Leave Me Alone (不想一個人, Fan Yang-chung, 2021)

Lonely souls seek impossible connection in a rapidly disintegrating world in Fan Yang-Chung’s steamy urban drama, Leave Me Alone (不想一個人, bùxiǎng yīgèrén). The title may in its way be misleading, the original Chinese meaning something more like “I don’t want to be alone” hinting at the misdirected longing that informs all of the relationships in play, but is in another way the thing each of them fear – that they are being left behind while everything around them seems to be on the brink of collapse. 

Petty street pimp Loong (Fandy Fan Shao Hsun) literally lives in a disused building that’s about to be torn down, while his side gig involves working with a local gangster to pressure residents of an old-fashioned apartment block to sell up so the land can be redeveloped. Loong has a rather unsentimental, amoral approach to his work in finding the body of an old man and pressing his finger on the documents to make it look like he changed his mind right before died, something which seems all the colder on realising that his own father lives in the building. His gangster boss Brother Chao ominously reminds him that’s something he’ll need to take care of. 

In other ways eager to please, Loong’s involvement with Brother Chao is part of his aspirational desire to live a better life which also in part explains his fascination with beautiful gallery owner Olivia (Christina Mok) who is also in her own way lonely having discovered that she’s carrying the child of her married lover whom she’d believed was ignoring her only to discover the reason he’s not been answering her calls is that he’s in hospital in a coma and unlikely to wake up. Both Loong and and Olivia are repeatedly blocked from getting what they want, she prevented from entering her lover’s hospital room on the orders of his wife and he later rejected from a fancy apartment block by the same set of security guards instructing him to take the back stairs as if reminding him of his status and the class difference between himself and Olivia even if he’s smartened himself up while continuing to exploit other women for his living.

He does perhaps undergo a minor pang of conscience when Olivia tells him not to treat her like one of his sex workers, but later seems to have given up on achieving a more mainstream success after overplaying his hand with Brother Chao and paying a heavy price for his hubris. Olivia meanwhile entertains other men in an attempt to overcome her loneliness, sending each of them away with the excuse that her friend is coming over though of course he isn’t and doesn’t respond to her messages. As she and Loong drift into an affair, Oliva becomes a kind of tourist in his world raising eyebrows at the karaoke bar where the girls entertain Brother Chao’s guys, but Loong is hopelessly out of place in her upperclass society hovering in the background at a swanky party and eventually alienating another guest he felt was belittling him by offering to set him up with one of his girls. While he longs for Olivia as a symbol of the high life he feels is denied to him, so Chin-shah (Wen Chen-ling) his casual squeeze longs for him looking perhaps for protection or uncomfortably for the familial while he largely thinks only of himself. 

In any case, they each live in a world set to disappear. In one of the earliest scenes, Olivia watches as workmen dismantle the current installation in preparation for the next, her own image shattering as a mirror is smashed by a workman’s hammer, while the disused apartments and obsolete housing complexes familiar to Loong must too eventually come down leaving him forever displaced in a rapidly gentrifying city. “You’re too poor and you can’t handle me” Olivia eventually reflects after asking Loong if he’d always be there to take care of her making it plain that they occupy two different worlds while temporarily trapped in the same liminal space by their shared loneliness and a longing for something else that they don’t think they can have. They must try to find a way to move on but are otherwise forced deeper onto the paths they’d already chosen while trapped together bound by their shared yet opposing desires. In Fan’s stratified city of frustrated longing, love may not be so much the cure for loneliness as its ultimate expression. 


Leave Me Alone screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Fantasy of Deer Warrior (大俠梅花鹿, Chang Ying, 1961)

A fearless warrior’s solipsistic priorities and obsession with male pride begin to endanger his community in Chang Ying’s incredibly bizarre Taiwanese-language forest fable, The Fantasy of Deer Warrior (大俠梅花鹿). Seemingly aimed at children with its series of moral messages and anthropomorphised animal characters, Chang’s drama is surprisingly violent not to mention a little on the raunchy side for a family film while ending on a note entirely at odds with the prevailing wisdom of children’s cinema as the righteous hero takes bloody revenge on his bound and defenceless enemies but is nevertheless embraced by his innocent love interest for having brought “justice” back to the forest. 

