Wild Sparrow (野雀之詩, Shih Li, 2019)

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Images: © Dot Connect Studio Ltd.

Turning 18 (未來無恙, Ho Chao-ti, 2018)

How much do you really owe a family that has failed you? A difficult question at the best of times, it’s one that continues to play on the mind of teenager Chen, one of two young women from indigenous communities at the centre of Ho Chao-ti’s documentary Turning 18 (未來無恙, Wèilái Wúyàng). Following the two girls who each come from challenging family backgrounds from the ages of 15 to 18, Ho perhaps draws a slightly uncomfortable contrast in the differing paths their lives eventually take after they briefly meet during an internship at funeral home but nevertheless presents an all too often ignored perspective on a hidden side of the island nation.  

Forced to grow up far too soon, both young women are children of single parent families in which there has been a history of domestic violence and, as we later discover, in Chen’s case sexual abuse. In response to her difficult family circumstances in which her mother has become an alcoholic and she has become the primary carer for her eight siblings, Chen has grown serious and mature. She intensely resents her mother’s drinking, not least because it plays into a racist stereotype about indigenous people while also trapping them in desperate poverty. Chen has had to take time out of education to look after her siblings and is grateful for the internship opportunity after which she will return to high school. 

Pei, meanwhile, has moved in with her possessive boyfriend, Wei, and his despairing mother. She is slightly less enthused about the internship, but dutifully completes it. Unlike Chen she never returns to school but remains with Wei who later becomes a delinquent and encounters trouble with the law. Pregnant before her 18th birthday, Pei finds herself navigating teenage motherhood and economic instability while the increasingly irresponsible Wei gravitates towards a life on the margins of crime. 

As such, it seems almost as if we’re being pushed towards judgement of the unlucky Pei for, perhaps, making the same mistake as her mother in unwisely depending on an unreliable man though they are both only teenagers, while it is undoubtedly much easier to get behind the earnest Chen who is determined to make something of her life while fiercely defending her family. Nevertheless, their marginalised status as members of an indigenous community is quickly brought home to us. Ho throws in a few snippets from post-war propaganda programs regarding the development of Hualien which describe the local Tayan population alternately as savage and uncivilised and then simple and innocent, apparently grateful for their “civilisation” at the hands of the KMT government which recommends Hualien to industry leaders as a source of cheap labour. 

Both the young women suffer at the hands of a patriarchal social code and fractured economy. Forced to compromise her education, Chen resents her mother for being unable to hold down a job of her own while it seems clear that she has little education herself and that her drinking is in part a response to her despair. Having escaped abusive spouses, the mothers of both girls have been left without effective means to support themselves in the absence of men, Chen’s mother depending on the support of her extended family who, we later learn, were also abusive. When the abuse is brought to light, Chen’s mother encourages her to lie to the court in order to protect her family members afraid perhaps of the shame but equally of the impossibility of surviving without them. 

Yet Chen continues to try to love her mother no matter how much she disappoints her, sorry only that her mother could not learn to love herself enough to save herself and determined never to make the same mistake. Finding an outlet in Taekwondo which she sees as another way to protect her family, Chen discovers another side of herself in dating another girl, at this young stage of her life incongruously insisting on referring to her as a “boyfriend” though the relationship appears to be accepted by her classmates as entirely normal. We never see how Chen’s family feels about her sexual identity save that she later affirms her desire to march in the Pride parade in Taipei precisely because she wants them to understand she loves women and that’s not something that will change, no one has the right to tell her who to love or who to marry. 

In this at least, Chen appears to have broken the cycle in definitively embracing her identities as a queer indigenous woman while also continuing to love and support her problematic family. Pei meanwhile is in a much less advantageous position, having perhaps repeated the same behaviour patterns in being letdown by an unreliable man and left to bring up a baby on her own though little more than a baby herself. Nevertheless, Ho’s camera is never judgemental in capturing this largely hidden side of Taiwanese society in which systemic male failure and entrenched patriarchy contribute to the marginalisation of the indigenous community even in the contemporary era. 


Turning 18 screens at London’s Riverside Studios on 3rd November as part of this year’s Queer East Film Festival.

Original 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)

The Bride Who Has Returned From Hell (地獄新娘, Hsin Chi, 1965)

“That place is filled with horror and mystery” a creepily persistent man on a train claiming to be a clairvoyant warns the new governess to a home that does indeed turn out to be tinged with tragedy, though in true gothic melodrama fashion that was something of which she was already well aware. Inspired by the Victoria Holt novel Mistress of Mellyn, Taiyupian The Bride Who Has Returned From Hell (地獄新娘) is less supernatural mystery than eerie romance which sees frustrated desire collide with outdated social mores to destabilise the social order in the otherwise tranquil world of the new elite. 

