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himself may have had a negative effect on his now grown-up sons, the younger one he worries having become increasingly withdrawn and unwilling to talk about his feelings.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)

Get the Hell Out (逃出立法院, Wang I-Fan, 2020)

“A wrong movie makes you suffer for 90 minutes. A Wrong government makes you suffer for four years” according to the title card at the beginning of Wang I-Fan’s madcap Taiwanese comedy, Get the Hell Out (逃出立法院, Táo Chū Lìfǎyuàn). A deliberately unsubtle political satire, Wang’s debut feature ultimately has its heart in the right place as its hapless hero comes to the conclusion that he just wants to protect his “home” and, ironically starts to believe he can really do that through the democratic process now that the legislative palace has literally been destroyed and rebuilt, freed of “idiot” zombies. 

Bumbling security guard with a nosebleed problem Wang You-Wei (Bruce Ho) has relatively little interest in politics. In fact, he’s only working in the building because his childhood crush Ying-Ying (Megan Lai) has recently become an MP standing on a single issue of getting the building of a foreign chemical plant she holds responsible for a plague of “idiot” rabies in her home town cancelled. Despite the prevalance of actual physical fights in the parliament, Ying-Ying is forced to stand down after her rival colludes with friendly press to provoke her into a violent outburst which results in a barrage of misogynistic criticisms that she obviously has trouble controlling her emotions and is unfit for office. Trying to protect her in the fray, You-Wei becomes an accidental hero in the media for valiantly defending press freedom. What ensues is a battle of influence as both sides try to manipulate the political capital of You-Wei’s unexpected celebrity, Ying-Ying hoping to convince him to take over her seat and oppose the chemical plant, and her rival Kuo-Chung (Wang Chung-huang) hoping he’ll join his cypto-fascist “Better Generation” faction to support it. 

Openly described as a gangster, the garishly dressed Kuo-Chung is a symbol of thuggish, vacuous populist politics, expert at playing the system to his advantage. The irony is that You-Wei starts to use his political brain but is operating under a misapprehension. His goal is impressing Ying-Ying and he incorrectly assumes getting more power by throwing his lot in with Kuo-Chung will help him do that, but all she cares about is getting the chemical plant cancelled to save her hometown with a secondary goal of eliminating the threat from the weird “plague” she assumes is caused by toxic waste and turns the infected into rabid “idiots”. Some might say the political class is already zombified, a bunch of numbskulls drunk on power, or that it’s the populace who are sleepwalking through their lives, but no one was really prepared for the prime minister getting turned into a zombie after a meeting with a foreign head of state to discuss the economics of the chemical plant. 

As Ying-Ying puts it, she spent so much time fighting to get in to parliament, and now she’s desperately trying to fight her way out. Wang’s “infection” allegory takes direct aim at a corrupt political class who might not care about the various risks of the chemical plant because they only affect a small group of relatively poor people living in a remote coastal village while the supposed economic and political benefits are important for the national good. But what Ying-Ying and You-Wei come to realise is that the entire nation is their “home” and so they must protect it by making it better and that starts by curing the “plague” of “politics”. Nevertheless, even if you get rid of Kuo-Chung another like him will rise, identically dressed, in his place because the battle for democratic freedom is never really won. 

Wang throws every post-modern device he can think of at the screen from Streetfighter graphics to onscreen karaoke lyrics and ironic product placement in the greatest tradition of low budget, nonsense Taiwanese comedies with the necessary consequence that the gags come thick and fast and are largely disposable while the spy movie pastiche complete with megalomaniacal, techno-genius villain never quite takes off. Nevertheless, there is gory zombie action aplenty filmed with cartoonish glee and not a little irony as Ying-Ying and You-Wei attempt to fight their way out of the corrupt parliament before it all gets blown to hell only to walk right back in there afterwards with a positive message of altruism and personal responsibility as they commit to rebuilding better with a revitalised idealism and belief in the power of democracy purged of the plague of idiocy.


