The Great Buddha+ (大佛普拉斯, Huang Hsin-yao, 2017)

Great Buddha + posterFor some, the good life always seems a little out of reach, as if they showed up late to the great buffet of life and now all that’s left is a few soggy pastries and the salad someone’s aunt brings every year that no one really likes. Still, even if you know this is all there is, it doesn’t have to be so bad so long as you have good friends and something to do every day. The “heroes” of documentarian Huang Hsin-yao’s fiction feature debut The Great Buddha+ (大佛普拉斯, Dà fó pǔ lā sī) are exactly this sort – men in late middle age who’ve never quite grown up but have eased into a perpetual boyhood safe in the knowledge that there’s nowhere left for them to grow up to.

“Pickle” (Cres Chuang) is something of a holy fool. His major preoccupation in life is his elderly mother whose increasing medical bills he is continually worrying about paying. He’s taken to banging a drum in a local marching band with a big line in funerals for extra money at which he is terrible but seeing as there’s no one else his job is probably safe for the minute. His “occupation” is nightwatchman at a factory owned by “Kevin” (Leon Dai) – a renowned sculptor working on a giant Buddha statue. Nothing ever happens at the factory at night so no one is very bothered what Pickle does there, which is mostly being “entertained” by his “best friend” Belly Button (Bamboo Chen). Belly Button doesn’t really have a job but earns money through collecting recyclables and selling them on. Looking for a new source of vicarious fun, Belly Button talks Pickle into stealing the SD card from the dash cam on Kevin’s fancy car so they can enjoy riding along with him in their very own private sim. This turns out to be more fun than expected because Kevin is also a womaniser with a thing for car sex even if the cam only captures the audio of his exploits. Nevertheless, the guys inevitably end up seeing something they shouldn’t.

Huang shoots in black and white but switches to vibrant colour for the dash cam footage, somehow implying that nothing is quite so real to guys like Pickle and Belly Button as a fantasy vision of someone else’s glamorous life. After all, if it’s not online it didn’t really happen. Trapped in the gutter of small town life, both men have either failed to move on from or wilfully regressed into a perpetual adolescence in which they waste their days idly on pointless pursuits – leafing through ancient porn mags, gossiping, and eating half frozen curries from half-filled Tupperware boxes. A mild mannered man, Pickle is so innocent that he never quite understands Belly Button’s lewd jokes while Belly Button, who is picked on and belittled by everyone else in town, takes delight in being able to boss him around.

Together the pair of them can only marvel at a man like Kevin with his wealth and talent which allows him to gain the thing they want the most – female company. Kevin, however, is not quite as marvellous as they might assume him to be even if they remain in awe of his caddish treatment of women while perhaps feeling sorry for those unfortunate enough to fall in love with him. In tight with the local bigwigs, Kevin is simply one link in a long chain of bureaucratic corruption in which business is done in the bathhouse surrounded by floozies. Kevin never explicitly lets on whether he knows that Pickle and Belly Button have stumbled on his secret, but their lives begin to change all the same. Their easy nights in the security cabin have gone for good and they feel themselves under threat in a chilling reminder of how easily a little guy can disappear or fall victim to an accident after asking too many questions about a vain and powerful man with money.

Meanwhile, Pickle is left worrying what’ll happen to his mum if he falls out with Kevin. Even if he wanted to speak out about a great injustice, he’d be putting his mother in the firing line. Then again, after a brief visit to Belly Button’s home in which he cocoons himself inside a mini UFO filled with the prizes he’s won from UFO grabber games (he says it’s like “therapy”), Pickle is forced to wonder how well he even knew him – his only friend. As Huang puts it in his melancholy voice over, we might have put men on the moon, but we’ll never be able to explore the universe of other peoples’ hearts.

Huang’s deadpan commentary is among the film’s strongest assets with its New Wave associations and determination to wring wry humour out of the increasingly hopeless world inhabited by Pickle, Belly Button, and their similarly disenfranchised friends. Filled with meta humour and a deep sadness masked by resignation to the futility of life, The Great Buddha+ is a beautifully lensed lament for the little guy just trying to survive in a land of hollow Buddhas and venial charlatans.