Opening with a surreal scene of children in animal outfits dancing to jingle bells in the middle of the forest, the cheerful atmosphere is soon disrupted by an incursion of “wolves” carrying nailed bats. An emissary is dispatched to fetch “Sika Deer” (Ling Yun), the forest’s most fearsome warrior, but he is busy having fight with love rival Elk (Li Min-Lang) over the beautiful “Miss Deer” (Pai Hung) who according to the mischievous Foxy (Lin Lin) has been kind of dating both of them. Foxy is incredibly jealous of Miss Deer and stirs the pot by suggesting that Elk and Sika Deer continue in a formal duel with the winner taking Miss Deer’s heart. Shockingly this is what they do and Sika Deer wins only to be immediately called away to the wolf attack, discover his father is already dead, and decide the best thing to do is not see Miss Deer again until he’s finished avenging his father’s death by killing Bloody Wolf. 

As you can see, Sika Deer has his priorities all wrong. First of all, he was off pointlessly fighting Elk while his family were eaten by wolves, then he decides to take the manly path by leaving Miss Deer alone and vulnerable not to mention his community largely defenceless. Later he does something similar when Miss Deer is kidnapped, stopping to lock horns with his love rival rather than devoting all their resources to tracking Bloody Wolf and saving Miss Deer. He does belatedly think to send her a letter explaining he’s busy with important revenge business and will call her later which foils Foxy’s plan to convince her he’s dead so she’ll date Elk instead (unclear why she wants this) but the fact remains that he basically just abandons everyone to selfishly pursue his own revenge ironically leaving the village vulnerable to attack.

Despite this and being absent for most of the picture, Sika Deer is still held up as the hero even when he marches Bloody Woolf and minion to his father’s grave and executes them with surprising violence while they are bound and gagged. Where most children’s films would end with some kind of forgiveness, a restoration of the forest’s harmony brokered by the hero’s magnanimity which in itself causes the villains to reform, Deer Warrior ends with quite the reverse which would seem to run contrary to most of the other moral messages presented throughout the film. 

Then again, “There is no justice in this world” Miss Deer is told on appealing first to a tree and then an elderly buffalo for a moral judgement on whether or not the wolf should be allowed to eat her even though she saved his life. As the tree points out, people took shelter under him but then they cut him down for firewood, while the buffalo complains that he’s been exploited all his life but as soon as he’s too old to work he’ll be killed and eaten. Miss Deer’s moral conundrum is as to whether a kindness ought to be repaid, convinced that Bloody Wolf is in the wrong for wanting to eat her and should let her go to repay the kindness of her saving his life. But Bloody Woolf is a wolf which is to say a creature without morals the only surprising thing being that he patiently waits while she makes all her petitions rather than just eating her as he pleases. Even so, the film seems to say not so much that Miss Deer is at fault for her innocent naivety in having trusted a wolf, but the world itself is wrong because one should never suffer for having been kind to another for kindness should always be repaid. 

Mildly critical as it is of an increasingly selfish society in which justice has become a casualty of increasing economic prosperity, Fantasy of Deer Warrior nevertheless ends on an uncomfortable note with the hero essentially delivering justice as vengeance. Meanwhile it’s also clear that prior to the arrival of the wolves which could perhaps be read either as a metaphor for Mainland China or indeed the KMT government threatening the natural harmony of the native Taiwanese society as represented by Sika Deer, the forest was not altogether harmonious before as evidenced by the rivalries between Miss Deer and Foxy and Elk and Sika Deer. These divides perhaps hint at a wounded unity, suggesting that the Taiwanese people are ill-equipped to defend themselves against external threat while preoccupied with petty disputes and personal concerns. 

