating Shane while each of them knows on differing levels how their relationship may hurt Joseph when he eventually finds out. 

In 2006 Taiwanese society was perhaps not quite as accepting as it would become, yet Joseph’s anxiety in his sexuality in compounded by the desire not to lose his friendship with Shane fearing not just that his feelings are not returned but that he may reject him altogether just for being gay. While Shane, a high school sports star with terrible grades, eventually blossoms academically after Carrie makes the ironic promise to go out with him in the unlikely event he gets into uni, it’s heavily implied that Joseph’s previously high level of achievement is damaged because of his preoccupation with his sexuality shockingly failing his uni entrance exams and thereafter further separated from his friends as they move on and he remains in cram school limbo hoping for better luck next year. Meanwhile he finds himself in potentially dangerous situations cruising in parks trying to verify his homosexuality while privately consumed by shame. 

For Shane, meanwhile, his problem is that he feels rejected by the world around him because of the way his ADHD was treated as a child. Regarded as a disruptive troublemaker none of the other kids would play with him save Joseph, meaning that he too is desperate to maintain the friendship in fear of his inescapable loneliness even while finding a similar connection with Carrie who is herself longing for love seemingly having strained relationships with each of her divorced parents while geographically and culturally displaced in having spent much of her life in Hong Kong. Carrie is, however, the only one to know the whole truth frustrated with the two men in her life that they can’t simply clear the air by voicing the secrets that continue to erode their relationship. 

Then again perhaps what they really fear is “change”, afraid of an uncertain adulthood in which their childhood connection will necessarily weaken. “We will lose each other in the future?” a conflicted Shane wonders, uncertain if his co-dependency is entirely healthy or fair on his friends but fearing becoming alone or having to make a choice unable to lose one or both of his essential connections. At heart a mood piece, Chen’s melancholy drama is filled with the strange canted angles of a world out of kilter and poignant reflections of the past in the midst of present torment, both elegiac and nostalgic for a particular moment in time which must in some way pass even if his parting words are painfully ironic in their cutting intensity.


Eternal Summer streams in Poland until Nov. 29 as part of the 15th Five Flavours Film Festival.

4K restoration trailer (Traditional Chinese subtitles only)

Murmur of the Hearts (念念, Sylvia Chang, 2015)

A legacy of abandonment frustrates the futures of three orphaned adults in Sylvia Chang’s moving drama, Murmur of the Hearts (念念, Niàn Niàn). Marooned in their own small pools, they yearn for the freedom of oceans but find themselves unable to let go of past hurt to move into a more settled adulthood, eventually discovering that there is no peace without understanding or forgiveness and no path to freedom without learning to let go of the shore. 

The heroine, Mei (Isabella Leong), is an artist living in Taipei and apparently still consumed with rage and resentment towards her late mother. She is in a troubled relationship with a down on his luck boxer, Hsiang (Joseph Chang Hsiao-chuan), who has abandonment issues of his own that are compounded by toxic masculinity which leaves him feeling inadequate in failing to live up to the expectations of his long absent father. Mei’s long lost brother, Nan (Lawrence Ko), meanwhile is now a melancholy bachelor in his 30s who, unlike all the other young men, never swam far from home, working for a tourist information company on Green Island which, though once notorious as a penal colony housing political prisoners during the White Terror has now become a tourist hotspot thanks to its picturesque scenery. 

Like one whole cleaved in two youthful separation weighs heavily on each of the siblings who cannot but help feel the absence of the other. Their mother, Jen (Angelica Lee Sinje), trapped in the oppressive island society, was fond of telling them stories about a mermaid who escaped her palace home by swimming towards the light and the freedom of the ocean. She tells the children to be the “angels” rescuing the little fish trapped in rock pools by sending them “home” to the sea, and, it seems, eventually escaped herself taking Mei with her but leaving Nan behind. Neither sibling has been ever been able to fully forgive her, not Mei who lost both her family and her home in the city, or Nan who stayed behind with his authoritarian father wondering if his mother didn’t take him him because she loved his sister more. 

Mei, meanwhile feels rejected by her father after overhearing him on the phone saying he wanted nothing to do with either of them ever again. Idyllic as it is, the island wears its penal history heavily as a permanent symbol of the authoritarian past which is perhaps both why Mei has never returned, and why Nan has remained afraid to leave. Unable to make peace with the past they cannot move forward. Mei’s life has reached a crisis point in the advent of maternity. She is pregnant with Hsiang’s child but conflicted about motherhood in her unresolved resentment towards her mother while insecure in her relationship with the emotionally stunted Hsiang who, likewise, is terrified of the idea of fatherhood because of his filial insecurity. 

