Hello! Tapir (嗨!神獸, Kethsvin Chee, 2020) [Fantasia 2021]

“In this world, everything disappears eventually” according to the prophetic words of the absent father of young Keat in Kethsvin Chee’s charmingly retro children’s fantasy adventure Hello! Tapir (嗨!神獸, Hāi Shénshòu). At heart a tale of grief and a small child’s acceptance of death, Hello! Tapir is also one of gentle adventure as the hero and his two friends search for tapirs in the undergrowth but eventually discover an accommodation with loss in the knowledge that nothing’s ever really gone even if you can’t see it. 

Keat (Bai Run-yin) lives in a small fishing village with his fisherman father (Lee Lee-zen) and grandma (Lü Hsueh-feng) who sells seafood at the market. Captivated by his father’s improbabe tale of having encountered a tapir who eats people’s nightmares in the forest, Keat implores his dad to take him to see it too but Keat’s father Sheng is always too busy and often reneges on his promises. Ominous winds start to blow when news of a typhoon is broadcast over the radio while Keat is angry that no one woke him before his father left on the boat as he had asked them to do. Sure enough, not long after Keat discovers a commotion at the harbour and gathers there has been some kind of accident at sea. His father hasn’t come home and his grandma is frantic but he’s just a little boy and no one is telling him anything. 

Told from a child’s point of view, Chee’s melancholy tale perfectly captures the confusion and resentment of a small boy in the midst of crisis. Keat cannot conceive of the idea his father may never come home again, replying to his friend’s questions that he’ll be back maybe tomorrow or the day after that. After all, he was supposed to take him to see the tapir. Because he’s sure his dad’s coming back, he grows resentful towards his recently returned mother (Charlie Yeung Choi-Nei) who left the family some time previously and had been living in Taipei and his grandmother for taking his father’s place away by boxing up his clothes and preparing to sell the fishing boat which came back empty on its own for scrap. 

Meanwhile he attempts to secure his father’s legacy by searching for the tapir on his own, encountering a baby which later leads him into the forest and towards its giant parent sucking on golden nightmare orbs all the way. Tapirs are obviously not native to Taiwan and so their presence is as decidedly unexpected as their unusual appearance. You would’t expect to see one wandering through town unless it had recently escaped from a zoo, but they are perhaps Keat’s way of processing the loss of his father the adult tapir gently showing him what it was he most wanted but feared to know while comforting him with its reassuringly warm presence. 

On the cusp of adolescence, Keat finds himself squarely between two sets of overlapping worlds caught between the fantasy of nightmare-eating tapirs and the reality of his grief while also remaining firmly in the realms of childhood having innocent adventures with his two friends as they try all sorts of tricks to draw out the mystical creatures just as his mother deals with the difficulties of planning a funeral and making plans for the future without overburdening her son with impending change. Nobody tells Keat anything because he’s just a child and they think he won’t understand, but he understands that they’re not telling him and the knowledge further increases his sense of loneliness and alienation left entirely alone with his grief and anxiety. 

A beautifully drawn magical realist fable, Chee’s charmingly old fashioned kids fantasy adventure makes the most of its idyllic seaside setting replete with a warm and friendly atmosphere despite its concurrent tragedy. Keat is forced to face the reality of his loss, but does so while maintaining a sense of wonder for the natural world secure in the knowledge that all things disappear in the end, but it isn’t the end of the story and death is merely another part of life. Warm and empathetic, Hello! Tapir paints its coastal setting with an uncanny sense of magic coupled with a cosmological sense of security as its young hero begins to come to terms with his loss thanks to the gentleness of sleeping creatures. 


Hello! Tapir streamed as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Leg (腿, Chang Yao-sheng, 2020)

“Life is long. We all have some regrets.” a grieving widow is told by a disingenuous doctor in full damage limitation mode. He’s not necessarily wrong, nor is his advice that the widow’s pointless quest to retrieve her late husband’s amputated limb has little practical value though of course it means something to her and as he’d pointed out seconds earlier a physician’s duty is to alleviate suffering of all kinds. Apparently inspired by the true story of director Chang Yao-sheng’s mother, A Leg (腿, Tuǐ) is in many ways a story of letting go as the deceased man himself makes a presumably unheard ghostly confession while his wife attempts to do the only thing she can in order to lay him to rest. 

Husband Zi-han (Tony Yang) is in hospital to deal with a painful, seemingly necrotic foot which eventually has to be amputated in a last ditch attempt to cure his septicaemia. “Keep the leg and lose your life, or keep your life and lose the leg” the otherwise unsympathetic doctor advices wife Yu-ying (Gwei Lun-mei) in a remark which will come to seem ironic as, unfortunately, Zi-han’s case turns out to be more serious than first thought and he doesn’t make it through the night. Grief-stricken, Yu-ying leaves in an ambulance with the body but later turns back, determined to retrieve the amputated foot in order that her husband be buried “complete” only it turns out that it’s not as simple as she assumed it would be. 

