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)

Hill of No Return (無言的山丘, Wang Tung, 1992)

Two orphaned brothers set out to find a literal goldmine, but discover only relentless exploitation and defeat in Wang Tung’s meditation on oppression and colonialism, Hill of No Return (無言的山丘, Wúyán de Shānqiū). The third in a trilogy of films exploring Taiwanese history, Wang’s tragic melodrama finds commonality if not solidarity among a collection of villagers living in a small town sustained entirely by the mine which produces riches only for the Japanese while those who risk their lives underground deprived of the light of the sun delude themselves that if they work hard they too can become rich only to discover each of their attempts to escape the constraints placed against them leading to nothing other than despair. 

As the film opens, brothers Chu (Peng Chia-Chia) and Wei (Huang Pin-Yuan) who have signed long-term five year contracts as farm labourers, are listening to an old man’s story about the grandfather of a local man who followed a frog to a mountain noticing its skin glowing gold and thereafter filling his pockets with gold dust he later used to buy up land and become rich. Chu thinks the man was foolish for not going back and becoming even richer, but the old man explains that he was reminded in a dream that excessive greed would only anger the gods and lead to his downfall. Fed up with their lives as labourers, the brothers take the story to heart and decide to look for their own mountain of gold, their backs too bathed in the light of the sun as they rest while looking for the goldmine town of Jiou-fen, later coming across a grisly and ominous scene shortly before they arrive. 

Both illiterate and speaking only Taiwanese, the brothers are each intent on becoming landowners partly in order to give their late parents, apparently killed by TB, a fitting resting place, but soon find themselves once again exploited, Wei becoming increasingly disillusioned with being trapped underground whereas in the fields at least he’d had the sun. The mine is of course a Japanese concern and its operators care little for the local Taiwanese workforce even if their treatment may not be as deliberately brutal as it might have been elsewhere. The new director is convinced that the miners are pocketing gold before it reaches the surface, instituting several new controls which threaten the local economy and especially that of the Japanese-style brothel which depends entirely on the mine for its survival. 

Like many, Hong-mu (Jen Chang-bin), a young man raised in the brothel by its madam following the death of his mother, looks up to the Japanese colonisers seeing them as innately “better” than the Taiwanese all around him. “People will respect me if I wear Japanese clothes” he tells the madam disappointed on receiving a new outfit in the local fashion. Having been told that his father, whom he has never met and was presumably a client of the brothel, was Japanese he speaks the language fluently and believes himself to be slightly superior by virtue of his birth but only too late learns his mistake in collaborating with the mine owners believing they would help him marry a young Japanese woman working at the brothel as a maid, Fumiko (Mayko Chen Hsien-Mei), and finding himself betrayed. As Fumiko is from the Ryukyu islands (Okinawa), the mine owner doesn’t quite see her as fully “Japanese” either and thinks nothing of using and abusing her in the course of his activities. 

The wily madam quips that you can’t call yourself Taiwanese if you haven’t figured out how to do illegal things legally finding ways of getting around the prohibition on accepting gold from the miners as payment, but that doesn’t stop the military police later raiding the brothel and brutally taking back “their” gold even though it has already changed hands albeit not entirely in good faith. The sex workers too are victims of this same vicious cycle, dependent on the custom of the miners for their livelihood while deprived any real possibility of escaping their desperate circumstances. Meanwhile, the brothers’ grumpy landlady, Ro (Yang Kuei-mei), is a twice-widowed single mother of numerous children left with no choice other than to engage in independent sex work, advertising herself as the more economical, local alternative to the Japanese-style “opulence” of the traditional teahouse. While Wei falls for the melancholy innocence of Fumiko singing Okinawan folksongs in a field of golden flowers, Chu takes a liking to Ro and her many children but though they both dream of the same thing, saving enough money to buy a farm, their tempestuous romance is later frustrated by Chu’s reckless decision to take advantage of chaos at the mine in an attempt to get rich quick by harvesting a mega load of gold while no one’s looking. 