Screened as part of the 2018 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Father to Son (范保德, Hsiao Ya-Chuan, 2018)

Father to Son posterEvery son kills his father, but echoes of the past prove hard to escape in Hsiao Ya-Chuan’s Father to Son (范保德, Van Pao-te). Legacies national and personal conspire to frustrate the dreams of the young while the old are left with nothing more than enduring mystery after a lifetime of disappointment. Faint notions of mortality send an old man on a quest to understand himself by making peace with his long absent father and taking his own son along for the ride, but perhaps there really are no answers to the questions you most want to ask, or to put it another way perhaps it’s better to answer them yourself.

60-year-old Van Pao-te (Michael Jq Huang) is feeling his age. He’s taking longer in the bathroom and he’s no longer as agile as he was. A handyman with a hardware store, Van is also something of an “inventor” and has several patents in his name but cannot escape the feeling of being unfulfilled, as if something in his life has always been missing. A twinge fixing a pipe for a doctor friend provokes a fuller examination as a result of which Van is told he may have a serious pancreatic illness and is advised to see a specialist in Taipei, but Van hates doctors and so he puts the decision off. Meanwhile, he goes to the city on other business. Honoured for his contribution to Taiwan’s intellectual economy thanks to his inventions, Van is also presented with an unexpected opportunity to do business with a Japanese company. Rather than deal with his medical problem, Van visits an old friend for an address he was first offered 30 years ago and decides to look for his long lost father who abandoned the family when Van was 10 in order to try his luck in the burgeoning Japanese post-war economy.

History repeats itself eerily. Van dreams of the night his father left in anger and resolves never to become the kind of man that he was but finds himself falling into his father’s footsteps. His own son, Ta-Chi (Fu Meng-Po), is a man much like him – which is to say, he is torn between duty to family and a desire to follow his dreams. Ta-Chi works in the hardware store, but his talent is for coding and he’s already a mildly successful app builder. Van thinks he should go to the city and make something of himself, but is worried that he won’t because he can’t leave his ageing parents behind alone.

Meanwhile, trouble is brewing because the beautiful niece of the woman who runs the dry cleaners has just blown in from Taipei to cover the shop while her aunt goes to the city for cancer treatment. A splash of excitement in this tiny town, she has created quite a stir among Ta-Chi and his friends which is exactly the same thing that happened thirty year’s previously when the current hotel owner first arrived in town. At select moments we also get voice over narration from Kuo Yu-Chin (Aria Wang) who, as she tells a friend, caused some “trouble” back in 1987 only to leave and then return again later. She and Van seem to share a painful history and mutual resentment over a future that never was. Yu-Chin wonders if the stories of the past that you want to hear are hidden in the future or if it’s the other way round, but if their background music choices are to be believed there seems to be a part of them always stuck in 1987 and waiting for an excuse to leave.

Like his father, Van considered leaving his family to chase a dream but he couldn’t do it. As Ta-Chi later puts it, he wasn’t “heartless” enough. Van learns enough about his father’s later life to confirm what he suspected, that his dad was no good and best forgotten, but that only leaves him with a lingering sense of resentment and inferiority in wondering if he wasted his life sticking around his hometown to make a point about a man who never gave him a second thought. He doesn’t want the same thing for his son, but hasn’t figured out the best way to push him out of the nest without breaking his heart.

While Van is caught in a web of existential confusion attempting to break free once and for all from the destructive memory of his father, Taiwan too finds itself pulled between conflicting colonial echoes while striving to embrace an identity all of its own. Hsiao paints a melancholy picture of inescapable tragedies and generational miscommunications, eventually advancing that a father’s love for his son is often buried in silent sacrifice, but does so with warmth and sympathy, resigned to the cruel ironies of time.


Screened as part of the 2018 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Last Verse (最後的詩句, Tseng Ying-Ting, 2017)

The last verse posterThe dreams of youth seem destined to elude two idealistic Taiwanese romantics as they fall in love, out of love, into debt and then despair. Set against 16 years of turbulent Taiwanese history, The Last Verse (最後的詩句, Zhòu de S) follows two ordinary teenage sweethearts whose humble dreams of conventional success are consistently undermined by familial legacy and economic instability. Society crushes the dreams of those who refuse to abandon their youthful idealism, but then again perhaps they destroy themselves through chronic insecurity and a refusal to address their own failings rather than conveniently assigning blame to all but themselves.