The loss of Zi-han’s foot is all the more ironic as the couple had been a pair of ballroom dancers. As Yu-ying makes a nuisance of herself at the hospital, Zi-han begins to narrate the story of their romance which began when he fell in love with a photo of her dancing in the window of his friend’s photography studio. Explaining that, having died, he’s reached the realisation that everything beautiful is in the past only he was too foolish to appreciate it, Zi-han looks back over his tragic love story acknowledging that he was at best an imperfect husband who caused his wife nothing but pain and disappointment until the marriage finally broke down. He offers no real explanation for his self-destructive behaviour save the unrealistic justification that he only wanted Yu-ying to live comfortably and perhaps implies that his death is partly a means of freeing her from the series of catastrophes he brought into her life. 

Given Zi-han’s beyond the grave testimony, the accusation levelled at Yu-ying by his doctor that the couple could not have been on good terms because Zi-han must have been ill for a long time with no one to look after him seems unfair though perhaps hints at the guilt Yu-ying feels in not having been there for her husband when he needed her. As we later discover, however, this is also partly Zi-han’s fault in that he over invested in a single piece of medical advice and resisted getting checked out by a hospital until he managed to sort out an insurance scam using his photographer friend, wrongly as it turned out believing he had a few months slack before the situation became critical and paying a high price for his tendency to do everything on the cheap. Nevertheless, Yu-ying’s quest to reattach his leg is her way of making amends, doing this one last thing for the husband whom she loved deeply even though he appears to have caused her nothing but misery since the day they met. 

In order to placate her, the slimy hospital chief offers to have a buddhist sculptor carve a wooden replica of Zi-han’s leg made from wood destined for a statue of Guan-yin goddess of mercy but Yu-ying eventually turns it down, struck by the beauty of the object but convinced that turning it to ash along with her husband’s body would be wrong while believing that wood ash and bone ash are fundamentally different. She regrets having ticked the box on the consent form stating she didn’t want to keep the “specimen”, never for one moment assuming that her husband would not recover. Despite their dancing dreams, she thought the leg was worth sacrificing against the long years they would have spent together after, though this too seems a little unlikely considering the state of their relationship prior to her discovery of Zi-han’s precarious health. Zi-han meanwhile is filled with regret for his continually awful behaviour and the obvious pain he caused his wife. Getting his leg back allows him to begin “moving on” while doing something much the same for Yu-ying though his afterlife pledge about the endurance of love seems a little trite given how he behaved while alive. A little more maudlin than your average quirky rom-com, A Leg nevertheless takes a few potshots at a sometimes cold, cynical, and inefficient medical system, inserting a plea for a little more empathy from a pair of unexpectedly sympathetic police officers, while insisting that it’s important to dance through life with feeling for as long as you’re allowed. 


A Leg screens Aug. 14  & streams in the US Aug. 15 – 20 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Miss Andy (迷失安狄, Teddy Chin, 2020)

“The things we like we’re still going to lose” according to a drunken young man lamenting youthful impossibility in Teddy Chin’s melancholy tale of marginalisation and frustrated hope, Miss Andy (迷失安狄). A Malaysian-Taiwanese co-production, Chin’s sensitive drama allows its disparate protagonists to find a sense of security in the solidarity of an accidental family, but all too quickly reminds us that despair is the enemy of love and that a lack of faith in human connection can undermine even the most genuine of bonds in those who can no longer believe in future happiness. 

The titular “Miss Andy”, Evon (Lee Lee-zen), has certainly had her share of disappointment. Now 55, she transitioned five years previously following the death of her wife but both of her grown-up children have since disowned her. Having lost her livelihood, she’s had no choice other than to resort to sex work in order to make ends meet, finding herself on the receiving end of male violence from her clients only then to be arrested with the man insisting that he was only defending himself against her advances and attempt to rob him while the unsympathetic police officer dead names and berates her with homophobic slurs. She is eventually forced to strip and expose her genitals while half the station gawp and take photos. Evon decides to give up on sex work and advises her friend Lucy to do the same, but she refuses to see the danger and is later murdered by a man who solicited her for sex. 

Feeling totally alone, Evon tries to claim her position in society, insisting on receiving her pay from her previous employer who tries to short-change her justifying herself with more transphobic slurs. Evon has only one other friend, Teck (Jack Tan), a young man with a hearing impairment who offers her additional work as a delivery driver during which she encounters a little boy looking longingly at some pastries in a small store by a petrol station. She decides to buy one for him, but the boy has gone when she returns. Later that night, however, she gets a surprise discovering the boy and his mother having snuck into her apartment after stowing away on the truck. Hearing that they’ve escaped an abusive relationship and have nowhere else to go she invites them to stay.