Get the Hell Out streamed as part of Scene Taiwan 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Teacher (我的靈魂是愛做的, Chen Ming-Lang, 2019)

Taiwan became the first Asian nation to legalise same-sex marriage on 24th May, 2019. That does not however mean that the LGBTQ+ community is universally accepted or that entrenched conservative social attitudes simply evaporated over night. As Chen Ming-Lang’s The Teacher (我的靈魂是愛做的, Wǒ de Línghún Shì Ài Zuo de, AKA My Soul is Made of Love) makes plain, not even those within the community are entirely free of prejudice especially when comes to issues such as HIV and the complicated give and take of what it means to be “out” when personal concerns may conflict with those of an employer or industry. 

Those are perhaps questions that politically engaged civics teacher Kevin (Oscar Chiu) has largely resisted asking. On his off days, he campaigns for marriage equality and for gender equality in education as well as attending pride rallies, but is warned about including LGBTQ+ issues in his teaching programme for fear of offending parents. Director Lin (Lin Chin-Yu), the headmaster, makes offhand comments about Kevin’s perfectly respectable haircut while reminding him that while he works at the school he’s also its representative and he’d prefer it that he keep a low profile to avoid bringing its name into disrepute. Lin is careful to couch his complaints in neutral language, stressing that he personally is fine with Kevin’s sexuality, but is required to be mindful about the reactions of others, deflecting responsibility for at least failing to counter homophobic attitudes in and around the school. Nevertheless, Kevin tries to sidestep him by continuing to include the topics he’d like to talk about by framing them in less problematic terms, for example discussing the upcoming referendum on marriage equality by debating the vote itself, asking if it’s even ethical to give people the option to vote to deny a specific sector of their society the same rights that everyone else has that should be accorded to all without question. 

Kevin’s worldview is challenged, however, when he starts dating a slightly older man, Gao (Chang Chin-hao), whom he met in a gay bathhouse. Kevin tells him that he’s looking for a longterm relationship, wanting to settle down and eventually get married but is currently living with his hairdresser single mother. Moving in with him quite quickly after Gao went temporarily incommunicado following a minor illness, Kevin is later shocked to discover not only that Gao’s relationship with his ex-wife is not quite as over as he implied, but that he is also HIV+. Learning that Gao has HIV exposes Kevin’s rather shallow grasp of his sexual health. Not only does he not know where to go to get tested, but he conflates HIV and AIDS, convinced that he’s been given a death sentence after noticing that his gums are bleeding. 

While beginning to resent Gao for exposing him to the virus, Kevin is also confused by his admittedly complicated family situation. At some point in the past, Gao evidently opted for a heterosexual marriage to please his conservative family who still don’t seem to be aware that the relationship is over or that Gao is gay. At an awkward family gathering, Kevin is invited but introduced as Gao’s friend while his former wife, Wei, sits on the other side of him being quietly needled by her judgemental mother-in-law for failing to provide a grandchild. Gao apparently promised to father a child with Wei through IVF as a condition for dissolving the marriage which is why she’s still overly present in his life and in Kevin’s eyes laying claim to him. Yet Kevin’s major preoccupation isn’t so much with the results of everyone’s choices or how best to support his new partner and his extended family in this unusual situation but with his own reluctance to think of himself as a “home wrecker” the fact that the marriage ended two year’s previously seeming not to occur to him. 

It’s at school, however, where he faces the greatest challenges not only in the homophobic bullying from his immature students with whom he never seems to have much of a rapport, but from his colleagues when he becomes the subject of an internet rumour about a teacher with AIDS. Faced with a dilemma Kevin’s reluctance to confirm his sexuality while insisting that the rumour is false (despite suspecting it might not be) is more personal than political even as his female colleagues attempt to stand up for him by countering a belligerent, older male teacher who wants him sacked that no one should be expected to submit themselves to invasive medical procedures or be denied their right to privacy simply because of a malicious rumour. Lost and afraid, Kevin shuts down, giving in to passivity while succumbing to misplaced rage about his marginalised place in society as he’s denied access to a hospital where he believes Gao has been taken for treatment after an accident assuming they won’t tell him if he’s there because he’s not a legal relative. 