In the golden summer of 2000, Ren-jie (Fu Meng-Po), nicknamed “poet” meets Xiao-ping (Wen Chen-Ling), the love of his life. The pair start dating and are sure enough about their future to be discussing long term financial plans, but Ren-jie still needs to complete his military service and so their lives are currently in a mild hiatus. Everything starts to go wrong when Ren-jie receives visit a from his estranged father – a broken shadow of a man whose wife left him because of his drunken violence in the face of the humiliating failure of his business when his towel factory went bust. Ren-jie didn’t want anything to do with his dad and sent him packing, only to bitterly regret his decision when he commits suicide on the way home by gassing himself in his car.

This original failing is the fracture line from which all Ren-jie’s subsequent sufferings unfold. Despite signing away any right to his inheritance in order to avoid taking on his dad’s debt, Ren-jie can’t shake off the vicious loansharks his dad once borrowed money from. Having managed to get a well paid, if morally dubious, job as an investment broker Ren-jie’s life ought to be progressing towards middle-class success. He lives with but is not legally married to Xiao-ping who also has a good job at a magazine, but is putting off legalities until the advent of financial stability. Ren-jie is therefore stubborn. He won’t pay the gangsters off because he doesn’t want his father’s legacy and resents their intrusion into his otherwise “respectable” life. He will learn, however, that there are things that cannot just be overcome through bloodymindedness and his male need to avoid being seen to back down is primed to put those he loves in great danger.

Ren-jie’s life is indeed ruined by the precarious era in which he lives as well as the legacy of that which came before, but his destruction is also at his own hands as he falls into a well of toxic masculinity which eventually leads him to harm and then betray the innocent love of his youth. During Ren-jie’s military service, some of the other men suggest staying on in the armed forces – most laugh off the idea but it does at least offer a secure paycheque, a fixed term contract, and the possibility for advancement – all things useful if, like Ren-jie, what you want is to get married and start a family even while still relatively young. Ren-jie, however, did not take this path. We don’t find out why he lost his well paid banking job, if it was the gangsters or the economy, but a few years later sees him an embittered estate agent trying to sell rundown flats in the middle of a housing crash to clients who know they’re better off waiting. Embarrassed not to be able to “provide” for a “wife”, Ren-jie’s male pride cracks under the twin pressures of being forced to give in to the gangsters and fearing that he is not good enough for Xiao-ping, paranoid that she will eventually leave him for someone with more money.

Xiao-ping, however, remains fiercely, idealistically in love with the boy she met at the river all those years ago. Ren-jie, making a common enough though self obsessed mistake, fails to see that financial success is not something that Xiao-ping worries about in any other way than wanting to see the man she loves fulfilled. What Xiao-ping wants is a conventional family life, but Ren-jie’s constant money worries and personal insecurities consistently deny her before he eventually makes another cruel and selfish decision that will only cause her additional suffering.

Ren-jie’s internalised self-loathing eventually boils over into violence, recalling the unwelcome legacy of the father he did not want to become. Yet Ren-jie is also a failure, a drunk, a violent man having meaningless sex with married women in empty apartments in order to try and reassert some kind of control in his largely powerless life. Unfairly burdened by his father’s literal debts, a legacy of violence, and the crushing hopelessness of his existence, Ren-jie has lost the sense of “poetry” which so endeared Xiao-ping to him all those years ago at the river. The memory of those sunswept days, romanticised as it might be, becomes both a touchstone and a dangerous symbol of all that has been lost and can never be regained. Unable to reconcile themselves to the compromises of adult life, the ballad of Ren-jie and Xiao-ping is destined to end in tragedy, self-inflicted wounds the only escape from the crushing hopelessness of a relentlessly indifferent society.


The Last Verse was screened as part of the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (traditional Chinese subtitles only)

Interview with director Tseng Ying-Ting from the 2017 Busan International Film Festival.

The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful (血觀音, Yang Ya-che, 2017)

The Bold the corrupt and the beautiful posterAre you playing the game or is the game playing you? The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful (血觀音, Xuè Guānyīn) is, as its name suggests, somewhere between trashy soap opera and spaghetti western as its entirely amoral matriarch prepares to sacrifice everything in order to get ahead. The family becomes a metaphor for the state – corrupt, prejudicial, hypocritical, and often heartless in its ruthlessness but like a family a state perhaps reaps what it sows and the lessons Madame Tang has taught her daughters may come back to haunt her.