He has perhaps been too greedy, ignoring the lessons from the old man’s story. The brothers are continually forced to pay for their transgressions, Chu cutting off his own fingers when cornered by thugs sent out by his previous employer to satisfy their literal demand for an arm and a leg in satisfaction of the broken contract, while Wei’s foot is later injured in a partial cave in when caught underground during an earthquake. Ro calls Chu foolish in his delusion that hard work will bring him a comfortable life, watching him slaving away to make the Japanese rich but what other choice do either of them really have? Only later does Wei begin to reflect on the possibility that the treasure of the mountain was the bright yellow flowers which covered it, a natural beauty soon destroyed by industrial exploitation. A melancholy chronicle of life in a small mountain town in the colonial era, Hill of No Return finds only despair and impossibility for its orphaned brothers whose eternal quest for ownership of their own land leads to nothing but continual disappointment. 


Hill of No Return streams in the UK until 31st October as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Trailer (Traditional Chinese / English Subtitles)

Splendid Float (豔光四射歌舞團, Zero Chou, 2004)

A lonely taoist priest with a sideline as a drag artist falls for the siren song of a drifting fisherman in Zero Chou’s mystical vision of love and loss, Splendid Float (豔光四射歌舞團, Yàn Guāng Sìshè Gēwǔtuán). One of very few out lesbian filmmakers currently working in East Asia, Chou’s films more often deal with love between women but her second narrative feature is a melancholy meditation on grief and impossibility revolving around a performer with an itinerant drag act as she struggles to understand why the man she loved couldn’t stay with her forever. 

A taoist priest performing death rituals by day, by night Roy (James Chen Yu-Ming) becomes Rose a drag performer singing sad songs of lost love from the makeshift stage of converted pickup truck with a rainbow roof. It’s one evening when the van breaks down that she first meets Sunny (Chung Yi-Ching), a handsome swimmer who soon becomes her lover only to disappear the next morning leaving behind only a note saying goodbye and a yellow flower. Heartbroken, Rose tries to find him and begins to suspect the worst later discovering that Sunny has apparently drowned at sea. 

The minor irony is that Rose’s day job is as a taoist priest which to say bound up with the rituals of death and grieving yet she struggles to come to terms with Sunny’s absence and is unable to let go of a tragic, fleeting love. Following the rather lengthy opening sex scene, Rose asks Sunny to stay with her longing for a place to settle down together looking for conventional domesticity as a couple, something about which Sunny appears unsure not it seems because of societal pressure but because he is not made for a settled life. Often seen swimming, Sunny is a kind of mermaid happiest in the water which lends his death by drowning an additionally poetic quality but also perhaps aligns his sexuality with a sense of impossibility suggesting Rose will never be able to achieve the fulfilling romance of which she dreams. 

This is further brought home in her frustrated attempts to make contact with Sunny’s spirit, often seeing his ghost but refusing to let him go. Ironically brought in to conduct a death ritual on behalf of Sunny’s mother and sister, she unwittingly hints at their relationship by using the t-shirt he left behind to summon him and thereafter determines to split his soul taking a funeral tablet with her after tossing coins to try and gain his consent only to ignore the result when it implies Sunny chose to leave her and does not want to be possessed by her in death. “We live amongst tradition but still there’s no place for people like us” one of Rose’s fellow performers laments, “look at you and Sunny, together for so long but what are you, just ordinary friends? It’s not like you can just go and tell everyone you’re his widow and take his icon with you.”

Even Roy’s family members are apparently ambivalent, suspecting he might be gay but unsure how to respond to it. They avoid sending him to funerals because he has a reputation for being overly emotional earning the nickname of “the wailing girl “and feel bad about him being teased while also confused that seems so “effeminate”, “not like a man at all”. His aunt, however, a fairly butch older woman asks if she doesn’t look “like a man” while in her full taoist priest outfit, suggesting perhaps that gender is an irrelevance at least in the course of their work. 

Rose, meanwhile, struggles to come to terms with loss while unable to voice her grief. In this quasi-musical, Rose’s songs are the only way she can express her suffering. “No one knows the pain I must face” she sings in a repeated refrain, “smiling and swallowing my tears secretly casting my sorrows to the sea.” Exploring both the vibrancy of traditional taoist practice, the soul guiding ritual described as the last dance of life, along with the precarious existence of the itinerant drag queens, Chou crafts an etherial fairytale of love and loss in which Rose herself becomes a kind of wandering ghost trapped in a rootless existence while yearning to settle down in perpetual search for safe harbour amid stormy seas. 