Echoing the novel’s Cornish atmospherics, the opening title sequence pans over the rugged coastal landscape with its rocky outcrops and crashing waves before homing in on a policeman picking up a handbag while his colleagues investigate the body of a man drowned at sea. Meanwhile, wealthy entrepreneur Yi-Ming (Ko Chun-Hsiung) is worried because his wife Sui-Han is not at home despite the fact they’re supposed to be going to a friend’s birthday party. The man’s body is identified as Guo Jing-Min, Yi-Ming’s cousin and the older brother of the woman living next-door, Feng-Jiao (Liu Ching). Jing-Min and Sui-Han were once lovers, and given that the handbag appears to have been hers, it’s assumed that the pair attempted to elope but got into trouble and drowned with Sui-Han’s body possibly lost at sea. 

Perhaps tellingly, Yi-Ming’s reaction to his wife’s disappearance is irritation and suspicion. He asks the housekeeper if Sui-Han has ever stayed out all night while he’s away from home and on learning that she may have come to harm focuses solely on the embarrassment of being a man whose wife has betrayed him. “How am I supposed to face people?” he angrily asks Feng-Jiao who apologises on her brother’s behalf (but seems equally unperturbed at his demise). He more or less gives up on finding out what’s happened to Sui-Han and begins to reject his daughter, Su-Luan, solely because she reminds him of his wife while taking up with another woman, Mrs Lian (Kuo Yeh-Jen), who married a much older man presumably for his money. 

Meanwhile, Sui-Mi (Chin Mei), Sui-Han’s sister who has recently returned to Taiwan after many years living abroad in Singapore, has secretly taken a job as a governess in the Wang household under an assumed name in order to investigate her sister’s disappearance. The man on the train who warned her about the house’s dark mystery, the lonely little girl, and the man with a bad reputation turns out to be none other than the other brother of Feng-Jiao who lives with her in a neighbouring mansion. Apparently employed partly because of her physical similarity to the (presumed) late Sui-Han in an effort to provide comfort to the highly strung Su-Luan, Sui-Mi is only one of several doubles in play which include the decidedly creepy little girl Lan (Dai Pei-shan), the housekeeper’s granddaughter, who insists that Sui-Han is still alive while more or less spying on everyone making full use of her invisibility as a member of the servant class. 

Like any heroine of a gothic romance, Sui-Mi’s role is not just to solve the mystery but to restore order by unifying the various forces of destabilisation currently threatening the Wang family which is one reason we see her actively include Lan, treating her the same as she does Su-Luan, teaching the two girls to be friends and equals as she educates them both together. The other threat to social harmony is in Yi-Ming’s moodiness and womanising, most particularly his possibly immoral relationship with Mrs. Lian and inability to embrace his role as a father by showing love to his daughter who is already becoming strange and neurotic in the wake of her mother’s death, believing that she has been abandoned by both parents. Thus, partly thanks to her physical similarity to Sui-Han as her sister, Sui-Mi assumes the maternal role assuring Su-Luan that she will love her forever in her mother’s place while Yi-Ming’s growing attraction to her precisely because of these maternal qualities, in its own way also problematic, draws him back towards the proper path of home and family. 

Pursued by Feng-Jiao’s creepy brother and conflicted in her attraction to her brother-in-law while still harbouring the suspicion he may be involved in her sister’s disappearance, Sui-Mi finds herself drifting away from the idea of solving the mystery even while inhabiting the creepy mansion which is in its own way both literally and figuratively haunted. A dream apparition of her sister in an ethereal use of double exposure effectively gives her permission to pursue her romantic destiny by instructing her to stay in Taiwan and look after Su-Luan because, she fears, no one else will which doesn’t speak highly of Yi-Ming, while reminding Sui-Mi that she came to the Wangs’ for a reason.  