In the Taiwan of the 1980s – the dying days of the old regime but firmly within the pre-democratic past, Madame Tang (Kara Hui) is the widow of a general and, on the surface of things, an antiques dealer. Her real worth however lies in making herself the society face of genial corruption as the conveyor of the ancient treasures that often stand in for monetary bribes in the complex system of reciprocal politics. Designed to manoeuvre herself and her family into a position of power and perhaps safety, Madame Tang’s machinations amount to a mess of intrigue, manipulating the social interactions of her “friends” in order to convince them to destroy each other and clear a path for her ascendance. Part of her grand plan has involved extensive use of her daughter, Ning Ning (Wu Ke-xi) – now approaching middle-age and thoroughly sick of being her mother’s prize pony, while Chen-Chen (Vicky Chen), still a teenager, has usurped her place as the latest cute little thing to be trotted out and fussed over.

Everything starts to go wrong when a powerful neighbouring family, the Lins, is murdered in a suspicious looking home invasion leaving the daughter, Pien-Pien (Wen Chen-ling), who the closest thing Chen-Chen had to a real human friend, in a coma. Pien-Pien had been carrying on with Marco (Wu Shuwei) the stable boy which obviously had not gone down well with her parents though she had backed out of a plan to elope with him. The police’s theory is that Marco had come back to the family home and taken his revenge, but there is an awful lot more going here than just a jealous proletarian boyfriend hitting back at the bourgeoisie.

Piling layer upon layer Yang’s script is dense and sometimes impenetrable to those not well versed in Taiwanese history and culture. Madame Tang seems to have something of an interesting hidden backstory, swapping easily between standard Taiwanese Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese which she, and Chen-Chen, use to get close to Mrs. Lin whose grasp of Taiwanese remains poor despite having lived on the island for many years and being heavily involved in politics. The house the family inhabits is also distinctly Japanese in layout, a colonial era home now inhabited by post-war migrants from other areas of China. The Lins look down on their stable boy not only because of the obvious class difference, or because of their daughter’s relative youth and tarnished reputation, but because he is from a persecuted minority of native peoples.

Marco does however become a kind of key. Chen-Chen, curious and privy to more knowledge than a child of her age ought to have thanks to her mother’s scheming, has developed a fondness for the strapping stable boy and mildly resents being made fun of by the oddly amused Pien-Pien. The rot sets in as Chen-Chen is sent to fetch Ning-Ning only to find her engaging in some kind of orgy in a forest, over which Chen-Chen lingers a little to long only to catch Ning-Ning’s eye and find herself suddenly caught out while her “sister” apparently finds extra spice in her discomfort. Ning-Ning, after years of emotional abuse at the hands of her mother, has begun to rebel by embarrassing her, losing herself in drink, drugs, and promiscuous sex with unsuitable men while Madame Tang still harps on about possible dynastic marriages if now to a distinctly third class tier of potential husbands.

Yang adds a post-modern dimension to the story by framing it as a cautionary tale recounted by a pair of traditional musicians in the manner of Gezi Opera which begins closer to the now before flashing back to show us how we got here. Even if the political metaphors do not hit home without some kind of primer in Taiwanese history, the familial allegory is obvious enough – corruption breeds corruption and the hollow family will eventually swallow its young. The closing coda, presented via intertitles, reminds us that the scariest prospect is not imminent punishment, but a loveless future. The Tangs’ tragedy is not that there was no love between them, but that in their cynicism and insecurity they destroy themselves through a selfish need for control and possession. Madame Tang’s lessons have indeed been learned too well, and in this she damns herself as well as her daughters, condemning all to a loveless future fuelled by greed and fear from which it is impossible to escape.


The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (traditional Chinese subtitles only)

Interview with director Yang Ya-che from the 2017 Busan Film Festival (English subtitles)

All Because of Love (痴情男子漢, Lien Yi-Chi, 2017)

All Because of Love PosterGrowing up is hard is to do – that is, unless you’re the hero of a teen movie, in which case growing up is merely “difficult” and everything is sure to be alright once the bullies have been vanquished and the last dance danced. Designed to appeal to its target audience, the world of the teen movie is usually black and white, free from the chaos and confusion which most experience during adolescence. All Because of Love (痴情男子漢, Cqíng Nánhàn) is, however, refreshingly honest in its fierce love of a messy situation, forcing its hero into a series of “difficult” circumstances while he plays the noble fool holding fast to an obviously unrequited love in the hope that his niceness will somehow capture his true love’s heart.