Splendid Float streams in the UK until 31st October as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Dangerous Youth (危險的青春, Hsin Chi, 1969)

Increasing consumerism has begun to corrupt the minds of the young in Hsin Chi’s ultra contemporary Taiwanese-language drama Dangerous Youth (危險的青春). Unlike similarly themed youth movies from elsewhere such as Kim Ki-duk’s Barefooted Youth (1964, inspired by Ko Nakahira’s Doro Darake no Junjo) or Nagisa Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth (1960), Hsin’s film is nowhere near as nihilistic as its title might suggest nor are its heroes as delinquent merely morally compromised as they attempt to navigate the changing society around them while feeling as if the things they want have been deliberately placed out of reach. 

As the film opens, Khue-guan (Shih Ying) is cheerfully riding on his motorcycle with his current girlfriend on the back behind him, only the trip comes to an abrupt halt when the bike, a symbol of his freedom and independence, gets a flat tire. The pair pull over to a roadside garage to get it fixed and wait in a nearby cafe where they’re served by waitress Tsing-bi (Cheng Hsiao-Fen) who happens to be the owner’s daughter. While they’re waiting, Khue-guan’s girlfriend contemptuously dumps him, complaining that his bike is always breaking down and she’s decided to marry a financially secure engineer while attempting to palm Khue-guan off on Tsing-bi who ironically has a haircut quite like hers and is dressed almost identically. Khue-guan tries to change her mind, but she reminds him that marriage is “a woman’s meal ticket” so why would she or anyone else for that matter marry a poor delivery boy if a better offer came along? 

Khue-guan innocently insists that if they stay together and work hard they’ll be rich someday too, but his girlfriend has no desire to wait and no inclination to strive. It’s this ideology of working class aspiration that if you just buckle down and play by the rules you can one day have a comfortable life that is at the centre of the film’s ideological conflict, Khue-guan himself later hearing the same words from Tsing-bi when she refuses to become the mistress of the wealthy widower Mr. Tshi (Chen Tsai-Hsing) but having become so jaded that he no longer believes them only to be apparently converted when a work colleague gives him the same advice that he should give up on the boss’ sexually liberated daughter and find someone who loves him with whom he can work together to build a happy family home. 

The happy family home, a conventional middle-class success story, was Khue-guan’s small dream at the beginning of the film before his girlfriend’s slight caused him to lose his way. His crisis is also one of threatened masculinity, feeling himself inferior by virtue of a poverty he does not know how to escape lamenting to an old friend that only college men like him can find good jobs in the changing, increasingly white collar society. In a minor role reversal, it’s clear that women have gained increasing freedom and agency and in fact here hold the power as reflected in the masculinised figure of boss’ daughter Giok-Sian (Kao Hsing-Chih) who runs a hostess bar and refuses to get married instead living a sexually liberated life without romantic attachment. Part of Tsing-bi’s resentment towards her mother (Su Chu) stems from her sexually active love life in which it seems she too has the upper hand. In a repeated motif, we see Tsing-bi’s mother hand money to her lover so he can take time off work, something Tsing-bi later does to Khue-guan who without quite thinking about it has begun to live through her exploitation only objecting when offered money by Giok-Sian who rejects his romantic overtures interested only in bodily satisfaction. 

This gender imbalance is later “corrected” towards patriarchal norms as Giok-Sion is finally forced to accept that she is in love with Khue-guan just at the moment he receives his epiphany that the way he’s been living is wrong, love is more important than money, and he needs to get back on the straight and narrow to earn success by working hard rather than exploiting others. Nevertheless, there is plenty of toxic masculinity in the air, the friends of the ageing Mr. Tshi apparently mocking him for his literal impotence, his masculinity questioned in the absence of a female sexual partner. Though as we discover Mr. Tshi is simply lonely having lost his wife and seemingly having no children, asking Tsing-bi only for cuddles and companionship. There is something distinctly uncomfortable in the way that Tsing-bi is thrown at Mr. Tshi like a like live chicken into a pit of crocodiles by Giok-Sian, her father, and his friends each of whom are trying to curry favour for business advantage by exploiting her. With her short hair and tendency to wear pinafore dresses, not to mention often carrying around teddy bears and oversize dolls, the 20-year-old and extremely naive Tsing-bi seems even younger than she is, an innocent little girl misused by an increasingly corrupt society. 