“You can’t get true love by manipulation” the villain is later told, revealing to us that the motive in this case really was romantic jealousy, a typically gothic sense of repression born of oppressive patriarchal social codes which prevent the proper expression of desire and eventually lead to violence. Sui-Mi restores order by solving the mystery and then healing the rifts by, ironically, submitting herself to those same oppressive social codes in assuming her “natural” role as wife and mother. Using a series of unexpected music cues from ominous Japanese folksong Moon over Ruined Castle as Sui-Mi surveys the rugged mansion to the more upbeat Hana as she plays with the children, moody jazz, Danny Boy, and even the James Bond theme playing over the climax (not to mention the many instances of child star and producer’s daughter Dai Pei-shan singing her gloomy lullaby), Hsin goes all in on the gothic imagery even having Sui-Mi almost fall victim to a suspicious rock fall just as she becomes a credible romantic heroine, before ending on a cheerful note with another song celebrating the simple joys of the traditional family.


The Bride Who Has Returned From Hell streams in the UK until 27th September as part of the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Restoration trailer (English subtitles)

Kuei-Mei, a Woman (我這樣過了一生, Chang Yi, 1985)

“Why are women always being tolerant?” a middle-aged, unmarried daughter asks her mother uncertain why she stoically put up with everything she did as if she had any other choice. As the title implies, Chang Yi’s Kuei-Mei, a Woman (我這樣過了一生, Wǒ Zhèyàng Guò le Yīshēng) , based on a book by his then wife Hsiao Sa, is the story of one ordinary woman though one who perhaps stands in for that of her nation undergoing a period of rapid change from post-war penury to comfortable prosperity in a little more than 30 years which is in essence a generation. 

Kuei-Mei (Loretta Yang Hui-shan) leaves Mainland China during the chaos of the civil war and escapes to Taiwan with her cousin. Living in limbo, neither of them intended to stay very long and assumed they’d one day be going home. Nevertheless, there are things which must be done, which is why Kuei-Mei finds herself gravitating towards an arranged marriage with a widowed father of three, Hou (Lee Li-chun), another Mainland refugee with a steady job as a waiter in a restaurant run by a foreigner. For lack of other options, Kuei-Mei decides to become Hou’s wife, but unbeknownst to her, he has a serious gambling problem that continually endangers their family and eventually loses him his job. Shackled to an irresponsible man, it’s Kuei-Mei who has to shoulder the responsibility of trying to keep the family together but in the end she can save it only by breaking it apart, accepting a job as a housekeeper to a wealthy couple who are moving to Japan taking with her only two of her five children, one of the twins she bore herself and Hou’s oldest boy who struggles in the Taiwanese educational system. 

As a middle-aged, modern woman, Cheng-fang, Hou’s oldest daughter, asks her step-mother why she chose to forgive her father, returning after having left him on discovering that he had fathered a child with another woman. Kuei-Mei doesn’t have much of an answer for her, we can infer she returned because the children needed her and she couldn’t support them alone, but wonders if her unhappy marriage is the reason Cheng-fang has remained single. Contemporary women have other options, they need not stoically resign themselves to passive suffering as the women of Kuei-Mei’s generation were expected to do. None of the marriages we see are particularly happy, from that of Kuei-Mei’s cousin and her husband whose constant arguing pushes her towards a marriage of her own to escape the awkwardness of being a guest in their home, to the wealthy Weis in Japan who again argue constantly because, the servants gossip, of a patriarchal power imbalance. Mr. Wei is dependent on his wife’s family for influence and advancement, but humiliates her through his infidelity while she feels trapped, fearing the humiliation of middle-aged divorce may be even worse. Again it’s a desire to escape the awkwardness of the Weis, along with the “humiliation” of living as mistreated servant, that motivates Kuei-Mei to leave their employ to work illegally in a restaurant in the hope of earning higher wages in order to return home and open a restaurant of her own. 

Kuei-Mei’s determination is in a sense to be her own boss, though the level of autonomous independence she can achieve is perhaps limited by the patriarchal society in which she lives. Nevertheless, she works hard to achieve it despite being tied to the dead weight that is Hou who can only drift along behind her, waiting tables in the restaurant she eventually sets up which is named after a street in the Shanghai she left as little more than a teenager. As an old woman she receives a letter from the man she was engaged to in her village, a sudden reminder of the life she could have had, all her youthful dreams of romance sacrificed on the altar of pragmatism in her marriage to Hou. But despite all the difficulty she remains surrounded by the family she secured through her maternity, even if the grown-up children all dream of lives abroad, scattered by the glittering prizes of a newly prosperous era. 