When we first meet Erkan (Kent Tsai), he’s a nerd and the member of an oppressed minority at his school, constantly targeted by the tough guys. He is hopelessly in love with popular girl Mandy (Gingle Wang), who is actually dating one of the bullies and doesn’t even really know who Erkan is. Despite his declaration to love her for a thousand years, Erkan’s attempts to woo Mandy end in spectacular and humiliating failure but still he does not give up. Shortly after graduating high school, Mandy abruptly rings him for “a date”. Erkan, still smitten, is excited but Mandy has an ulterior motive – she is pregnant with her jock boyfriend’s child and, abandoned by her own one true love, reckons Erkan might like to try out life as a baby daddy. She is correct in her assumption and Erkan would be buying a ring if he had any money but as it is they’ll have to make do with the gentle guidance of Erkan’s elopement expert grandad (Hsu Hsiao-shun) who takes them back to his seaside home town where they can hide out from Mandy’s overbearing (and very wealthy) family.

As the title implies, the rest of the film becomes a treatise on love – requited or not, familial and romantic, permitted or illicit. Erkan is thrilled, on one level, to have got it together with Mandy but on the other hand Mandy won’t let him near her and it’s clear she is only using him and taking advantage of his noble character to get her out of a fix. Meanwhile, staying at inn, Erkan gets to know another girl, Sing (Dara Hanfman), who is in a permanently gloomy mood thanks to her devastating ability to read minds, and hasn’t left her room in years. Sing, thanks to her ability, has fallen half in love with Erkan’s goofy goodheartedness but also knows he’s still hung up on Mandy, and that Mandy is still hung up on her ex-boyfriend. She is then in a difficult position but manages to strike up enough of a friendship with the lovelorn young man to spur her on to exploring the outside world once again.

Meanwhile, Erkan is also confronted by the eerie similarities between his present predicament and the circumstances of his birth. Having always lived with his granddad, Erkan assumed his parents had passed on but discovers there may be more to the story only he’ll have to go to Japan to find out. Erkan’s granddad kicked off the cycle by eloping with Erkan’s grandmother, leaving their hometown far behind to live a life of love far away, though his son and grandson do not seem to have had so much luck when it comes to romance and Erkan’s romantic answers perhaps lie in exploring his family history rather than re-examining his high school days and refusing to let go of his idealised teenage crush.

A heart to heart with Sing provokes a more grown up meditation of unrequited love even if Erkan is entirely oblivious to Sing’s delicately concealed feelings. Purehearted, Erkan insists that love does not need to be requited, merely loving without being loved is good enough for him (so he says, or perhaps he just doesn’t expect anything more). Sing tells him he’s wrong, that it takes two to love and that a one sided affection is nothing more than intense loneliness. Erkan agrees, missing Sing’s hidden meaning, but maturely admitting that it would be wrong to hold someone’s hand just because you’re lonely when your heart is elsewhere.

Erkan’s idealised love for Mandy is gradually revealed as an adolescent affectation while she is left battling various kinds of familial expectation and manipulation before discovering her former boyfriend is not perhaps the heel that everyone had assumed him to be. Meanwhile, Sing is doing something similar in trying to lay to rest the ghost of a friend who left long ago and Erkan is left trying to reclaim his identity though figuring out who he really is before learning to look at what’s right in front of him rather than indulging in a romantic fantasy. Lien Yi-chi sends Erkan on some very bizarre adventures, swapping genres at a moment’s notice from westerns to classic melodrama and musicals and then settling on something in the middle which feels oddly authentic and lived in despite its strangeness. Often absurd if not quite surreal, Lien’s warmhearted silliness is almost impossible to resist as is the cheerful innocence of the effortlessly romantic conclusion.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Take Me to the Moon (帶我去月球, Hsieh Chun-Yi, 2017)

take me to the moon posterShould you continue pursuing your dreams even after you know they won’t come true or just give in and live a dull but comfortable life of conformity? These are questions most young people face at one time or another, but for the hero of Hsieh Chun-Yi’s Take me to the Moon (帶我去月球, Dài Wǒ Qù Yuèqiú), they take on an extra dimension when he is suddenly thrown back into the past with an opportunity to “save” the life of a friend if only he can convince her to abandon her dreams of stardom and stay home instead. A melancholy nostalgia fest for late ‘90s Taiwan (and the late ‘90s in general), Take me to the Moon is an ode to lost opportunities, words unsaid, and the immutability of the past which nevertheless makes room for the odd miracle or two as its hero realises perhaps he’s not grown up as much as he thought.