Chen closes with a brief coda explaining that same-sex marriage will be legalised later in the year, Kevin declaring that it will be on his syllabus as if confirming something has changed, yet it’s clear that attitudes may not have shifted as much as hoped while there is still a widespread lack of awareness about HIV issues combined with a social stigma compounded by homophobia. Nevertheless The Teacher presents a complex picture of LGBTQ+ lives at a moment of social transition in which the promise of a coming equality brings with it both anxiety and hope for those who’ve had to accommodate themselves to life on the margins of a now less hostile society. 


The Teacher is available to stream in the UK as part of the Iris Prize Film Festival in collaboration with Queer East.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Days (日子, Tsai Ming-liang, 2020)

It’s not so much time that makes you feel old as the weight of all the days. Returning with his first narrative feature since 2013’s Stray Dogs, Tsai Ming-liang’s Days (日子, Rìzi) spins a tale of twinned loneliness in which two men, one young one older, one rich the other poor, embody two kinds of sadness as they live out their days of detachment as living ghosts in world which seems to have no place for them. 

Tsai opens with the face of his muse, Lee Kang-sheng billed only in the credits as Kang a wealthy man living in a spacious home surrounded by the beauty of nature. The lengthy, unbroken scene finds him staring impassively out of a window while a storm rages outside, the sound of rain falling while the reflection of trees blown by the wind is eerily reflected behind him. We can see that Kang is a man in great pain, his eyes filled with a melancholy desperation. He stretches and rubs his neck, his physical discomfort perhaps a manifestation of the emotional suffering which he tries to heal by fire, enduring painful moxibustion in search of relief.

Meanwhile, in Bangokok, Laotian migrant Non (Anong Houngheuangsy) is quietly tending fires of his own, firstly those of ritual offering and secondly of sustenance as he stokes the embers to cook the old fashioned way in his tiny, spartan apartment. While Kang is a resolutely passive presence, Non fills his lonely days with industry, constantly at work as we witness him laboriously prepare his dinner with documentary realism. Non is at home with solitude in the private space, but forever alone outside of it. He stands to one side at the market where he works as customers mingle around him, always out of place and unseen like a ghost hovering in the corner of the frame. 

Parallel lines who meet, the two men eventually share a poignant, nominally transactional encounter in a nebulous third space of a neutral hotel room to which Kang has called Non for a sensual massage, presumably how he makes ends meet in Bangkok. Once again the young man does all the work while Kang lies impassive, Non oiling his fingers as he runs his hands over the older man’s body easing his pain through physical contact before he retreats off screen and we hear fabric falling, his Calvin Kleins hitting the floor as the two men briefly connect through an intense act of lovemaking, later proceeding to the shower where Non, still in the role of caregiver, tenderly washes the dejected Kang. Before he leaves, Kang idly hands the younger man the gift of a music box, a spontaneous decision that sparks a moment of melancholy emotional release. They struggle to say goodbye. Non leaves and Kang chases after him, Tsai lingering in the empty space of the hotel room while the two men head for dinner before returning to their respective days in someways changed and others not. 

His pain perhaps temporarily eased, Kang is not quite so passive as before, doing something or other with a fish and going for late night walks, but still finds himself lying awake while the sounds of outside wash over him, his eyes wide with fear and sadness. Non, meanwhile, returns to his routine but even more of a ghost than before, sadly cradling the music box as if in memory of his momentary connection its sound drowned out by the noise of anonymous modernity while the world goes on all around him, an invisible figure ignored by passersby walking alone into the night. 

A opening title card warns us that this is a film intentionally unsubtitled, much like life left to our own shallow grasp of meaning in thought or action, but what little dialogue there is hardly requires interpretation we feel it all the same. Tsai conjures an almost Antonionian sense of emptiness in place, a lengthy still shot of a “haunted” building peeling at the facade suddenly brought to life by the brief shadow of a cat in a window, while abruptly shifting to handheld to follow Kang, somehow alone and clutching his neck in pain in the chaotic streets. Both men exist at angles to the world, as if in some kind of secondary plane, meeting only for an instant and then returning to their solitary existences with only the brief memory of connection perhaps more painful than its absence. Tsai charts competing reactions to existential loneliness, the listless ennui of the wealthy Kang and the ceaseless industry of migrant worker Non, but finds them both equally displaced, searching for connection in an increasingly disconnected world. 