Late in life walking with Cheng-fang, Kuei-Mei passes the place where her twins were born, an elegant tower block replacing the tenement where she first lived with her cousin after arriving in Taipei. Her rise mirrors that of her country, patiently working hard to make something of herself in turbulent times, unrecognised by the world around her, but emerging with quiet dignity in her ability to bear her sorrow with grace as she determined to build a better future for her children. Her life has, however, been hard and its costs are visited directly upon her at its end, the ills of the modern society ironically symbolised in a cancer of the womb in a woman whose triumph lies in her maternity. A social realist epic filmed with a studied detachment, Chang’s hugely empathetic biopic of the everywoman has only a profound respect for stoic suffering while quietly resentful of the society which demanded it.


Kuei-Mei, a Woman streams in the UK 18th to 27th September as part of the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Trailer (English subtitles)

The Husband’s Secret (丈夫的秘密, Lin Tuan-Chiu, 1960)

Emotional pain flows out of wronged love, according to the gently judgemental voiceover cutting in at random moments throughout Lin Tuan-Chiu’s familial melodrama The Husband’s Secret (丈夫的秘密). A tale of changing gender roles and a conservative society, Lin’s film finds a frustrated female solidarity but also insists on the repair of the traditional family even when that family may not take the form one expects or in fact be entirely healthy while romantic love which destabilises the social order must be suppressed in order to preserve the maternal which only reinforces it. 

The film opens with Tshiu-Bi (Wu Li-Fen) meeting some of her old friends from college at a reunion only to be accidentally shamed by another woman boasting about her already large family. Despite being apparently happily married to rising executive Siu-Gi (Chang Pan-Yang) and living a financially comfortable life in a large Western-style home with a live-in maid, there is discord in the marriage because the couple have no children. A moment of crisis presents itself when Tshiu-Bi runs into her old friend Le-Hun (Chang Mei-Yao) who had been missing from the reunion and learns that the reason for her absence was shame. Seduced and betrayed, Le-Hun is now a single mother living in desperate poverty, forced to pawn her coat in the middle of winter and pound the streets amid the falling snow looking for work. She is always turned away, prospective employers complaining that she looks like a drug addict because of her shivering in the cold, sunken cheeks, and hollow expression. When her young song Ah-Siong is ill and she needs money for hospital treatment, she is forced to swallow her pride and ask Tshiu-Bi for help. Tshiu-Bi gives her a diamond ring to pawn, bringing her into conflict with her husband who is stunned to hear the name and realise that Le-Hun maybe the girlfriend he broke up with to agree to an arranged marriage with Tshiu-Bi to further his business prospects. 

Tshiu-Bi of course knows nothing of this, bringing Le-Hun to stay with them after she is found passed out in the street and hurt when she abruptly leaves after realising that Siu-Gi and her old friend are now a married couple. As Siu-Gi later acknowledges, much of this is all his fault in the moral cowardice that saw him abandon a woman he loved to make an advantageous match. He may have tried to be a good husband and is not a bad man, but he has perhaps behaved badly and the consequences of his bad behaviour are visited on the women in his life alone. Siu-Gi wants to make amends, but is also overwhelmed by old emotions. Perhaps he envisages a solution in which he could have it all, protect Le-Hun and the son he suspects may be his while maintaining his married life and his wife none the wiser. 

Unlike Tshiu-Bi, Le-Hun has certainly been unlucky, ruined by an early failed affair with a bad man who turned out to be a petty criminal and forced her to become a bar hostess to support him. She left Sing-Liat after discovering him with another woman, but he continues to pursue her, damaging her earlier relationship with Siu-Gi and disrupting every opportunity she takes to make a life for herself, seemingly never allowed to forget that she is a “fallen woman” as if haunted by her transgression. Le-Hun is even evicted from her flat when the landlady’s drunken husband tries it on while she is half-conscious with fever, the landlady choosing to blame her rather than the husband in a theme which will be repeated when the prior relationship between Le-Hun and Siu-Gi eventually comes to light. Tshiu-Bi’s uncle, who had arranged the marriage, reminds her that boys will be boys and having a mistress is perfectly normal, keen that she not cause further scandal with a divorce over something as trivial as a husband’s infidelity. Running into Le-Hun by chance after she had fled to another town, Siu-Gi gives in to his passion and spends the night with her, justifying himself that what they have done is perfectly natural while the judgemental voiceover cuts in to ask how educated people could behave in such an uncivilised manner. 