Such messages are most likely above the heads of the target audience but then again, the film is curiously transgressive including several scenes of Foxy living up to her name, performing sexy dances and off “having fun” with Bloody Woolf in the forest while at one point talking Elk into attempting to rape Miss Deer to force her to marry him which whichever way you look at it is fantastically dark for a children’s film even if the metaphorical quality of the wolf as representing animalistic lust is still very much present in his determination to “eat” Miss Deer. To that extent it is also transgressive sexual energy which destabilises forest society in Foxy’s resentment of Miss Deer even if her implication that she’s been two-timing Elk and Sika Deer undercuts her otherwise innocent and pure nature which is in such contrast with Foxy’s chaotic and classically tricksy personality. 

Perhaps more of an ironic take on a kids film aimed at jaded adults, Fantasy of Deer Warrior is undeniably bizarre starring actors dressed in onesies mimicking their animal characters, deer with antlers on their heads fighting with antler staffs, and bird messengers hanging from obvious wires flapping their arms to mimic flight. Adopting the style of a classic fairytale, Chang incorporates several of Aesop’s fables such as a musical number themed around a strangely militarised tortoise and a cocky rabbit, or a literal instance of a boy crying wolf and never having the opportunity to learn his lesson. Yet the kind of justice with which the film concludes is disquieting suggesting perhaps that all is not so well in the forest after all. 


Remaster trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Vengeance of the Phoenix Sisters (三鳳震武林, Chen Hung-Min, 1968)

“We’re big, strong men. Why should we worry about three little girls?” a trio of bandits reflects on having allowed the children of their enemy to escape their massacre thereby leaving themselves open to future reprisals. As the title of Chen Hung-Min ’s Taiwanese-language wuxia Vengeance of the Phoenix Sisters (三鳳震武林) implies, however, they are quite wrong to be so dismissive of “three little girls” who will later grow up to fulfil their filial duty by avenging the deaths of their parents even though they are daughters rather than sons. 

During the exciting nighttime prologue, three bandits attack the house of Yang formerly a sheriff. The three men are taking “revenge” for his attempt to arrest them 15 years previously which they seemingly managed to evade and have been on the run ever since. Taken by surprise, Yang sends his three daughters away to safety with his servants, but is ultimately unable to do more than hold the bandits off before both he and his wife are killed. In the final moments before dying however, he is able to impart a few last words to second daughter Xiufeng instructing her to avenge their deaths while advising the nanny to take her to one of his sworn brothers way up in the mountains. 

This is where we meet Xiufeng (Yang Li-Hua) again 15 years later now dressing as a man and having apparently spent the remainder of her childhood perfecting her martial arts but now determined to set out alone to pursue vengeance as is her filial duty. The sisters have become scattered with the youngest, Zhifeng (Chin Mei), apparently unaware of her parentage having been brought up by the servant who helped her escape in a nearby town which is itself a victim of warlord Cao one of the bandits who killed her father who has now it seems become wealthy and powerful on the back of his life of crime. Cao is in fact so wealthy and powerful that he’s been exacting his droit du seigneur over the local population, Xiufeng rescuing a young woman in the middle of being carted off by Cao’s goons seconds after arriving in town only for Cao to ironically settle on Zhifeng as his next target despite being warned that she’s reputed to be highly skilled in martial arts. 

The the fact that each of the three bandits has become successful in the intervening 15 years is another wrong that sisters must right in their quest not only for vengeance but for justice and as the bandits seemingly have no children or family members the cycle of revenge will end only with them. Their actions will restore a kind of order not only in drawing a line under the deaths of their parents so that they can move on, but removing the bandits’ corruption so that the local population is no longer forced to live in fear of their cruel tyranny. This sense of anxious devastation is rammed home as, in a scene inspired either by contemporary samurai dramas or the western, Xiufeng slowly makes her way towards a low set camera to enter the town while in the foreground a lone figure collects debris from the otherwise empty streets. 