Even so Tsing-bi remains the least corrupted of the youngsters, clinging to her love for Khue-guen never realising he too is just using her for easy money even as she ironically throws his own words back at him in suggesting they marry, work hard, and raise a happy family together. Though it was her consumerist desires that originally set her against her mother in her yearning for current fashions and sophisticated city life, she never really wanted the money only Khue-guan while ironically mimicking her mother’s behaviour in accidentally making him a kept man. The reset which occurs at the film’s conclusion at once restores traditional gender roles but also perhaps shifts them in stressing the need of the couple to work “together” even if that sentiment might imply a greater equality than is in reality in play. Nevertheless, perhaps for reasons of censorship (which might also explain why despite the film’s obvious Taiwan setting frequent references are made to Hong Kong landmarks) the conclusion is not as bleak as one might assume from the rather nihilistic, moral panic implications of the title as the young couple are finally placed back onto the “correct” path of honest hard work which is also in its own way a capitulation to their own exploitation at the centre of an expanding, increasingly capitalistic society. 


Dangerous Youth streams in the UK until 31st October as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

The Personals (徵婚啓事, Chen Kuo-fu, 1998)

Looking for love in all the wrong places, a Taipei career woman suddenly decides to give up her life and place a personal ad stating that she’s looking for a husband, “Who knows, maybe I’ll find happiness” she unconvincingly explains. Chen Kuo-fu’s sophisticated dramedy The Personals (徵婚啓事, Zhēnghūn Qǐ Shì) sends its heroine on a dating odyssey through the contemporary capital but is at heart the story of a woman learning to see herself while grieving a failed relationship and the married ex who won’t return her calls. 

Tu Chia-wen (Rene Liu Ruo-ying) was a successful eye doctor at a Taipei hospital, explaining to a patient that some people lose the ability to produce enough tears after the age of 30, but abruptly quits her job later claiming that she wanted sever connections with her past which is another reason why she’s decided to place an ad rather than asking friends to set her up with eligible bachelors. Implicitly, it also seems that Chia-wen feels her status as a doctor may be intimidating to some men in the still patriarchal society, if also a clue to her true identity which she has otherwise chosen to keep hidden going instead by the name of Miss “Wu” which just happens to be the name of her lover’s wife. 

Of course, it’s illogical to use a false identity if your end goal is finding a life partner, a factor which later feeds in to Chia-wen’s half-hearted conclusion that it isn’t the fault of the men she’s been meeting that they didn’t hit it off but her own in that she’s so far failed to fully “open up” to any of them. Despite newspaper personal ads not featuring photos, Chia-wen receives 100 messages in the three days after her details are posted from a varied cross section of applicants some more suitable than others. One gentleman who unconvincingly claims to be in his 30s reels off his CV as if he were introducing himself at a job interview while wearing a cheerful farmer-style straw hat. A factory worker chews betel nut and smokes tobacco at the same time while exposing an insecurity over his financial situation in complaining that modern women are too materialistic. One suitor is a woman who struggles to explain her gender and sexual identity with the terminology of the time causing Chia-Wen a degree of consternation. Another potential date is a shoe fetishist with a large suitcase intent on some kind of cinderella role-play closely followed by an executive who enthusiastically explains his only hobby outside of drinking is an encyclopaedic knowledge of S&M porn, while a son brings his father as a potential match because his mum’s “gone abroad” and in a heartbreaking moment a worried mother tries to negotiate on behalf of her son who appears to have learning difficulties and might not be sure what’s going on, hoping to find someone to look after him when she’s gone. 

It may be a biased sample, but it doesn’t speak well for the men of Taipei and that’s without even getting into the guy trying to recruit Chia-wen as a high class call girl, the obvious married man after no strings sex, or the salesman trying to peddle women’s self defence equipment with a case full of tasers and pepper spray. Chia-wen pours out her frustrations in daily calls to her ex’s answering machine, leaving long messages she knows he won’t reply to but somehow it makes her feel close to him. Gradually through her monologues we begin to piece together the trauma that she’s struggling to accommodate while a late and unexpected twist keys us in to the cosmic tragedy of her frustrated romance. “Choose what you can endure” she’s advised by a professor friend who confesses to her that he’s chosen to suppress his homosexuality out of a desire for a “normal” life as a husband and father hinting at the still conservative nature of the contemporary society. 