As a result of their night of passion, Le-Hun becomes pregnant and finds refuge with a close friend and fellow bar girl who helps her to raise Ah-Siong, but once the pregnancy is discovered the uncle reassumes control and lays claim to the baby. He orders Le-Hun never to see Siu-Gi again, to which she agrees already overcome with guilt in having betrayed her friend by sleeping with her husband, but also makes the completely unreasonable demand that he will take the baby away after it’s born, apparently intending to put it out for adoption. Tshiu-Bi, meanwhile, sees he obvious solution and wants to keep the child as her own which angers the fiercely patriarchal uncle because it would mean that the mistress’ son inherits the estate (Siu-Gi had married into their family which is why he has a different surname to the one he used when he was with Le-Hun, perhaps explaining his feelings of resentment and emasculation in the reversed power balance of his marriage). 

Yet the illicit affair provides a point both of fracture and of healing which turns the single point of crisis into two definitively separate yet viable branches. While the relationship between Le-Hun and her friend seems perhaps transgressively close and hints at an alternative family born of female solidarity of the kind that Tshiu-Bi tried to offer to Le-Hun but was frustrated by romantic crisis, Le-Hun is eventually forced to reunite with her no-good gangster boyfriend who has apparently reformed after a spot in jail and now bitterly regrets his treatment of her. Wayward men are brought back into superficial conformity in being forced to assume a degree of responsibility as husbands and fathers, while women are expected to suppress their emotions and stoically endure the consequences of male failure. Nevertheless, even while Le-Hun’s friend is seemingly left out in the cold, the social order is preserved in the repair of two “happy” families cauterising the wound of transgression through the reinforcement of the conservative.


The Husband’s Secret streams in the UK 18th to 27th September as part of the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Clip (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Restoration trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Tarzan and the Treasure (泰山寶藏, Liang Zhefu, 1965)

Nothing is guaranteed to turn people against each other faster than hidden loot. So it is for the children of two wartime conscripts inheriting a dubious legacy from their departed fathers in the enticingly named Tarzan and the Treasure (泰山寶藏). The world was beginning to open up in 1965, but in cinema at least there was still space for the “mysterious East” even when seen from the relative proximity of Taiwan. 

A Taiwanese businessman travels to Macao in search of the missing half of a map said to lead to treasure hidden in the Malayan mountains by the Japanese at the end of the war. The man’s brother, Zheng, and the father of the man he’s supposed to meet, Fan, served together as conscripts to the Japanese army and agreed to tear the map in two because they were afraid that their descendants may try to do each other out of their shared inheritance. That proves truer than they could ever know seeing as they both died young. The businessman is shot dead by crooks including Fan’s son (Chin Tu) who planned to steal Zheng’s half of the map and get the treasure for himself, but thankfully he didn’t have it on him, leaving it with his niece Shufen (Liu Qing) for safekeeping. Fan’s son is also killed by his gangster boss who takes his leads about Shufen and her young cousin Hong-luk (Ba Ke) heading to Malaya and runs with them. 

Shufen meanwhile has been warned by a policeman from Macao that her uncle is dead and gangsters may be on her tail. Inspector Khoo tells her to go and wander around in the jungle as bait while he is supposedly going to protect her and her cousin. Hong-luk privately dreams of finding the treasure, but Shufen reminds him they’re here for “revenge” and to smoke out the gangsters, not to get rich. While in the jungle, however, they encounter many more dangers than the alien element of invading criminality. Despite being firmly set in the modern era, Shufen and her cousin repeatedly run into members of a primitive tribe, some of whom turn out to be predatory. A hero is, however, forever on the horizon and whenever Shufen finds herself shouting for help “Tarzan” (Gao Ming) swings out of the jungle to rescue her. 

Somewhat surprisingly, “Tarzan” speaks perfect Taiwanese but wears only a leopard print loincloth and a few bangles. He is apparently, and for obvious reasons, a popular guy but only has eyes for So-bi, his increasingly jealous girlfriend with an equally jealous sister constantly outraged on So-bi’s behalf. Tarzan never falls for the the “Jane” figure of Shufen standing in for urban sophistication but remains her protector, not only from the predatory members of his own tribe but from the gangsters too even as they bring unwelcome modernity in the form of guns into this idyllic paradise. 

As they said, Shufen and her cousin haven’t come to find the treasure, only to get justice and in the hope of figuring out what happened to Shufen’s father and brother who came to Malaya some years ago after Fan’s death made getting the second half of the map impossible. The treasure itself, unearned wealth with a less than ideal genesis, is the corrupting influence which has caused so much pain and suffering. Zheng may have given his life for it, his brother and Fan’s son were shot for it, and now amoral gangsters from Macao may make sure that Shufen pays for it too even though she seems to have no interest in striking it rich. The lesson seems to be that going off to foreign countries to pull dollars out of the hillsides is a meaningless and risky business. Shufen has the right idea in that she’s gone to Malaya to restore her family and if possible bring it home while paying her respects to her late uncle. 

