Wild Sparrow (野雀之詩, Shih Li, 2019)

“Sparrows are wild birds so they keep hitting against the cage” the introspective hero of Shih Li’s Wild Sparrow (野雀之詩, Yě Què Zhī Shī) is told while perhaps witnessing the same effect in his own life as his flighty mother tries but repeatedly fails to break free of the various forces which constrain her. Young Han’s mother is, in some ways, an embodiment of a destructive modernity, wandering into his rural paradise and then eventually dragging him away from it towards the dubious promise of the city where birds meant to fly free flutter against the bars but rarely find escape. 

Han (Kao Yu-hsia) has been living with his great-grandmother deep in the Taiwanese mountains, but as much as she loves him she’s getting old and, owing to rural depopulation, the local school is set to close the following term so all things considered it’s best if he goes to live with his mother, Li (Lee Yi-chieh), in the city. Questioned by the neighbourhood ladies, however, Han doesn’t want to go. After all, he doesn’t really know his mother all that well. She rarely visits, and in any case she doesn’t seem terribly keen to have him. While out walking one day he hears the frantic squawking of birds caught in a net, taken away by a mysterious man. Finding a sparrow injured on the ground he takes it home and attempts to nurse it back to health, but shortly after his mother’s visit the bird passes away. He takes it into the forest in a shoebox and builds it a cairn, gazing at the birds flying free above the canopy.  

Han asks his great-grandmother why someone would capture wild birds, but she simply tells him not to. The birds are the guards of the gods of the land, sent out to hunt demons that force people to eat dirt, she explains. At the marketplace where his great-grandmother sells her bamboo, Han comes across a man selling caged birds for the purpose of being set free as part of a Buddhist ritual, Han’s face contorting in confusion as he ponders the irony. In the city all he ever sees are birds in cages, much as he perhaps feels himself to be taken out of his natural environment and imprisoned in the urban landscape where his mother alternates between neediness and resentment, so obviously ill-equipped to care for a soon-to-be teenage son while continually conflicted in the contradictions of her life. 

When Han first arrrives, Li makes a point of introducing him to her current boyfriend, Kun, wealthy and much older than her though kind to Han if slightly patronising in his gift of a remote control car for which he is probably a little old and in any case not much interested. A thoroughly rural boy, Han is also mystified by the upscale restaurant they take him to where he is embarrassed to admit he has no idea how to eat the steak that’s been ordered for him. While Li entertains fantasies of marriage, we realise that Kun seems to already have a family and as much as he makes the effort with Han Li is not much of an escape from his domestic responsibilities if she’s also hoping he’ll be a father to her son. Li returns to her life as a bar hostess, often leaving Han home alone and returning late drunk to resentfully yell at him that perhaps her life would have turned out differently if he were not around. She becomes involved with various dangerous men, eventually pushed into sex work by a violent boyfriend who stalked her while working at the club. Han finds himself witnessing his mother with her lovers as she disregards his presence, seeking temporary escape in the arms men while he can only lock himself inside his room, cowering on his bed framed behind bars like a bird resigned to the cage.  

Yet on his return to his mountain paradise he’s distressed to realise the body of the sparrow he buried is no longer in the cairn, comforted only by his grandmother’s assertion that it has already returned to the sky. Death is nothing to be afraid of she tells him, for the dead will always protect the living. Gaining a lesson in life, death, and transience, Han remains imprisoned, framed within the window of his grandmother’s cottage as he watches a soul free itself and return to its natural home, but retains his wildness in his own compassionate desire for freedom, fluttering against the bars if not yet able to escape.


Wild Sparrow streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Images: © Dot Connect Studio Ltd.

When Love Comes (當愛來的時候, Chang Tso-Chi, 2010)

“I like the feeling of home” the conflicted heroine of Chang Tso-Chi’s When Love Comes (當愛來的時候, Dāng Ài lái de Shíhou) eventually admits, finally coming to an understanding of her admittedly unusual family even if not, it seems, fully aware of her place within it. A chronicle of displacements, cultural, familial, adolescent, and romantic, When Loves Comes is also in its own way an ode to female solidarity as well as a coming-of-age tale as its feisty young heroine gains the courage to step into herself while preparing for the role of matriarch in accepting her responsibility towards those around her. 

About to turn 16, Laichun (Lee Yi-chieh) is a rebellious teenager who enjoys scandalising her heavily pregnant mother by walking out in skimpy outfits and elaborate makeup. So displaced is she within her own family, that she is not invited to meet her new baby brother at the hospital but is asked to stay home looking after recently arrived uncle Jie (Kao Meng-chieh), her father’s younger brother who has learning difficulties and has come to live with them following the death of his grandmother. Laichun, however, goes out anyway, meeting her as we soon discover no good boyfriend Zongfu (Chris Wu Kang-ren) in a love hotel. Like any teenager, Laichun thinks she’s invincible but she’s also incredibly naive or perhaps merely in denial. By the time she realises she might be pregnant, it’s already too late for an abortion and Zongfu has vanished into thin air. 

“It’s because you’re a girl” a postman with whom Laichun had been engaged in an elaborate flirtation unironically tells her after her impassioned monologue railing against the unfairness of her situation, that Zongfu has vanished while she is blamed for everything, branded a “slut” simply for embracing her sexuality. Her pregnancy places a further strain on her familial relations, though she finds an unexpected ally in her emotionally austere second mother, her father’s first wife Xuefeng (Lu Hsueh-Feng). As we gradually come to understand, Laichun’s father “Dark Face” (Lin Yu-Shun) hailed from rural Kinmen and married into Xuefeng’s family. But Xuefeng was not able to have children of her own so she allowed Dark Face to take a second wife, accepting Laichun’s mother, former gangster Zihua (Ho Tzu-Hua), into their family. 

“I was scared to be responsible for him” Dark Face later admits of his brother, revealing that he left his island home in secret, abandoning Jie to their grandmother who cared for him until the day she died. Dark Face indeed struggles to understand Jie, often frustrated by quirks and frequent meltdowns, cruelly tearing up his drawings somehow incensed as if refusing his brother’s attempt to communicate with the world around him. Jie has been patiently filling a jar with pennies because his grandmother told him to save up for a wife, but like Laichun remains an outsider in the family with only Xuefeng willing to include him. Yet faced with her impending maternity it’s Laichun who eventually becomes his primary carer, patiently taking him to the bank to pay in all his pennies, embracing her responsibility as a member of a family. 

“I like the feeling of being protected”, Laichun had said, “so why is it that I end up looking after everyone else?” only figuring out later that perhaps that’s because they’re sometimes the same thing. Gaining a sense of confidence from her father who reassured her that “you can face whatever comes along” she begins to step into a maternal role, emerging with a new respect for each of her mothers and for the complicated yet functional unit which is her unconventional family. Chang both begins and ends with a birth, taking place on the same spot behind a screen in the family restaurant as the family is first destabilised and then repaired by its new additions. In the opening scene Laichun had been told off for flirting with a man in the family’s restaurant who told her he was unafraid of the “unlucky” table because he worked as a mortician only to get run over on his way out. At the conclusion she meets him again along with his wife who just happened to be the woman who was driving the car that hit him. Not so “unlucky” after all. Life is chaotic and unpredictable, sometimes it presents you with a problem that’s really a solution. “I really very much like the feeling of sunlight” Laichun affirms, no longer so worried about the dark skies, now more assured in herself and her family as she prepares to welcome a new life that anchors her to the old. 


When Love Comes streams in the UK until 27th September as part of the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Original trailer (English subtitles)