It’s not until she’s caught off guard by a potential match seeing through her ruse that Chia-wen begins to reconsider her experiment, eventually captivated by a sensitive young man who’s not long come out of prison but has an endearingly awkward smile that reminds her of her own. She meets each of the men in the same cafe where she had her first date with her former lover, taking on a slightly different character as she attempts to interview them about their lives, getting to know their hopes and desires often tinged with a note of loneliness or despair. They seldom seem very interested in her, but instantly propose marriage or at least some sort of serious courtship without even finding out about her hopes and aspirations in life. Chia-wen’s often comical encounters from the teenage boys trying their luck to the old men taking their last chance each expose something of contemporary gender dynamics as well as hinting at increasing urban loneliness and romantic desperation but in the end it’s herself Chia-wen must face in learning to let go of past trauma in order to give herself permission to move on in her ever evolving quest for love.


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

Trailer (Traditional Chinese / 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)

Peony Birds (牡丹鳥, Huang Yu-Shan, 1990)

Two women struggle with inter-generational conflict and the changing Taiwanese society in Huang Yu-Shan’s melancholy familial drama, Peony Birds (牡丹鳥, Mǔdan Niǎo). Perhaps the love birds of the title, mother and daughter find themselves at odds partly through a series of misunderstandings but also in the strange reversals of their social outlook, the older woman eventually becoming a successful industrialist rejecting the patriarchal social codes of her upbringing while the younger remains prudish and resentful, unfairly blaming her mother for her father’s early death. 

The film opens with two children accidentally releasing a pair of caged birds before the camera lights on the melancholy figure of Ah-chuan (Su Ming-ming), absentmindedly embroidering beneath a large picture which appears to be of herself. The portrait, a source of contention with her husband Cheng, will follow her throughout her life a symbol of herself as a young woman with choices falling in hopeless love with a Japanese-speaking doctor, Kuo, who never gave her a second glance and later married someone else. Seemingly on the rebound, Ah-chuan consented to an arranged marriage to the wealthy son of a rice merchant who thinks himself a member of the local aristocracy, forever throwing around his money and reminding people of his good name, but the marriage is unhappy Cheng frustrated that his wife loves someone else and Ah-chuan unable to let go of her idealised image of Kuo. Soon enough, Cheng drowns, falling into the river stumbling around in a drunken stupor. As they pull his body out of the water, doting daughter Shu-chin remembers her father bitterly exclaiming that her mother loved someone else and, noticing the comforting arm of childhood friend Chin-shui on her shoulder, assumes it must be him.  

It’s this fundamental misunderstanding that continues to colour the frustrated relationship between the two women, the grown-up Shu-chin (Vivian Chen Te-Yung) childishly complaining that Ah-chuan failed in her wifely responsibilities and has never been a mother to her, blaming her for Cheng’s death while criticising her commitment to her career almost as a betrayal of womanhood. By this point, Shu-chin is in her 20s and has a job as a record producer, later attempting to push her mother towards retirement claiming her salary is enough to support both her and her artistic brother but eventually leaving home entirely after beginning an affair with an unsuitable man defiantly ignoring Ah-chuan’s attempts to convince her she is making a huge mistake. 

Meanwhile, Chin-shui resurfaces in their lives having become a wealthy real estate magnate, a career we saw him start back in the village by taking advantage of the post-war land reforms to buy up the redistributed estates of formerly noble families, some of it Cheng’s. In some ways, former sharecropper Chin-shui is a villainous Lopakhin intent on paving over the beautiful Taiwanese countryside with towering high rise buildings, a symbol of the nation’s transformation from agrarian economy to financial powerhouse and of the hollowness it implies. Yet Ah-chuan’s business is floundering partly she claims because of protectionist US trade laws leaving her at the mercy of men like Chin-shui who, though not the man in her heart, has long carried a torch for her despite knowing of her impossible, unrequited love for Dr. Kuo. Shu-chin finds herself in a similar position in her affair with free-spirited colleague Li Kang whose previous girlfriend attempted to take her own life, discovering the mutability of his affections after he becomes famous with one of his solo compositions, while also drawn to a more suitable match in the more traditional Yi-cheng who eventually pledges his love to her, offering to make her a home explaining that having a home is what gives the young confidence to wander. 

Yet “home” is what Shu-chin continually rejects, yearning for her childhood in a more rural, quasi-feudal Taiwan while misunderstanding the tragedy of her parents’ toxic romance, only latterly reawakening to her mother’s love for her and discovering a new sense of security in a changing Taiwan as Ah-chuan frees them both in literally setting fire to the frustrated hopes of the past, reminding her “It’s always been our home”. A touching story of two women finally coming to understand each other while learning how to live in a changing society, Huang Yu-Shan’s maternal drama eventually bridges a generational divide as mother and daughter finally flee the coop but choose to fly together. 