Only by facing the past can they begin to let it go. Chang shifts into the register of magical realism as a mysterious barman arrives to offer advice to each of the siblings, Nan indulging in an uncharacteristic drinking session while sheltering from a typhoon on the evening his father that his father dies and somehow slipping inside a memory to converse with the mother who was forced to leave him behind, coming to see the love in her abandonment. Jen told him that she wanted him to see the world, but he is reluctant even to go Taipei and afraid to seek out his sister. 

Jen’s battle was, it seems, to save her children from the oppressions of Green Island, to be their angel returning them to the great ocean she herself felt she’d been denied. She wanted her children to be “creative”, resisting her abusive, authoritarian husband and his fiercely conservative, patriarchal ideals but eventually left with no option other than to leave. Yet the children flounder, left without guidance or harbour. “I don’t know where my home is”, Mei laments, revealing that she only feels real and alive when angry. For all that, however, it’s Jen’s story that finally sets them free, showing them path away from the prison of the past and finally returning them to each other united by a shared sense of loss but unburdened by fear or resentment in a newfound serenity.


Murmur of the Hearts streams online for free in the US as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Mini-Focus: Taiwan Cinema Online on June 9.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Laundryman (青田街一號, Lee Chung, 2015)

青田街一號_主海報A_直式_有贊助_OLCould you, should you, attempt to wash away life’s “stains” by erasing them? The hero of Lee Chung’s The Laundryman (青田街一號, Qīngtián J Yīhào) is engaged with just that in his clandestine occupation in which he works as a kind of “cleaner”, smoothing the wrinkles out of life’s little problems for the monied and unscrupulous. Yet he finds himself “haunted” by his crimes, accused by those he so casually dispatched without asking why, and eventually forced into a reexamination of his life and work.

Known only by the cryptic codename “No. 1, Chingtian Street” (Joseph Chang Hsiao-chuan), our hitman is one of many working for the mysterious A-gu (Sonia Sui Tang) at her family laundry which she runs as a cover for her stable of assassins, claiming that they merely clean the stains from people’s lives rather than their clothes. A-gu’s methods are complex and exacting. Picking up concerned citizens in the street, she guides them towards her services before Chingtian or one of his colleagues inserts themselves into their target’s daily routine, knocks them off in a quiet sort of way, then brings the body “home” to be “laundered”.

The snag is that Chingtian has recently become plagued by the spirits of those he’s killed. Three of them, to be exact (and an extra one he didn’t off but has started following him anyway). Traditional therapy proving no help, A-gu sends Chingtian off to see Lin (Regina Wan Qian), a pretty psychic, despite affirming that all of this is some weird thing going on with Chingtian’s head rather than genuine paranormal activity. Lin, spotting his ghostly followers right away, explains to Chingtian that they most likely have unfinished business – i.e. finding out who wanted them dead and why. There is, however, a little more to it than that as a further trail of death begins to linger behind Chingtian that leads back to a dark and repressed memory of his youth.

Despite its whimsical tone, Lee’s drama leans heavily into the darkness in asking why it is someone might decide to pay to have someone else killed. The answers aren’t the ones you’re expecting. No business disputes or political machinations, only frustrated loves and loneliness. A nerdy young loner falls for the larger lady from next-door and is horrified to realise that her boyfriend beats her to the point at which she has begun to consider suicide as a means of escape. He wants to save her, and after all the world might be “better off” without the violent boyfriend, so he gives in to A-gu’s alluring offer to have the guy offed (for a small fee). Meanwhile, another mark decided on his course of action out of an excess of love, or to put it more pointedly, its dark side as he became increasingly convinced he could not live up to its expectation and determined to free himself of the burden, damning himself further into a downward spiral of self-destructive humiliation.

A-gu’s life philosophies lean to towards the callous with all her talk of “cleaning” and affirmations that “useless people should be destroyed”, but as Lin points out it’s quite something else to bump off a lovely older couple – some might even call it heartless. Heartless is what Chingtian has been raised to be, so his recently reawakened humanity is quite a problem. Caught between A-gu who alternates between something like possessive mother and femme fatale (which is just as strange a dynamic as it sounds), the pixyish Lin, and later the dogged policewoman Yang (Yeo Yann Yann) who’s picked up on a trail set down for her to find but followed it further than intended, Chingtian is forced to confront himself and his past, in a sense putting his psyche on a spin cycle to reverse a lifetime’s worth of brainwashing and remember who it is he really is.