Xiufeng is, in genre tradition, dressing as man in order to pursue her revenge going under the name Lin Keding and exerting absolute authority unafraid of anything or anyone. Chen had worked as an editor on King Hu’s Dragon Inn and in true wuxia fashion includes a classic fight in a teahouse that also finds Xiufeng following her adoptive father’s advice to use her wits to win as she quickly realises that Lord Cao has set her up in revenge for robbing him of the girl by getting the innkeeper to poison her dinner. Meanwhile, in a repeated motif, the innkeeper’s wife keeps flirting with her adding to gender ambiguity. Older sister Qingfeng (Liu Ching) meanwhile whose protector apparently fell off a cliff and died some time ago sees no need for a similar pretence though she and Zhifeng later almost have a falling out after being distracted from their mission on encountering the “handsome hero” Lin Keding which is about as awkward a situation as one could imagine until they figure out that they’re after the same guy and Xiufeng’s true identity is confirmed simply by letting down her hair. 

In any case, the Pheonix Sisters are perhaps unusual even within the context of contemporary wuxia in that they pursue their revenge entirely independently with no male assistance or romantic involvement save the awkward flirtatious banter between the other two sisters prior to realising that Lin Keding is really Xiufeng. Nevertheless, on having completed their quest they throw away their swords, implying at least that they now intend to return to a more conventional femininity remaining strictly within the confines of patriarchal filiality rather than choosing to free themselves from it. Even so, the treatment they receive is perhaps harsher than that a male avenger may have faced, Cao sneering that he loves tough women who can fight while the other two bandits Ke and Lu eventually decide to burn Qingfeng and Zhifeng alive only for Xiufeng to arrive and dramatically save them just in the nick of time. 

Chen’s take on wuxia is indeed surprisingly violent, the cruelty in the bandits’ swords fully evidenced as they cut down not only Yang the former sheriff but his wife too. Meanwhile he makes good use of thematic symmetries typical of the genre, the trio of amoral bandits opposed by the trio of chivalrous sisters, pursuing them for a crime they committed 15 years previously to take revenge for a slight 15 years before that while the sense of circularity is further emphasised through repeated imagery in Chen’s elegantly framed widescreen composition. Despite the comparatively low budget typical of Taiwanese-language cinema which apparently saw Chen having to resort to car headlights in order to light the film during night shoots, he manages to craft fantastically entertaining period adventure filled with well choreographed action sequences and a playful sense of unease as the sisters strive to reunite their family through their quest for justice and vengeance. 


Encounter at the Station (難忘的車站, Hsin Chi, 1965)

Destructive and outdated conservative patriarchal social codes drive a young man to madness, cause a young woman to lose her sight, and push another towards nervous breakdown in Hsin Chi’s subversive Taiwanese-language romantic melodrama Encounter at the Station (難忘的車站) which rather than reinforcing the status quo eventually argues that it’s time to leave the old ways behind. Adapting the popular novel Cold and Warm World/Human Fickleness by Chin Hsing-chih, Hsin swaps the wartime setting for a purely contemporary tale in which the major victim of a patriarchal society turns out to be a rich boy in love with a poor girl while the arch villain is in fact his status-obsessed mother.

As the title perhaps implies, Tshui-Giok (Chin Mei) and Kok-Liong (Shih Chun) share a brief encounter at a train station when she drops her ID on the way to school and he picks up and returns it to her. For each of them it is love at first sight, student Kok-Liong idly dreaming of Tshui-Giok at home envisioning her in differing settings and eventually wearing a wedding dress. They continue to meet “accidentally” at the station and develop an innocent romance but while Tshui-Giok has problems at home, her adoptive mother suffering a serious illness while her step father has a serious gambling problem, Kok-Liong is attempting to put off an arranged marriage set up by his mother to a girl of a similar background, Hun-Kiau (Ho Yu-Hua). 