Days streams in the UK until 11th October, 6.30pm as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (dialogue free)

Pakeriran (巴克力藍的夏天, Lekal Sumi Cilangasan, 2017)

Two lost youngsters reconnect with their roots over one idyllic summer in Lekal Sumi Cilangasan’s gentle exploration of culture and identity, Pakeriran (巴克力藍的夏天). Produced by the Indigenous Peoples’ Cultural Foundation, Sumi’s gentle drama finds a city boy quite literally thrown in at the deep end when he returns home to his indigenous community while bonding with an equally lost young woman chasing the legacy of a father who abandoned her. 

As the film opens, university student Futing (Matam Hidaw) is lost in thought, gazing a pretty classmate and hardly listening to his friends as they plan the road trip they’ll be taking over summer vacation. That evening, however, he gets a panicked phone call from his mother telling him that his grandfather has been taken ill and he’s to come home as soon as possible. Futing doesn’t get a chance to explain he’s made other plans, and so finds himself on the first available train, his friend taking off with the girl he likes on the back of his bike as they drop him at the station before setting off on their summer adventure. He’s quite annoyed therefore when he arrives and discovers his grandfather is fine, he just sprained his ankle, but the rest of the family have taken off on holiday and left him to look after grandpa who is quite keen that Futing take part in the upcoming Sacepo festival in his stead. 

Having spent most of his life in the city, Futing no longer understands the local dialect nor does he know very much about traditional customs. Hanging around shyly outside after being instructed to attend a meeting to discuss the festival, Futing is brought in by an older man, Kacaw, who becomes his mentor translating for him as the elders heckle, disappointed that he can’t understand them and exasperated that he has no manners, failing to realise that he as the youngest should be pouring them wine and doing it in ceremonial manner. Tripping up on his way home he’s rescued by Lisin (Ipun Kanasaw), a young woman taking a working holiday at a cafe where they showcase the local cuisine for tourists, but leaves abruptly when he’s recognised by an old friend of his mother’s who asks him to explain the Sacepo festival to the newcomer, too embarrassed to admit he really has no idea what it’s all about. 

Lisin, meanwhile, is also on a quest to reconnect with her history through following in the footsteps of her foodie father who apparently went out one day and never came back. She thinks he might have passed through his village, so she’s patiently absorbing all it has to offer while quietly learning to assume responsibility, eventually forced to take charge when her mentor, Mrs Jiang (Ilid Kaolo), is delayed on her way home. Predictably enough, Futing’s desire to rediscover his ancestral culture is spurred on by his growing attraction to Lisin whose interest in the local customs fuels his own. Suddenly, he becomes invested in the idea of seizing his manhood through completing the ritual, determined to learn how to catch a fish in the traditional way, cooking it in water heated with rocks warmed by the sun. 

The titular Pakeriran refers to a rock island on the far side of an inlet which, it was said, the young could prove themselves men by swimming to and warriors by swimming around. Later, Futing discovers there are other, easier ways to reach Pakeriran but then that isn’t really the point. Through reconnecting with his culture, Futing develops a new respect for the natural world, concerned by all the rubbish he finds floating in the water some of it irresponsibly dropped by non-indigenous fishermen. An attempt to confront one of them brings home to him his marginalised position within Taiwanese society when he’s not quite arrested by local police who accuse him of illegally fishing on his ancestral land without a proper licence after being tipped off by the petty fisherman. Originally resentful, watching the photographs of his friends having fun on their trip roll in over social media, Futing comes to embrace his heritage as a member of the indigenous community as he comes of age, gaining a new appreciation for his place in the world. Beautifully showcasing the traditional culture of the Amis people, Pakeririan offers a rare insight into an all too often hidden side of Taiwanese life through the eyes of the two youngsters as they discover new sides of themselves though reconnecting with their heritage.