Greed, romantic jealousy, and the dangers of the jungle, however, threaten her mission. Wise for his years, little Hong-luk is increasingly convinced they’ve been double-crossed and that “Inspector Khoo”, if that’s his real name, must be in league with the gangsters, having tricked them into coming into the mountains all alone without the promised police “protection” even while they’re supposedly acting as bait for vicious Macao gangsters. Rest assured, however, that the authorities are eventually vindicated while Shufen remains just as innocent as the guileless Tarzan but standing up to the forces of corruption as long as she is able. The “treasure” that she discovers is family unity, preparing to leave the exoticised “Eastern paradise” for the urban sophistication of “civilisation” in Taiwan, but taking something of Malaya with her as she goes.


Screened as part of touring retrospective Taiwan’s Lost Commercial Cinema

The Rice Dumpling Vendors (燒肉粽, Hsin Chi, 1969)

What could be more wholesome and comforting than a rice dumpling? To support their desperate family, a father and daughter become, unbeknownst to each other, Rice Dumpling Vendors (燒肉粽), hoping to buy back their innocence through honest work but secretly ashamed of the depths to which they’ve fallen. Rising economic prosperity has it seemed provoked a moral decline and resulted in an arrogant entitlement that allows wealthy men to assume they can do as they please, but one ordinary businessman is about to get an unexpected humbling when confronted by the consequences of his moral transgressions. 

Tsibing (Yang Ming) is outwardly successful. He dresses in suits, has a large house and chauffeur driven car, can afford to employ a nanny, and comes home to an elegant middle-class wife (Jin Mei) and three adorable children. Despite all of that, however, he’s about to ruin everything. His mistress is secretly part of a criminal gang. She gets her boyfriend to pretend to rob the place, knocking out Tsibing’s wife and undressing her, leaving a pair of underpants on the bed to make it look like her lover has thrown his clothes on in a hurry and jumped out of the French doors to avoid being caught out by Tsibing’s unexpected arrival. Tsibing doesn’t stop to ask questions. He rounds on his wife, beating her violently in front of their young son whom he also kicks in the ribs for trying to defend her. Hypocritically pointing out that his taking a mistress is no justification for her to take a lover a too, he throws her out of his house, only to be thrown out himself when he realises that his mistress has stolen all his money. Ruined and penniless he moves into a shack with the three kids and tries to keep things together while meditating on his mistakes. 

The Rice Dumpling Vendors is, somewhat unusually, a melodrama of male failure in which Tsibing experiences a humbling which pulls him away from the amoral capitalism of the post-war era towards humanistic compassion. The couple next-door, a balloon seller (Chin Tu) who dresses as a clown and his feisty wife (Siu Chu), were unable to have children of their own and quickly take to the young family, feeling sorry for Tsibing and often helping him out particularly with buying formula milk for the baby. “I always thought people were selfish” he confesses while lying on a hospital bed after sustaining a serious workplace injury, finally seeing a different, less materialistic way to live. 

As the closing song reminds us, however, you can’t do anything without money. Attempting to walk away from failure, Tsibing finds himself in an impossible position. He can’t find work that can support a family, and even once he finds a job he gets himself injured leaving him entirely unable to provide. Oldest daughter Hsiu-chuan (Dai Peishan) tries to take the burden on herself, selling lottery tickets and heading out at all hours to hawk rice dumplings to passersby in the streets, unconvincingly telling her father that she’s going to help a classmate who is sick in the hospital with their homework. Hsiu-chuan’s earnestness stands in complete contrast to her father’s increasing desperation compounded by guilt and regret. In a low moment, he even considers abandoning the baby in front of the house of a wealthy childless couple in the hope that they will adopt her.

Strangely, Tsibing never considers asking the childless couple from next-door who already dote on his children if they’d be willing to look after the baby, but determines straight on placing himself at the mercy of the wealthy. The couple at least seem nice – they want a child and would spoil it with both love and money, but they are also arch materialists. Their first thought is that they should give Tsibing money in compensation, as if they were buying a pet. It doesn’t quite occur to them that he might change his mind, after all they can give his baby a quality of life he currently cannot in which she’ll be well fed and taken care of. Is it selfish of him to deny her that? Hsiu-chuan and her brother, however, aren’t having any of it. They’re taking their sister home where she belongs, vowing to give up on school and double down on their part time jobs to make sure they can afford milk to feed her. 