Three years prior to the main action, 30-something Wang (Jasper Liu) takes a business trip to Tokyo where he reconnects with high school friend Emma (Vivian Sung) who won a prestigious competition to go to Japan and train with a big idol producer. Sadly, Emma’s dreams have not panned out and she’s embarrassed to let her old friend see just how badly things have been going for her. Fast-forward three years to the present and Emma has unfortunately passed away at only 38 after years of hard drinking in hostess bars, poor nutrition, and overwork finally caught up with her. The once tight group of high school bandmates, two of whom have become a married couple, argue over their collective failure to save their friend at which point Wang walks out, meets a weird old woman who gives him some strange flowers, and is knocked over by a car only to wake up back in 1997. Desperate to save Emma, Wang thinks his best bet lies in ruining her chance to go to Japan so that she will never experience the failure of her hopes and dreams and will stay home to live a simpler, safer life.

Filled with a youthful nostalgia and feeling of authenticity, Take me to the Moon makes the most of its ‘90s setting, recreating the late 20th century city through impressive CGI. Wang reacquaints himself with his teenage self, retrieving his well hidden box of tame pornography and enjoying another few bowls of his mother’s delicious fish soup, but his main goal is essentially to ruin the dreams of his friend – an act of betrayal which might be in her interest, but then again it isn’t Wang’s choice to make and perhaps Emma would rather follow her heart even if it means it’s going to get broken.

What Wang eventually realises, as one of the Tom Chang tracks which pepper the narrative points out, is that what he should have been treasuring was the extra time spent with friends rather than worrying about the future. Back in his teenage years Wang was too shy to confess his lifelong crush on Emma and then went on to be plagued by classic bad timing in adulthood until finally it was too late. His attempts to “save” Emma by ruining her life are in part selfish but also cowardly in taking the place of simply saying the things he needed to say at the right time. Finally figuring this out, Wang realises that he can’t “save” Emma like the hero of a time travel movie by manipulating the past, but he has been given a second chance to let her know how he felt. This, in the end, is what may finally, really “save” his friend – simply letting her know that he is there supporting her, that she’s fine as she is and doesn’t need to be “perfect” to be loved as her overbearing parents have led her to believe.

Though Wang awakens to a more positive change than he might have expected, the general idea is that you can’t rehash the past and should make sure that you’re happy with your present to avoid the desire to try. Having given up on his youthful dreams for a lonely corporate existence, middle-aged Wang regains a little of his essential self and decides to fight for a more authentic way of life even if it doesn’t really go anywhere. Warm and fuzzy yet also strangely melancholy, Take me to the Moon is another in a long line of Taiwanese high school nostalgia movies but proves a fitting tribute both to its era and the singer songwriter featured throughout who himself died young in a tragic car accident in 1997 aged just 31.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Original 1997 music video for Tom Chang’s Take Me to the Moon

Love Education (相愛相親, Sylvia Chang, 2017)

Love Education posterWhat is love? Who gets to define it, and should it be a force of liberation or constraint? Sylvia Chang attempts to find out in looking at the complicated, unexpectedly interconnected romantic lives of three generations of women who discover that nothing and everything has changed in the decades that divide them. While a bereaved daughter channels her own anxieties of impending mortality into a petty and hopeless quest to validate the true love history of her parents, a daughter battles an oddly familiar problem with her musician boyfriend, and an elderly village woman is forced to realise she wasted her life waiting for the return of a man who had so carelessly abandoned her. Mediated by a culturally specific argument over burial rites, Love Education (相愛相親, Xiāng ài xiāng qīn) is a meditation on the demands and obligations of love, both familial and romantic, as they inevitably change and mature across the arc of lifetimes.