Pakeriran streams in the US Oct. 2 – 4 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema & TACCGC’s @Home with Taiwan Cinema: Love & Hope

Original trailer (English & Traditional Chinese subtitles)

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)

Ice Poison (冰毒, Midi Z, 2014)

“You know only too well that in Burma if we want to make money you either go to work in jade mines, but you can’t afford the trip, or you sell drugs” according to the cynical heroine of Midi Z’s Ice Poison (冰毒, Bīngdú) seducing an equally desperate farmer in an effort free herself from patriarchal oppression and reclaim her son from the family who bought her and refuse to let her go. 

In an ironic touch, the film begins and ends in fire as an unnamed young farmer (Wang Shin-hong) and his father (Zhou Cai Chang) burn their fields and harvest their crop only to lament their slender pickings. This year’s harvest has been poor and, according to the young man “everything is getting more expensive except the vegetables we grow”. Left with few options the old man and his son walk towards the town, calling in at various houses along the way gingerly asking for a loan to help make ends meet but everyone is in a similar position. The men of working age have all gone away to find employment, an older woman explaining that her husband is on a construction site while her son who returned from abroad has only been able to find work on a poppy farm and he won’t be paid until after the harvest is finished. Another woman explains that her son, unlike others, wanted to do things properly by applying for a work visa for Malaysia but was cheated by the broker, who then bribed the police when they reported him. Her son now intends to stay and get married which, perhaps surprisingly, she thinks is irresponsible when there’s no money and his older brother is still a bachelor. The last man relates the sorry tale of his son who was apparently poisoned in Thailand after spurning the advances of two local ladies and has since lost his mind. 

Shifting to his plan B, the old man plans to pawn his cow to borrow a scooter so his son can earn some money with a bike taxi, first asking the scooter’s owner for a loan but once again informed he’s strapped himself because one of his employees ran off and his China deal fell through. Rather than the scooter, he offers the young farmer a job, but they ultimately opt for a bloody bargain, placing the cow as a deposit under the agreement that if they can’t pay back the money for the scooter in a few months’ time the oil merchant may have it slaughtered though it breaks the old man’s heart. 

The young farmer had wanted to go and work in the jade mines, but his father discourages him not just because there’s war in the north but because everyone in the mines takes drugs and if he goes and gets himself hooked on meth where will they be then? The bike taxi business, however, does not exactly take off. The young man finds himself at the back of a crowd of pushier drivers literally blocking the exits of the buses that roll into town mobbing those attempting to disembark, but with such crushing poverty all around him it’s perhaps incongruous to assume many want to spend money on speedy transport. He finally manages to get a passenger, Sanmei (Wu Ke-xi), after realising she is also from the Chinese minority, driving her to a village where, it transpires, her grandfather lies dying, apparently waiting for her arrival and the burying clothes she brings with her from their ancestral home in China. The rites completed, she should go home but Sanmei doesn’t want to. As she tells her mother, she was tricked into a marriage to a much older man whose family are oppressively possessive, unwilling to let her bring her son to meet his grandmother for fear she wouldn’t come back. 

Hinting both at the crushing despair and the patriarchal strictures of their society, Sanmei’s mother tells her that she’s better off in China especially as her husband apparently treats her well enough when there are women who marry for love only to suffer domestic violence. But Sanmei keeps repeating that he’s not the man she loves and so she does not want to stay with him. What she wants is to reclaim her child and live an independent life in Burma where, she feels, there are better opportunities for making money. She’s determined to talk to her shady cousin, ignoring her mother’s advice not to get involved with him because he’s a notorious drug dealer. Her cousin indeed tells her that there’s money to be made for those who are bold in peddling “ice”, apparently the only the remaining marketable commodity. Before long she’s smoking it herself, roping in the young farmer who’s taken to making courier deliveries in the absence of passengers, telling him he’s simply ferrying her around and can claim plausible deniability of what it is she herself is transporting. 

Is Sanmei merely manipulating him, seducing the farmer to claim her new life in exploiting his boredom and despair, or was there perhaps a genuine connection born of mutual hopelessness that their poverty and impotence eventually destroys? Shooting in his own hometown, Midi Z paints a bleak picture of contemporary Burma as a scorched paradise in which the only sense of possibility lies in escape, employment abroad or drug-fuelled oblivion at home. Captured with documentary realism, Ice Poison eventually consumes our two heroes but its ultimate victim is a forgotten and unexpected one, nature dismembered at the hands of cruel and indifferent humanity. 