To begin with, the barriers between them would seem to be those of money and class though it is a sense of shame leading to minor deception which finally keeps them apart. After her mother dies, Tshui-Giok’s step father indentures her to a hostess bar after which she stops going to the station and meeting Kok-Liong. When he runs into by her accident, she tells him that she’s dropped out to look after her sickly father and is taking night classes but continues to go on innocent dates with him on her days off. When he discovers the truth, Kok-Liong borrows money from his father to buy her contract at the bar and proposes marriage again lying to his mother that Tshui-Giok is the orphaned daughter of his former teacher. Interestingly enough, it is Kok-Liong’s father who fully sympathises with his son and convinces his wife to allow him to exercise his romantic freedom, his mother reluctantly agreeing that the pair can marry when Kok-Liong returns from studying abroad in America secretly hoping he’ll go off the idea while he’s away. 

Despite her conservatism, Kok-Liong’s mother does not lack compassion, in fact Tshui-Giok later describes her as “kind” while trying to reason with her once her past as a bargirl is discovered. Nevertheless, she cannot let go of her old-fashioned ideas of properness, persuading Tshui-Giok that her love for Kok-Liong is toxic. She agrees that Tshui-Giok is a good woman who has performed the role of the perfect daughter-in-law while living in the house waiting for Kok-Liong’s return and seems at least partly conflicted but insists that Tshui-Giok’s background disqualifies her as a suitable wife for the son of a prominent family. Again she forces her to lie, leaving a goodbye note stating that she’s tired of waiting and has chosen to marry a wealthy man she met by chance. Her exit paves the way for Hun-Kiau’s return, Kok-Liong agreeing to a rebound marriage believing his mother’s claims that Tshui-Giok ran off with another man while his father cautions his wife with irritation that all of this is likely to blow up in her face.

Unlike his wife, Kok-Liong’s father continues to sympathise with the young couple indifferent to Tshui-Giok’s past while worried that his wife’s decision to throw her out (taken in his absence) may leave her with no choice but to become a bargirl again. This is in fact what ends up happening, a minor comment on the economic situation revealing that Tshui-Giok cannot support herself with a job in a factory because the pay is so low and the hours are irregular. She finds herself ironically having to return to the fringes of the sex trade in order to earn back the money Kok-Liong used to free her from it. Kok-Liong’s mother may be keen to maintain the little power she has in a patriarchal social system in enforcing her choice for her son’s bride, but her obsession with reputation and social standing eventually ruins all three lives. The marriage between Hun-Kiau and Kok-Liong is understandably unhappy leaving Kok-Liong a resentful drunk which is how he ends up re-encountering Tshui-Gok in a Taichung bar at first angrily berating her, becoming violent and threatening rape until realising she is still wearing the necklace he gave her as a symbol of their love. 

In some ways, Kok-Liong is just as much of a prisoner of this system as either of the women manipulated into an arranged marriage by his overbearing mother. Having become economically prosperous, he now has the resources to support two households setting up a home with Tshui-Gok in Taichung while keeping his marriage a secret from her leading her to believe they are simply waiting for his parents to come around. The effects of this patriarchal mindset are further felt in the fact that Hun-Kiau’s baby is female, hinting at the wrongness of their union, while Tshui-Gok’s is male. A doting father to his son, Kok-Liong all but ignores his daughter and rarely returns to his “family” home in Fengyuan forcing Hun-Kiau’s hand as she, like his mother, forces the good and proper Tshui-Giok to accept that her existence is ruinous to Kok-Liong’s future. Hun-Kiau unfairly accuses her of “stealing” Kok-Liong’s affections, making her own daughter tearfully demand that Tshui-Giok return her husband to her. 