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

Clip (English subtitles)

The Best Secret Agent (天字第一號, Chang Ying, 1964)

“The Japanese have destroyed our family. You must avenge me” a dying father instructs his daughter, his words somewhat ironically echoing the ideology of the ruling regime in hinting at the national trauma of exile and separation. Arriving in the wake of Bond mania, Chang Ying’s The Best Secret Agent (天字第一號) is, incongruously enough, a Taiwanese-language remake of an earlier film from 1945 set in Shanghai amid the Anti-Japanese Resistance movement, but at heart is less a tale of espionage and intrigue than a romantic melodrama in which a capable woman sacrifices romantic love for the patriotic and filial while perhaps subversively finding true freedom and independence. 

As Tsui-ying’s (Pai Hung) father (Ko Yu-Min) later explains, not wishing to be enslaved they fled from the Japanese but are forced to degrade themselves with public performances in the market square, the old man stooping to beating his daughter when the show fails to please the audience. A kindhearted man from the crowd, Ling-yun (Ko Chun-Hsiung), comes to her defence but Tsui-ying forgives her father blaming the Japanese for the misfortune which has befallen them. Soon after, Tsui-ying’s father is killed during an airstrike using his dying breath to ask for vengeance. After becoming a nightclub singer in Shanghai, Tsui-ying ends up running into Ling-yun again and the pair fall in love but she is also working as a spy and is ordered to break up with him in order to capitalise on the attraction a prominent collaborator, Chao-chun (Tien Ching), feels for her. Reluctantly she obeys, Ling-yun going abroad to study while she eventually becomes Chao-chun’s wife only to discover some years later that Chao-chun is actually Ling-yun’s uncle. 

The central melodrama revolves around the impossible love of Tsui-ying for Ling-yun, a love that she must willingly sacrifice in order to fulfil her role as a daughter both to her literal father and to her country. There is also however a degree of awkward comedy in Ling-yun’s continual discomfort that he must now refer to Tsui-ying as his aunt, their love now a further taboo in taking on a quasi-incestuous quality. Continually pained, she must keep her cover identity intact unable to explain to Ling-yun why she left him, encouraging him to think of her as a cold and heartless woman while watching him romancing his cousin, Ai-li (Liu Ching), whom she has come to genuinely care for as a maternal figure despite there being very little difference between them in age. 

What she apparently doesn’t know despite being a cunning mastermind is that almost everyone in her house is also a spy. As the famed Heaven No. 1, Tsui-Ying plays the cooly elegant wife of a diplomat cosying up to the Japanese but her activities perhaps owe more to the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies than they do to the ever popular Bond, a late montage sequence showing her in a series of disguises from a wise old man to anonymous soldier and cheerful shoeshine boy while an early slapstick set piece sees the Resistance hide a pistol inside a roast duck in order to assassinate the Japanese advisor at dinner, the plan almost foiled by Chao-chun’s fiddling with the lazy Suzan. 

Everything is indeed the fault of the Japanese, but it’s Chao-chun, the collaborator who is the true villain even in his bumbling cluelessness, a quality also reflected in his idiot police chief Captain Wan who consistently fails to capture any Resistance members despite Chao-chun repeatedly ordering him to. In another bumbling piece of verbal humour, Captain Wan (Hu Tou) simply repeats the speech he’s just had criticising him for incompetence verbatim to his own subordinates while not doing much of anything himself. They are both, fairly obviously, outclassed by Tsui-ying playing the part of the clueless society bride lounging around in her furs and mediating in-house disputes while simultaneously plotting to bring them both down once they’ve outlived their usefulness. Though she is forced to give up what is most important to her, her love for Ling-yun, what she discovers is perhaps a transgressive sense of freedom and independence in her life as a master spy not otherwise available to an ordinary woman as she pursues her revenge for the death of her father.

Nevertheless, she is also orphaned both literally and metaphorically forced into a life of wandering. The separation of the lovers, blamed on the Japanese, is symbolic of that between the two Chinas as echoed in Tsui-ying’s melancholy love song and no doubt appealing to the prevailing ideology of the ruling regime save for the implication of fatalism as Tsui-ying and Ling-yun pursue exile in opposing directions. Even so with its fantastically compelling heroine, ironic humour, and atmosphere of intrigue tempered with melancholy romance, The Best Secret Agent more than lives up to its name as the master spy effortlessly completes her primary mission even if sacrificing her heart in the process. 