Ice Poison streams in the UK until 27th September as part of the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Walking Dharma (如常, Hsieh Hsih-Chih & Chen Chih-An, 2019)

The image we hold of Taiwan is of a prosperous nation among the most liberal in Asia, yet behind the shining cities there are still those experiencing hardship who might perhaps have fallen through the cracks if it were not for the efforts of the volunteers from the Tzu Chi Foundation. In Walking Dharma (如常, Rú Cháng) documentarians Chen Chih-An and Hsieh Hsin-Chih spent 18 months shadowing some of the organisation’s members many of whom are themselves elderly and have experienced their own share of suffering but equally of mutual support which they have committed to passing on through helping others. 

Testament to changing times, the first recipient of the volunteers’ care is an elderly woman who has had a nasty fall. She later thanks them for all their help in Japanese, a reminder that she was born in another world, raised in the colonial era. She is also one of many isolated older people in the nation’s ageing population, living all alone either with no surviving family around to care for them or perhaps with children who for whatever reason are not able to leaving them entirely dependent on the kindness of the volunteers. The foundation organises a crew to come round and clear the large amount of debris in front of the woman’s home to make it safer for her so she won’t fall again while trying to sort out her medication and make sure she’s safe during an upcoming typhoon. 

Meanwhile, they are also there for children and families who find themselves in difficult circumstances particularly those in which a parent has passed away unexpectedly or is suffering with a chronic illness which both renders them economically vulnerable and places an undue burden on the children whose academic prospects are then reduced while they are needed to care for their parent and siblings. The organisation provides educational assistance to cover school fees for children who find themselves in difficulty, emphasising that education is their best path out of poverty. One young woman later makes a heartfelt visit to one of the elderly volunteers to thank him for all his support over the years which has helped her to gain a place at a prestigious university. Not everyone is convinced, however, including one elderly grandmother who is reluctant to allow her granddaughters to pursue education at high school and beyond, partly because she fears they will go off the rails like the mother who abandoned them to her, and partly for more selfish reasons in that she too will be left alone with no one to look after her in her old age. Thanks to the gentle advice of the volunteers, the grandmother eventually relents and allows the young women the freedom to pursue their dreams. 

Though the members are all obviously adherents of Buddhism and committed to the teachings of the Tzu Chi Foundation which is admittedly cast in an extremely uncritical light, they are prohibited from preaching while offering help as the organisation has a strict policy in place to pursue a secular outlook. The assistance they provide is offered without seeking anything in return save the greater happiness of those they help, gaining a sense of joy in human solidarity as they witness the difference their intervention can make in the lives of others. There are some who might not want what they’re offering, or at least all of it, including one young man and his hearing impaired father who insist that they’re fine with heating up water the old fashioned way and don’t see the point in getting it piped in with a modern heating system, but the volunteers take it all in their stride always respecting the wishes of those they’ve come to help while continuing to offer advice and companionship. 

Yet it takes its toll on them too, a doctor confessing that they often see members of the Tzu Chi Foundation coming in after pushing themselves too hard, failing to look after themselves in their commitment to helping others. All of the volunteers we meet are retirees, one elderly gentlemen later heartbroken when the decline of his own health prevents him from continuing to volunteer. Nevertheless, they all emphasise that helping others is what gives their life meaning, enriching their experience as they find joy in alleviating suffering. A gentle and heartwarming reminder that we’re all in this together, Walking Dharma is testament to the existence of goodness in an all too often indifferent world.