Strangely warm and fuzzy, Lee’s whimsical world of colour is a perfect mix of film noir fatalism and fairytale promise as Chingtian walks a precarious path towards reintegration of his personality while trying a fair few others on for size. The childlike silliness of an anti-ghost musical number mingles with the hard edged kung fu of a violent procedural but Lee never loses his sense of cartoonish fun even as Chingtian begins to find his answers and with them a clue to inner darknesses personal and otherwise.


Currently available to stream in the UK (and possibly other territories) via Amazon Prime Video.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Big Call (巨额来电, Oxide Pang, 2017)

The Big Call posterOnce upon a time people sneered at telephone scams, unable to believe anyone would fall for something so obviously dubious, yet technological innovation has turned them into an underground industry as our data is bought and sold across a spectrum of nefarious forces whose use for it runs from relentless spamming to the intention to defraud. Oxide Pang’s The Big Call (巨额来电, Jùé Láidiàn) pits an earnest Mainland cop against an entrepreneurial kingpin running a multinational operation which he half-brands as a Robin Hood exercise intended to rob the super rich of their excess wealth, but then he never quite intends to redistribute it, only to put it straight back to work so that it might reproduce.

Our hero, straight as an arrow rookie policeman Ding (Cheney Chen), fails to save his old high school teacher from committing suicide after being defrauded of a vast amount of money through a telephone scam. Fraud isn’t really his division – he’s just a regular street cop, but he’s determined to protect the people in his precinct and seeing as he’s already found numerous similar cases is convinced he has a shot at unmasking the criminal. Ding’s investigation, however, unwittingly throws a spanner into an Anti-Telecommunication Fraud Centre operation. Despite their irritation, the guys in the fraud squad decide to let Ding in on the action whereupon he quickly realises that his old academy girlfriend is in fact undercover in the Thai sweatshop where his prime suspect, Lin Ahai (Joseph Chang), and his partner/girlfriend Liu Lifang (Gwei Lun-mei) run a call centre staffed by trafficked women. Teaming up with Taiwanese gangsters, Ahai and Lifang make use of extremely detailed personal information to create convincing telephone scams so that their marks will never suspect they aren’t who they say they are until it’s too late.

Ahai is perhaps a symptom of modern Chinese inequality. A poor young man who sought to better himself, Ahai is ignored by the business world and revels in getting his own back by making millions defrauding millionaires. Yet it’s not only “evil” millionaires that the pair target but ordinary men and women who don’t have the kind of money they can afford to lose. Ahai’s own sister (Peng Xinchen) left the village and refused to take his ill-gotten gains but later falls victim to a cruel scam herself – she’s just a college student with hardly any money but the scammers use exactly that against her, pretending to be from the education authorities so they can persuade her to part with her tuition money or else threaten her with problems in her enrolment. Meanwhile, he and and Lifang dream of the life that was far out of their reach – a swanky flat on Hong Kong’s fashionable Hennessy Road where they could live together with all the comforts of the elite and raise a family free of economic anxiety.

Some might think telephone fraud is a victimless crime, that the banks will cover the loss for their investors and so the only casualty is capitalism. This is however not true. Not only will many people be deprived of their life savings – money they needed in the short term for medical bills, tuition, mortgages etc, but will suffer intense humiliation at having been so cruelly caught out. The scammers attention to detail is intense. Having acquired vast amounts of confidential information, they have enough to convince most rational people that they are who they say they are but aren’t afraid to take things to the next level if they need to. Unable to get over the shame of having been taken in, suicide is a very real possibility for those who feel they’ve lost everything including their good name and future possibilities. Ahai, of course, refuses responsibility for the secondary effects of his crimes, thinking only about money while Lifang silently pines for him and the life he promised her while dutifully doing his dirty work in the hope that they can finally be together. 

Pang stages the cat and mouse game between the earnest Ding and the amoral Ahai as an ironic battle of wits though the odd bursts of absurd humour often feel out of place alongside the sometimes grim story of underworld life. Yet it’s the spiky psychological drama between undercover cop Xiaotu (Jiang Mengjie) and gangster’s moll Lifang which really sets things alight as Lifang at once suspects Xiaotu is not all she seems but can’t help respecting her tough as nails survivor attitude. Meanwhile, Ding is given two additional reasons to chase Ahai besides his shining love of justice – the first being that Ahai loves pretending to be a law enforcement official and thereby tarnishing the reputation of the police, and the other being that Xiaotu is an old flame. Slick if superficial, The Big Call is a return to the HK cop dramas of old only robbed of its edgy street punk energy by the upscale and emotionless world of faceless cybercrime.