The Best Secret Agent streams in the UK 25th to 31st October as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Trailer (Traditional Chinese subtitles only)

Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh Announces Lineup for 2021 Hybrid Edition

Following last year’s inaugural online edition, the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh returns for 2021 in a hybrid format featuring a few in-person screenings as well as an extensive online programme running entirely for free in the UK from 25th to 31st October.

IN-PERSON SCREENINGS in Glasgow and Edinburgh

Sacred Forest 神殿| Ke Chin-Yuan| 2019 | 60 mins

In-person screening on 25 October at Glasgow Film Theatre; tickets on sale soon.

Ecological documentary exploring Taiwan’s unique ecosystem from the point of view of six different groups each with different interests and specialities as they explore the majesty of the forest.

Whale Island 男人與他的海 | Huang Chia-Chun| 2020 | 108 mins | UK Premiere

In-person screening on 30 October at Glasgow Film Theatre; tickets on sale soon.

Capturing the power and mystery of the sea, Huang’s beautifully shot nature doc contemplates Taiwan’s relationship with the oceans which surround it. Review.

Sounds in Silence double bill at 6.30pm on 27 October in Summerhall, Edinburgh; also online 28-31 Oct on Festival website.

A Morning in Taipei 臺北之晨 | Pai Jing-jui | 1964 | 20 mins | UK Premiere

1964 documentary short capturing a newly industrious Taipei in which a variety of individuals go about their regular morning routines.

Deng Nan-guang’s 8mm Movies 鄧南光8mm家庭電影| Deng Nan-guang| 1935-1941| 57 mins| UK Premiere

A collection of home video-style recordings captured between 1935 and 1941 and bearing witness to an overlooked era of Japanese occupation in the shadow of the second world war.

DIGITAL SCREENINGS on the Festival website between 25 and 31 October 

The Best Secret Agent 天字第一號 | Chang Ying | 1964 | 102 mins

Taiwanese-language remake of a popular film from 1945 in which a young woman flees the Japanese occupation with her father and falls in love with a kind and idealistic young man. When her father is killed in an airstrike, she realises she must give up on romance in order to avenge his death by becoming a master spy!

Foolish Bride, Naive Bridegroom 三八新娘憨子婿| Hsin Chi | 1967 | 101 mins

A naive young couple’s desire to marry is frustrated by the revelation their parents were once lovers in Hsin’s delightful screwball rom-com. Review.

Dangerous Youth 危險的青春 | Hsin Chi | 1969 | 95 mins

A recently dumped delivery driver becomes fond of a waitress and tries to get her another job after meeting a guy who runs a cabaret bar but the job turns out to be as an escort to an elderly millionaire.

The Homecoming Pilgrimage of Dajia Mazu  大甲媽祖回娘家| Huang Chun-ming | 1975 | 27 mins | UK Premiere

Documentary capture of the annual Taoist celebration of the Dajia Mazu Pilgrimage from 1974. This recently restored edition features the original language track in Taiwanese Hokkien once banned under the KMT’s Mandarin-only policy.

Taipei Story 青梅竹馬 | Edward Yang | 1985 | 115 mins

Edward Yang’s landmark 1985 drama in which an independent, financially secure woman is determined to move forward while her boyfriend (played by film director Hou Hsiao-Hsien) remains trapped in the past.

Dust in the Wind 戀戀風塵 | Hou Hsiao-Hsien | 1986 | 109 mins

A young couple from a rural village travel to Taipei hoping to make enough money to marry, but their dreams of romance are crushed when the boy is drafted into the Republic of China Army.

Peony Birds 牡丹鳥 | Huang Yu-shan| 1990 | 107 mins | UK Premiere

Melodrama exploring the troubled relationship of a mother and daughter bound by mutual resentment. A Q&A session with director Huang Yu-shan will also be available via the streaming platform.

Hill of no Return 無言的山丘 | Wang Tung | 1992 | 175 mins

Two brothers leave home after the deaths of their parents to work at a Japanese-run goldmine in 1927 but rather than the riches they dreamed of find only exploitation and disappointment. A Q&A session with director Wang Tung will also be available via the streaming platform.

The Personals 徵婚啓事 | Chen Kuo-Fu | 1998 | 105 mins

A heartbroken eye doctor quits her job at a hospital and plans to get married, placing a personal ad to find the perfect partner in this humorous exploration of the ’90s Taipei dating scene.