Tsibing too lowers himself once again, selling not only lottery tickets but later rice dumplings, telling Hsiu-Chuan, who is doing exactly the same thing, that he’s got a job as a nightwatchman in a warehouse which is why he’s out all night. Humbled and encouraged by the warmhearted altruism of his kindly neighbours, he’s learning to renounce the materialist life and re-embrace what’s important. The mistress, meanwhile, making an unexpected reappearance, pays a heavy price both for her amoral materialism, and for her transgressions as an “immoral” woman whose attempts to use men provoke only jealousy and violence. Meanwhile, the wife is eventually vindicated and seems to have retained both her wealth and her class status even after being unfairly thrown out by Tsibing. 

What we’re presented with is a seemingly uncomplicated family reunion, completely ignoring Tsibing’s brutal use of violence against his wife and son which is itself intended to demonstrate his “manliness” and patriarchal authority. He reminds his wife of the cultural double standard that insists that a man may take a mistress but a wife must be faithful, punishing her not for betraying their family but for making a fool of him. Little does he know however that he’s already been made a fool of by a “wicked” woman, and it’s entirely his own fault for acting irresponsibly, regarding a mistress as little more than a status symbol. Nevertheless, now humbled he has a new appreciation for what it means to be a family man, seeking not riches but simple wholesome pleasures like rice dumplings and friendship surrounded by kind and honest people always willing to lend a hand to those in need.


Screened as part of touring retrospective Taiwan’s Lost Commercial Cinema

The Laundryman (青田街一號, Lee Chung, 2015)

青田街一號_主海報A_直式_有贊助_OLCould you, should you, attempt to wash away life’s “stains” by erasing them? The hero of Lee Chung’s The Laundryman (青田街一號, Qīngtián J Yīhào) is engaged with just that in his clandestine occupation in which he works as a kind of “cleaner”, smoothing the wrinkles out of life’s little problems for the monied and unscrupulous. Yet he finds himself “haunted” by his crimes, accused by those he so casually dispatched without asking why, and eventually forced into a reexamination of his life and work.

Known only by the cryptic codename “No. 1, Chingtian Street” (Joseph Chang Hsiao-chuan), our hitman is one of many working for the mysterious A-gu (Sonia Sui Tang) at her family laundry which she runs as a cover for her stable of assassins, claiming that they merely clean the stains from people’s lives rather than their clothes. A-gu’s methods are complex and exacting. Picking up concerned citizens in the street, she guides them towards her services before Chingtian or one of his colleagues inserts themselves into their target’s daily routine, knocks them off in a quiet sort of way, then brings the body “home” to be “laundered”.

The snag is that Chingtian has recently become plagued by the spirits of those he’s killed. Three of them, to be exact (and an extra one he didn’t off but has started following him anyway). Traditional therapy proving no help, A-gu sends Chingtian off to see Lin (Regina Wan Qian), a pretty psychic, despite affirming that all of this is some weird thing going on with Chingtian’s head rather than genuine paranormal activity. Lin, spotting his ghostly followers right away, explains to Chingtian that they most likely have unfinished business – i.e. finding out who wanted them dead and why. There is, however, a little more to it than that as a further trail of death begins to linger behind Chingtian that leads back to a dark and repressed memory of his youth.

Despite its whimsical tone, Lee’s drama leans heavily into the darkness in asking why it is someone might decide to pay to have someone else killed. The answers aren’t the ones you’re expecting. No business disputes or political machinations, only frustrated loves and loneliness. A nerdy young loner falls for the larger lady from next-door and is horrified to realise that her boyfriend beats her to the point at which she has begun to consider suicide as a means of escape. He wants to save her, and after all the world might be “better off” without the violent boyfriend, so he gives in to A-gu’s alluring offer to have the guy offed (for a small fee). Meanwhile, another mark decided on his course of action out of an excess of love, or to put it more pointedly, its dark side as he became increasingly convinced he could not live up to its expectation and determined to free himself of the burden, damning himself further into a downward spiral of self-destructive humiliation.

A-gu’s life philosophies lean to towards the callous with all her talk of “cleaning” and affirmations that “useless people should be destroyed”, but as Lin points out it’s quite something else to bump off a lovely older couple – some might even call it heartless. Heartless is what Chingtian has been raised to be, so his recently reawakened humanity is quite a problem. Caught between A-gu who alternates between something like possessive mother and femme fatale (which is just as strange a dynamic as it sounds), the pixyish Lin, and later the dogged policewoman Yang (Yeo Yann Yann) who’s picked up on a trail set down for her to find but followed it further than intended, Chingtian is forced to confront himself and his past, in a sense putting his psyche on a spin cycle to reverse a lifetime’s worth of brainwashing and remember who it is he really is.