The Big Call was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

HK trailer (English subtitles)

The Village of No Return (健忘村, Chen Yu-hsun, 2017)

健忘村_畫報風篇_RED_OK_VWouldn’t it be wonderful to just forget all the terrible/embarrassing things that have ever happened to you and live in a paradise of blissful ignorance? To put it bluntly, this is an experiment with historical precedent and one which has never yet worked out for the best. Absurd Taiwanese comedy Village of No Return (健忘村, Jiànwàng Cūn) is both a raucous life in the village comedy and subtle satire on the roots of tyranny, cults of personality, fake news and the evils of the art of forgetting that ultimately turns into a defence of the benevolent dictator.

Somewhere around 1914, the early years of the Chinese Republic, an ambitious warlord (Eric Tsang) has his sights set on capturing Desire Village which, he has been assured by a fortune teller, contains numerous treasures and will make him a king. Unfortunately, his village mole is the unscrupulous Big Pie (Ban Zan) who treks home with carrier pigeons he’s supposed to send back with the message “wait”, “come”, or “don’t come” only Big Pie can’t read. None of that really matters in the end because Big Pie is shortly to die in mysterious circumstances just as a mysterious monk, Fortune Tien (Wang Qianyuan), rocks up with a strange “Worry Ridder” device he claims can permanently ease anxieties.

The main drama revolves around melancholy village girl, Autumn (Shu Qi), who was married off to the ugly and abusive Big Pie against her will. Still pining for the son of the village leader, Dean (Tony Yang), who went off to become an official but has become displaced during the Revolution, Autumn has spent her life literally shackled to the stove and has begun to dwell on death as an antidote to the hopelessness of realising Dean is probably not coming back. Autumn is, however, the last to hold out against the lure of the Worry Ridder, reluctant to give up the memory of Dean no matter how painful it may continue to be.

Fortune Tien is nothing if not persuasive. Little by little he sells the virtues of his machine and quickly has the villagers eating out of his hand. Before long he’s erased the memories of life before he came and installed himself as village chief, presiding over a collection of beatific zombies content to do the literal spade work while Fortune Tien reigns supreme with an easy answer for everything. The parallels are obvious, even if Tien’s case is more extreme. History is rewritten, anyone who remembers differently has a faulty memory or is, perhaps, mad. Only Tien can be relied upon to arbitrate the truth of his false revolution.

The Worry Ridder itself is a fabulously designed piece of anachronistic technology, displaying memories like silent movies with scratchy sound and operated by a modern user interface complete with kitschy animation. Its evils can only be undone with the long lost “Soul Restorer” and its overuse seems to lead to an advanced senility. Though it does indeed erase memories and offer a kind of drugged up serenity, the machine cannot undo the underlying emotions and so those lingering feelings of love or attraction, misplaced or otherwise, remain even without the reasons for their existence. Love is the force which saves the day as Autumn, temporarily saved from her hellish life as the wife of Big Pie after becoming the “First Flower” of Tien’s dictatorial regime, continues to dream of her former love leading her to question Tien’s all powerful grip on the accepted truth.   

Meanwhile outside the village other threats are looming. Prior to their own revolution, the villagers had been excited to learn of the coming railways, mistakenly believing that randomly building an unconnected station (which is like a farm for trains!) would make them rich. The nefarious gangster quickly gets forgotten but he seems evil enough seeing as he’s flying kites made out the skins of his murder victims, though his biggest allies – the Cloud Clan, are led by a portly postmistress (Lin Mei-hsiu) to whom he presents an “iron horse” (i.e. a bicycle) which proves a surprisingly difficult challenge for her to master. The Cloud Clan’s main weapon is their sweet sound, beatboxing a background melody for the surprisingly beautiful voice of the postmistress often heard just before she whips out her giant machete and dispatches her foes with ruthless efficiency. An absurd satire on the ease with which tyranny makes use of human failings, Village of no Return ultimately wonders if blissful mindlessness is really all that bad if all your needs are met and you can count yourself “safe” and “happy”. A good question at the best of times, but one that seems oddly urgent.


Currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video in UK & US.

International trailer (Mandarin with English subtitles)