Sophia (Ruby Lin), the boy’s mother, is an undocumented migrant from Vietnam. She’s struck by the unlikely miracle of Evon because her name sounds a little like the Vietnamese for hope, something on which she was beginning to give up. We see her telephone her family, but her father only angrily demands more money, eventually passing the phone over to her sister who unsentimentally tells her that her mother has died. All the rest of the family were with her, only Sophia was absent. Feeling just as alone as Evon she is grateful for her kindness, swearing to find a job to repay it while cooking and cleaning as a means of saying thank you. 

Later joined by Teck and anchored by Sophia’s young son Kang who is the same age as the granddaughter Evon is rarely allowed to see, they begin to become a family, united in their sense of marginalisation each in some way rejected by mainstream society. Evon religiously buys lottery tickets using the birthdays of her wife and children as numbers in the hope they’ll eventually come up and she’ll somehow win her family back. Even Sophia who had perhaps not dared to dream of a brighter future eventually joins in as they idly fantasise about the kind of home they’d build if they actually won while sitting in an upscale furniture store before the server at a festive restaurant offers to take a picture of their “family”, but when that sense of possibility finally presents itself the illusion is shattered. Desperation undermines their fragile bond, pushes them towards doubt and betrayal, no longer able to believe in the viability of simple human goodness or mutual support as mechanisms for living but suddenly selfish and self-destructive destroying everything they’d built in mistakenly staking all on the vague possibility of material comfort.

Asked about her dreams, Evon had only stated that she wanted a safe and stable life but what she craved was the sense of togetherness and acceptance she felt with Sophia and Kang while her children continue to reject her and she finds herself marginalised by a conservative society that refuses to affirm her existence as a transgender woman. Bathed alternately in the melancholy neon of the outside world and the golden warmth of Evon’s apartment, Miss Andy leaves its marginalised protagonists wounded, pushed into acts of self harm having lost all faith in the veracity of simple human connection corrupted by the fear and despair of an unforgiving society ruled by inequality and prejudice. 


Miss Andy streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sisterhood (骨妹, Tracy Choi, 2016)

Middle-aged regret and irreconcilable loss bring one lonely woman home from exile in Tracy Choi’s melancholy exploration of impossible love and illusionary futures, Sisterhood (骨妹, Gwat Mui). Moving from present day Taiwan to pre-handover Macao, Choi’s emotionally complex drama is both a chronicle of changing times and not as the collection of women at its centre attempt to protect themselves from a relentlessly patriarchal society through female solidarity only to see their fragile bonds disrupted by a political sea change. 

Choi opens in the present day with a now almost middle-aged Sei (Gigi Leung Wing-kei) visiting a doctor’s surgery after fracturing her wrist, apparently the result of an all too common drunken accident. Now living in Taiwan and running a small inn with her devoted husband who is perhaps overly supportive in his willingness to enable her drinking on the grounds that it keeps her “happy”, Sei appears to be quietly miserable. Spotting an ad in a newspaper telling her that an old friend, Ling (Jennifer Yu Heung-ying), with whom she’d long since lost touch has passed away jolts her out of her inertia, journeying back into the past as she finds herself travelling to a very different Macao to that of her youth in which the young Sei (Fish Liew) worked as a masseuse and was part of a quartet of close friends trying to survive the indignities of life on the margins through shared sisterhood. 

Sei’s “breakup” with Ling occurs on the very day that Macao returns to China, her friends seemingly thereafter scattering as she finds herself agreeing to a rebound marriage with an earnest Taiwanese customer who abruptly proposed on their very first date. We hear Ling tell her that she has found a man willing to marry her, but that her son Lok is an obstacle and so she plans to send him to the Mainland, cruelly ignoring the part that Sei has been playing in their lives as a co-parent even if, as we discover, the relationship between the two women goes largely undefined. Having moved in with her after losing her apartment, it is Sei who is there to support Ling when she becomes unexpectedly pregnant by a casual boyfriend/customer, eventually convincing her to have the baby by assuring her they’ll raise it together, but despite their pledges to stay together always the spectre of heteronormativity hangs over them constantly. Mocked in the street by a couple of old busybodies, Ling reacts with extreme sensitivity to the word “lesbian”, quickly moving her hand away from Sei’s as they push their son together in his pushchair lest conclusions be drawn from their closeness. Sei, by contrast, pays it no mind though this could easily be because she knows it isn’t “true”, at least in any concrete sense. The two women are evidently not lovers, if perhaps in love, but so impossible does their relationship seem to them that they lack the ability to recognise it let alone envisage its future. 