Splendid Float 豔光四射歌舞團 | Zero Chou | 2004 | 73 mins

A Taoist priest with a sideline as a drag artist falls for someone who later disappears without saying goodbye leaving him wondering if something terrible may have occurred.

Closing Time 打烊時刻 | Nicole Vogele | 2018 | 116 mins

Documentary from Swiss filmmaker Nicole Vogele following the city’s nighttime economy from the vantage point of an ageing couple’s late night eatery.

Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh takes place online and in-person 25th to 31st October, 2021. All films stream for free in the UK via the official platform though ticket numbers are limited and early booking is advised. Full details are available via the official website and you can also keep up with all the latest details by following the festival on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

The Shepherds (牧者, Elvis Lu, 2018)

Among the most liberal of Asian nations, Taiwan became the first to legalise same-sex marriage in 2019 but that doesn’t mean that it’s always easy to be LGBTQ+ particularly if you come from a religious background and wish to maintain your faith. Elvis Lu’s documentary The Shepherds (牧者, Mùzhě) follows a small group of religious leaders who are or have been involved with a progressive church, Tong-Kwang, which was the first in Taiwan to expressly embrace the LGBTQ+ community on its foundation back in 1996. Unfortunately, however, the pastors have faced significant barriers in their personal and professional lives because of their views on homosexuality which face staunch opposition from mainstream religious organisations. The founder of Tong-Kwang Yang Ya-hui, a heterosexual female pastor, eventually took her own life because of the discrimination she later faced within the religious community which made it impossible for her to continue working and support herself without compromising her beliefs. 

Discrimination is also something which has affected pastor Huang Guo-yao and his wife who now work for Tong-Kwang but began their careers in Hong Kong. Huang was forced to give up his ministry after advocating for LGBTQ+ rights brought him into conflict with the more conservative local Churches, eventually making the decision to migrate to Taiwan while his children remained in Hong Kong. He laments that the situation in which he found himself may have had a negative effect on his now grown-up sons, the younger one he worries having become increasingly withdrawn and unwilling to talk about his feelings. 

Zeng Shu-min, meanwhile, is in a similar position unable to find employment with more conventional churches as an openly gay pastor. While officiating at same sex weddings, he’s had to look for other employment to support himself and generally lives an ascetic existence, dependent on the kindness of friends such as Hsiao-en, a lesbian advocate for LGBTQ+ Christians who was herself ejected from the seminary for her liberal views. Running the Light Up project, she provides a more positive religious presence at rallies where conservative voices loudly protest against the advancement of rights for LGBTQ+ people and the movement for marriage equality. Presenting a united front in their priestly outfits, conservative preachers openly commit to undermining the seats of local politicians sympathetic to LGBTQ+ issues, some advancing that they want to “protect” the LGBTQ+ community who must be living “very painfully”, while they refuse to compromise the “basic values” of their society. 

As part of her outreach, Hsaio-en also liaises with the parents of LGBTQ+ children who often find themselves ostracised from their church community solely because of their children’s sexual orientation. Like Shu-min, she also has to work a regular job to support herself while feeling guilty for not being able to devote herself to activism full time and lamenting that hard as she works it often feels as if she isn’t getting anywhere and her efforts don’t make much difference. Yet Tong-Kwang in itself provides a valuable safe place for LGBTQ+ Christians, running a hotline those in distress can call for relief when experiencing difficulty in their personal or religious lives and affirming that their sexuality need not conflict with their faith nor is it a barrier to God’s love. 

With a mixture of observational footage and talking heads interviews, Lu bookends the film with poetic black and white re-enactment featuring the words of pastor Yang Ya-hui taken directly from her autobiography, positioning her as a kind of martyr for the rights of LGBTQ+ people in Taiwan and particularly for LGBTQ+ Christians. The film ends with the passing of the marriage equality act, but is quick to point out that that does not mean that prejudice and discrimination evaporated overnight, Hsiao-en in particular worried that organisations such as hers will come under greater pressure from conservative religious voices intensifying their opposition. Nevertheless, despite the sometimes great toll on their personal lives and those of their families, each of the shepherds remains committed to defending the rights of LGBTQ+ people not only to occupy an equal place within their society but also within their faith as members of a compassionate and progressive religious community. 


The Shepherds streams in the UK 30th October to 5th November courtesy of Queer East and Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Original trailer (English subtitles)