Walking Dharma streams in the US until Sept. 26 as part of the 11th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Four Moods (喜怒哀樂, Pai Ching-Jui, King Hu, Li Hsing, Li Han-Hsiang, 1970)

A key figure in the history of Sinophone cinema, Li Han-Hsiang migrated to Hong Kong from the Mainland in 1948, studying originally as an actor at the Yong Hwa Film Company under the director Zhu Shilun before performing various roles in the industry working as a set painter and graphic artist as well as in voice acting. After his directorial debut Red Bloom in the Snow proved a critical hit, he joined Shaw Brothers in the mid-1950s where he became instrumental in the success of the studio’s hugely popular period musicals inspired by Huangmei opera including the classics The Kingdom And the Beauty (1959) and The Love Eterne (1963). In 1963 he left Shaw Brothers to found Grand Motion Picture Company in Taiwan, helping to further the burgeoning Taiwanese film industry where the Huangmei musicals had proved so popular. Unfortunately, however, the Grand Motion Picture Company ran into financial trouble in the late 1960s and Four Moods (喜怒哀樂, Xǐnù’āilè), a four-part historical portmanteau piece featuring instalments from the most prominent directors of the day including Li himself, was in part intended to improve its flagging fortunes. Unfortunately it was not in that regard successful and Li eventually returned to Hong Kong, founding another production house before rejoining Shaw Brothers in 1972. 

The first of the Four Moods, Joy, is directed by Pai Ching-Jui who studied filmmaking in Italy in the early ‘60s and was heavily influenced by Italian neo-realism but perhaps counterintuitively his contribution is an entirely wordless piece of expressionist psychedelica in which a man trying to stay awake (Yueh Yang) receives a visitation from a beautiful female spirit (Chen Chen) who seems to be the incarnation of a woman whose resting place he repaired after frightening off a disfigured grave robber, planting a pretty flower he found into the earth. The man eventually beds the demure young woman but is disappointed to find her disappeared the next morning, running out into the forest and trying the same thing again, scouring headstones looking for a woman’s name and then planting his flower only to be much less enthused with his next visitor. A visually arresting fever dream of sex and death playing out in a gothic dilapidated cottage in the middle of a foggy forest and set to a primal beat of traditional instrumentation, Pai’s eerie ghost story is feast for the senses. 

King Hu’s Anger, meanwhile, sees the legendary director return to Dragon Inn territory as the destabilising forces of the age meet in a nihilistic battle for survival at remote outpost. The main thrust of the drama follows retainer Tang-hui (Chang Fu-Geng) who is despatched by General Yang to follow one of their men, Tsun, who has been sent into exile after killing the son-in-law of rival general Wang in a fight, but it’s believed that Wang has bribed his guards to kill him before they reach the border. They do indeed try to assassinate Tsun but he seems to fend them off and no longer thinks of them as dangerous when they arrive the inn which turns out to be staffed by duplicitous innkeepers who make a habit of robbing and murdering their guests. Tang-hui, when he turns up, is next on their list because they believe he’s a wealthy businessman weighed down with silver. Soon enough all hell breaks loose as Tang-hui takes on the innkeepers while the mercenary guards debate which side it’s best to be on, culminating in an extraordinarily well choreographed battle set to the rhythms of Peking opera. 

Anger then gives way to Sadness, directed by “godfather of Taiwanese cinema” Li Hsing who migrated from the Mainland in 1949 and began his career in Taiyupian Taiwanese language cinema in 1958 with Brother Liu and Brother Wang on the Road in Taiwan. One again a ghost story, Sadness meditates on the fallacy of vengeance as a man (Ou Wei) returns home after 10 years in prison on a trumped up charge looking for revenge against the men who murdered his family but inconviently discovers that they were all murdered themselves some years previously so there’s no one left to take revenge against. Retaking his family home, he finds a beautiful young woman (Chang Mei-yao) living there who claims to be a refugee making use of the empty house. She tries to talk him out of his revenge fantasies which involve pointlessly desecrating the graves of the Lan family so they’ll never rest in peace, but he doesn’t listen. Thrashing around angrily with his sword, the man eventually softens as he falls for the woman, but ruins his chance of happiness in his inability to let go of his grief and rage. 