It is perhaps this degree of internalised shame that leads Ling to push Sei away, believing either that she will be “happier” in a heterosexual relationship, that she is in some way preventing her from living a more socially conventional life, or just afraid of her own feelings in assuming they are not returned and that she does not in any case deserve romantic happiness. The irony being that Sei’s married life seems to have been one of miserable emptiness and regret, stubbornly attempting to make the conventional work without quite knowing what the cause of her pain really is. On her return to post-handover Macao, she’s confronted with the failed futures of all her friends, one now a young grandmother owning her own business but forced to work herself to the bone to provide for her family, and the other near destitute and alone, floundering in the casino paradise of the upscale modern city. Meeting the now grown Lok she confides that she’s happy for him because lost as he is he has choices they never had in their young lives in which they did anything they could just to survive. 

The female solidarity which had enabled the four women to navigate a world in which they were encouraged to believe that their only option was to gain access to male economic power has thoroughly broken down in the post-handover society, and so Sei’s return is also a healing in helping to repair the broken bonds between her friends and restore the “sisterhood” which had been ruptured by the passing of an era. She can no longer repair her relationship with Ling and is perhaps left with a sense of longing and regret for an irretrievable past, but in coming to an understanding of her youth, her own feelings and desires, she gains the self-knowledge denied to her during her 15 years of exile, finally in a sense returning “home”. 


Sisterhood is available to stream in the UK 23rd October to 5th November via Barbican on Demand as part of this year’s Queer East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Nina Wu (灼人秘密, Midi Z, 2019)

Nina Wu poster 1“They’re not just destroying my body but my soul” complains an exploited woman in a film within a film, “I’ll do something you’ll all regret” she adds, only the actress never will. Penned by leading actress Wu Ke-xi, Nina Wu (灼人秘密, Zhuó Rén Mì) provides a timely exploration of the gradual erasure of the self the pursuit of a dream can entail in a fiercely patriarchal, intensely conservative culture. Arriving in the wake of the #metoo scandal the film goes in hard for industry exploitation but never tries to pretend that these are issues relating to the film industry alone or deny the various ways it informs and is informed by prevailing social conservatism.

Originally from the country, the titular Nina Wu (Wu Ke-xi) has been in Taipei for eight years trying to make it as an actress but is still awaiting that big break. Aside from some small bit parts and commercial jobs, she supports herself by working in restaurants with a side career as a live-streaming webcam star. Then, just as she’s starting to think it’s too late, a call comes through – she’s in the running for the lead in a high profile period spy thriller. The only snag is that the part requires full frontal nudity and explicit sex scenes.

Nina is understandably conflicted. Aside from the potential discomfort, taking a part in the kind of film this could turn out to be is a huge gamble that could either make or break her career (just look at what happened to Tang Wei after Lust Caution, itself a period thriller about a female assassin who falls for her target). Nina’s unsympathetic agent skirts around the fact this might be her last chance while promising to respect her decision, implying it’s this or nothing. Of course, neither he nor the sleazy director inviting parades of identically dressed hopefuls up to his hotel room where he forces them to engage in dubious acts of degradation for his own enjoyment will admit that the reason they want a “fresh face” isn’t for any artistic motivation but that no well established actress with a proper agent would ever take a role like this (and even if she did, she couldn’t be pushed around in the same way).

Convincing herself to do whatever it takes, Nina takes the part but goes on to suffer at the hands of a controlling and tyrannical director who psychologically tortures and physically abuses her supposedly in order to get the performance he wants rather than the one she chooses to give him. A repeated motif sees hands continually around Nina’s throat as if she were being permanently strangled, unable to speak or express herself, permitted breath only when compliant with the desires of men.

Subsuming herself into the part, Nina avoids having to think about the various ways her offscreen life is also a performance or of her own complicity in the erosion of her emotional authenticity. A visit home reveals a difficult family environment with a father (Cheng Ping-chun) losing out in the precarious modern economy, while she, now the “famous actress”, wonders if she was happier as an am dram bit player staging inspirational plays for children. The secret she seems so desperate to conceal seems to be her same sex love, sacrificed for a career in Taipei and now perhaps unsalvageable. Her lover has moved on, preparing to marry a man and embark on a socially conventional life. If she too has made her peace with sacrificing a part of her true self, she does at least seem superficially “happy” in contrast to Nina’s gradually fracturing psyche.

Meanwhile, Nina becomes paranoid that a mysterious woman is stalking her. Apparently another hopeful also driven mad by the demands of an exploitative industry, the woman is convinced Nina has taken what was rightfully hers and done so by selling her body for career advancement. Yet as time goes on we begin to wonder if the film ever happened at all or is only a part of Nina’s fabricated delusion sparked Marienbad-style by the single traumatic event on which the film ends, filled as it is with a lingering sense of tragic defeat. Nina Wu never takes her longed for revenge, even if she (perhaps) gains it in a kind of success, but silently endures as the misuse of her body begins to destroy her soul and leaves her nothing more than an empty vessel on which the desires of others are projected.


Nina Wu was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)