As Huiying’s (Sylvia Chang) elderly mother lies dying, she sinks into a vision of a bright summer’s day spent with her one true love who is already waiting for her in a better place. Huiying, a middle-aged school teacher facing semi-enforced retirement, is thrown into a tail spin of grief and anxiety in losing her mother, realising that it won’t belong before her daughter will in turn lose her. Weiwei (Lang Yueting), an aspiring TV journalist, remains unmarried and still lives at home though, unbeknownst to Huiying, is planning to move out and live with her aspiring rockstar boyfriend, Da (Song Ning). The plan is, however, thrown into confusion by the resurfacing of his ex, in the city with her son to complete in a cheesy TV singing contest. Meanwhile, Huiying has become obsessed with the idea of burying her mother alongside her father, only his body was sent back to his rural hometown, as is the custom, and so will need to exhumed and brought to the city. Unfortunately, Huiying’s father was technically a bigamist – he left an arranged marriage in the country to look for work in the city, “married” Huiying’s mother and never looked back. Huiying, determined to prove the “legitimacy” of her parents love seeks to reunite them in death, but Nana (Wu Yanshu) – the abandoned country wife, is hellbent on retaining the body, at least, of the man she married and thereby legitimising herself as a “true” wife.

Huiying’s grief-stricken descent into desperate obsession is a thinly veiled attempt to work through her own feelings of middle-aged dissatisfaction and anxiety on being violently confronted by her transition from a position of authority into a potentially powerless old-age. Her decades long marriage to Xiaoping (Tian Zhuangzhuang), a mild-mannered former teacher turned driving instructor, is comfortable enough but perhaps floundering as the couple contemplate their retirement and impending dotage. Huiying, mildly jealous of a elegant pupil who seems to have taken a liking to her husband, is also entertaining a mild crush on the father of one her own pupils while quietly feeling the distance that has inevitably grown between herself and her husband throughout the years. And so, she sets about “proving” that her parents’ romance was good and true, not only morally recognised but blessed by the state and legally approved.

This, however, proves more difficult than expected due to China’s rapid modernisation, series of political changes, high levels of bureaucracy and idiosyncratic way of issuing documentation. As her parents were “married” in the ‘50s, their union was approved by the local Communist authorities whose approach to record keeping was not perhaps as serious as might be assumed. The receipt for their license should be at the local block office, but they knocked that down. The papers were supposed to be moved to the town hall, but lacking resources they simply threw away all the documents from 1978 and before. Huiying’s parents belong to a past which has literally been thrown away, erased from history and regarded as an irrelevance by the current generation who think only of the future.

Meanwhile, Nana has been patiently waiting in her home town – a “good wife” by the standards of her rural society. Marrying Huiying’s father in an arranged marriage she has done all expected of her – looked after his family and then lovingly tended his grave despite the fact that he abandoned her after only a few months of marriage, not even bothering to tell her that he met someone else and wasn’t coming back. Nana, like Huiying, is desperate to legitimise her position to avoid the inevitable realisation that she has sacrificed her life for a set of outdated ideals.

Weiwei feels this most of all. Unlike her mother, she can’t forgive her grandfather’s moral cowardice in treating his first wife so cruelly. Building up an unexpected bond with the ironically named “Nana”, Weiwei is also forced to think about her own stalling relationship with Da who put his rockstar dreams on hold to stay with her rather than proceeding on to Beijing to try his luck there. Da, like her grandfather, has a past – in this case a childhood sweetheart with a young son and possibly territorial ambitions over a kind young man she has wounded through abandoning. Should Weiwei wait for Da, and risk ending up all alone like Nana, or should she end things now and give up on youthful romanticism for grown up practicality?

So bound up with the “legitimisation” of love, there’s an inevitable degree of possessiveness which creeps into each of the relationships – even that of Huiying and her daughter as she attempts to clip her wings to keep her close, but there’s also a kind of generosity in Chang’s direction which eventually allows them all to break away (to an extent) from an insecure need for validation to something bigger, warmer, and with more capacity for empathy and understanding. Quite literally a Love Education, Chang’s exploration of the romantic lives of three generations of women finds that though the times may have become more permissive nothing has become any easier. Nevertheless, there is comfort to be found in learning to appreciate the feelings of others, offering support where needed, and making the most of what you have while you have it in the acceptance that nothing is forever.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)