The final segment, Happiness, is directed by Li Han-Hsiang himself and is a comparatively subdued tale revolving around a cheerful miller (Ko Hsiang-Ting) who enjoys a drink while fishing in the river by the millhouse. It’s there that he encounters a strange young man (Peter Yang Kwan) who charms the fish into his basket through the beautiful music of his flute. The miller learns that the mysterious man, Liu Lon, is the ghost of one who fell into the river drunk sometime previously and is looking for his replacement so he can move on. Problematically for the miller that involves the death of a young local woman (Chiang Ching) he knows well who considers drowning herself because her father doesn’t approve of her marriage to a man she loves. He saves her, offering to intercede with her father to make him see sense, which means he gets to spend more time with his ghost friend but also that Liu Lon will be in purgatory for another few years. Liu Lon later gets another chance but takes pity on a lost soul and is rewarded for his selfless act of kindness, as he tells the miller will he be for all his earthly goodness. If we haven’t learned already from all the terrible tales of fruitless human greed and violence presented in the other three segments, the path to happiness lies in temperate kindness which is sure to receive at least celestial reward in its proper time. 


Four Moods streams in the UK until 27th September as part of the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Whale Island (男人與他的海, Huang Chia-chun, 2020)

Taiwan is an island, but its people have lost touch with the sea according to one of the protagonists of Huang Chia-chun’s contemplative documentary. Whale Island (男人與他的海, Nánrén Yú Tā de Hǎi) argues that fear has blinded the populace to the beauty which surrounds it, robbing them of their natural freedoms in a symbolic act of repression, but love of the ocean has also cost both of Huang’s protagonists dearly as they find themselves having to prioritise leaving those they love behind on land while they immerse themselves in the solitude of the sea. 

Oceanoggrapher Liao refuses to be constrained. “During your lifetime it’s inevitable for you to be restricted.” he admits, “restricted by society, restricted by reality, restricted by age, restricted by body.” Liao laments that if only people could learn to lose their fear of the water, something he feels has been deliberately cultivated as a means of oppression, everything would be better. For his own part, he fell in love with the sea for the sense solitude. As a young man with language difficulties he longed to escape other people, dreaming of becoming a lighthouse keeper or perhaps a forest ranger before getting to know some captains of fishing boats and getting a job as a fisherman. These days he acts as a tour guide, running scenic trips for tourists showcasing the wonder that exists just off shore with its spinning dolphins and visiting whales. 

Ray, meanwhile, is a wildlife photographer specialising in underwater shots of marine animals. As a father to two young sons, however, he finds himself conflicted, putting his work on the back burner knowing that to do it all out would mean being away from his family for long stretches of time but watching other photographers push further ahead by hopping the planet chasing the seasons. A few weeks a year he travels to Tonga where, unlike Taiwan, it’s permissible to swim alongside the whales but the work is not without danger as he proves after getting whacked on the leg by a curious whale’s tail and being stuck on the shore while he recuperates. Ironically, his boys fear the water, not because its destructive capacity but because of the very real anxiety that that will swallow him whole, that one day he’ll disappear beneath the waves and never resurface. 

Like Ray, Liao also found himself with a kind of choice only in his case it was no choice at all. His marriage eventually broke down because of his obsession with the sea, damaging his relationship with his young daughter which was not repaired until she was a grown woman suffering a health crisis. Yet the sea was not something he could sacrifice, dedicating his life to unlocking its mysteries while insisting on his own freedom, refusing to be constrained by conventional social codes or the will of others. 

Liao is convinced that if people turned to face the sea, lost their fear of it, then many things would change. Perhaps they would feel less oppressed, better able to express themselves and better equipped to live in freedom as he has learned to. According to the life philosophy communicated to him by a friend and mentor, the only way to survive a storm is to sail straight into it, turn the prow towards the source of the problem instead of trying to outrun it. Liao has done just that, attempting to raise awareness of the joys of the sea while fully aware of its concurrent dangers. Huang captures both the majesty of the Taiwanese landscape with its rolling seas, rocky inlets, and remote islands while marvelling at the prevalence of sea life found not so far off shore, neatly contrasting dolphins frolicking in the open seas with those forced to do tricks for tourists in nearby theme parks. A picturesque voyage along the island’s idyllic coastlines, Whale Island is a poignant reminder of the beauty that lies just over the horizon, constantly at the mercy of an ever changing world.


Whale Island streams in the US until Sept. 26 as part of the 11th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)