Strangely warm and fuzzy, Lee’s whimsical world of colour is a perfect mix of film noir fatalism and fairytale promise as Chingtian walks a precarious path towards reintegration of his personality while trying a fair few others on for size. The childlike silliness of an anti-ghost musical number mingles with the hard edged kung fu of a violent procedural but Lee never loses his sense of cartoonish fun even as Chingtian begins to find his answers and with them a clue to inner darknesses personal and otherwise.


Currently available to stream in the UK (and possibly other territories) via Amazon Prime Video.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Han Dan (寒單, Huang Chao-liang, 2019)

Han Dan poster 1Military deity of wealth “Han Dan” is said to be afraid of the cold, so those who worship at his altar try to keep him warm with firecrackers during a ritual still practiced in the Eastern cities of Taiwan in which young men embody the god and brave the fiery assault in a daring show of their masculinity. Some volunteer to play the god for money, others for pride, and a few for atonement but there are some crimes you can’t simply burn away either with fire or by hate. The heroes of Huang Chao-liang’s Han Dan (寒單) bond through tragedy and try push past their pain through brotherhood but only one of them is aware their present relationship is founded on twisted hate fuelled revenge even as a genuine connection forms underneath.

Nerdy, earnest school-teacher-to-be Zheng-kun (George Hu Yuwei) has been fostering a lifelong crush on the girl next door, Xuan (Allison Lin), who went away to Taipei and only rarely returns home. Too shy to declare himself, he is enraged and hurt to discover that she has been secretly dating a guy they went to high school with – popular kid Ming-yi (Cheng Jen-shuo) who used to bully him for being only a trash collector’s son. Ming-yi is set to play Han Dan at this year’s Lantern Festival and his show of manly bravado is almost more than Zheng-kun can bear. In a moment of madness, he throws his lighter into a pile of firecrackers hoping to injure his rival, but Xuan runs to warn him and is caught in the crossfire. She dies from her injuries, leaving both men feeling guilty and bereft though no one else knows that it was Zheng-kun who started the fire. 

While Zheng-kun gives up on his teaching career and retreats into gloomy introspection, Ming-yi, who lost his hearing and the use of his hand in the accident, has become a drug addict and petty criminal. Riddled with guilt, Zheng-kun commits to “saving” his former enemy – locking him up while he goes cold turkey and then bringing him into the recycling business he’s started on his father’s land, but still harbours hate in his heart both for himself and for the man Ming-yi used to be.

“If only we were real friends” Zheng-kun mutters under his breath during an otherwise idyllic moment at the river. Learning more about his “blood brother”, Zheng-kun discovers that a toxic family situation is what made him such a terrible person in high school which might ordinarily have fostered compassionate forgiveness but only makes things worse for Zheng-kun who continues to hate Ming-yi to avoid having to think about how much he hates himself for what he did to Xuan. In an effort to atone, he forces himself through the Han Dan ritual year after year, scorching his body with firecrackers but finding little in the way of cathartic release.

“Feeling the pain means I’m alive” he tells a melancholy woman who seems to have had a thing for him ever since he was a shy student with a part-time job in the sleazy snack bar where she works. Now violent and angry, he’s not such a sensitive soul anymore but she loves him all the same and resents the intrusion of the late Xuan into their awkward relationship. Like the lovelorn hostess and the song they find themselves listening to, Zheng-kun too has a secret in his schoolbag that’s becoming impossible to keep but speaking it threatens to upset the carefully balanced semblance of a life that he’s forged with an oblivious, wounded Ming-yi.

Both men struggle to move on from the past, unable to forgive themselves not only for what happened to Xuan but for the choices they did or didn’t make in their youths that leave them afraid to move forward and locked into an awkward brotherhood bonded by love and hate in equal measure. A final cathartic explosion may provide a path towards a new life but only through shattering the fragile bond born of shared tragedy and irretrievable loss. A beautifully lensed morality tale, Han Dan is an acutely observed portrait of the corrosive effects of guilt and trauma but also a tragedy of misplaced male friendship as two lost souls find each other only in losing themselves as they battle the inescapable shadows of the past.


Han Dan screens as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival on June 30.

Original trailer (English subtitles)