Whatever she thought she could accomplish with this gambit, it’s unlikely that it would spontaneously reignite Kok-Liong’s buried love for her but she could hardly have expected that it would finally push him into mental breakdown unable to accept the total lack of power he has in his family life while manipulated firstly by his mother and then by his wife. Caught in an impossible situation, the young women are unable to hate each other caring most for their children rather than tussling over a man but each in their own way constrained, Hun-Kiau guilty of the same mindset as her mother-in-law if to a lesser extent while Tshui-Giok, shamed by her past and conscious of the class difference, is also wedded to outdated ideals which force her to believe that she is not good enough and only ruins Kok-Liong’s life. Fearing her son will be disadvantaged by his illegitimacy, she entrusts him to Hun-Kiau and goes to look for her birth relatives while returning to seamstressing and general emotional strain eventually lead to her losing her sight. 

Yet where traditional melodramas often reinforce the current social order, Encounter at the Station eventually allows the two lovers to reunite insisting that the mother-in-law is in the wrong, the old ideas belong to an old society and should be abandoned to facilitate a greater happiness the couple eventually leaving the family home for new one of their own. The ending is however a little too happy given the solemnity of the previous scenes. Hun-Kiau becomes the greatest casualty having allied herself to the mother-in-law’s philosophy which cannot progress into the modern society, succumbing to a mental breakdown before finally giving her blessing to Tshui-Giok. The patriarchal society disables them all, the men weak and shallow while the women are resilient but equally unable to pursue their desires finally only able either to protect their children or unethically misuse the little power they have over them. Familial bonds are eroded by notions of social propriety that force everybody to lie, or at least to conceal the truth, in order to present the facade of respectability. Featuring a number of musical sequences recounting the lovers’ sorry tale of romantic woe, Hsin hints at tragedy but eventually offers them a happier future if only in actively stepping away from the constraints of the past. 


Trailer (English subtitles)

City of Lost Things (廢棄之城, Yee Chih-Yen, 2020)

A traumatised teenage boy attempts to escape his sense of alienation by relegating himself to the literal junkyard of humanity in the first animation from Blue Gate Crossing’s Yee Chih-Yen, City of Lost Things (廢棄之城, Fèiqì zhī Chéng). Not to be confused with tragic noir Cities of Last Things, Chen’s eventually inspirational drama resounds with positive energy as the embittered hero determines to love himself a little more in order to find the place where he belongs, where he can he strong and beautiful and “turn into something not trash”, while remaining unafraid to explore the darker edges of his loneliness and desperation as he searches for connection and community. 

As he explains in the opening voiceover, 16-year-old Leaf (River Huang) doesn’t like it at home where it seems his mother drinks, nor does he like it at school, or on the streets where he becomes the victim of violence. Coming to the conclusion he has nowhere else to go, Leaf is almost swept away by a giant rubbish truck along with a host of “other” refuse, accidentally saving a sentient plastic bag imaginatively named “Baggy” (Joseph Chang) which gets stuck under his shirt. Baggy guides him to Trash City where unwanted and discarded items live in a kind of ghetto ruled over by an oppressive guardian deity statue, Mr. G (Jack Kao), who also looks quite like the figure of legendary Chinese general Guan Yu. Baggy explains to him that he and many of the other pieces of “trash” trapped in the city long to escape the “siege” in order not to be “quiet trash” anymore but find a place they can be beautiful, and strong, and love themselves a little more. 

In contrast to the heroes of most children’s animation, Leaf is not a particularly sympathetic character, his obvious self-loathing of which “Trash City” is perhaps a metaphor beginning to boil over into something dark and potentially dangerous. In Trash City he finds a source of eternal escape, not wanting to leave but to remain in this place where he can feel at home, unjudged, and unbothered by the adult world while accepted by those around him as an equal. This is one reason he clings so fiercely to his new friendship with Baggy, immediately anxious on discovering his plan to leave Trash City in realising it must necessarily mean that they will one day have to say goodbye. Not wanting to lose this new friendship and return to loneliness he finds himself taking the self-destructive step of snitching on his friends little realising the consequences of his actions. 

Yet if Trash City represents Leaf’s sense of depression is also perhaps functions as a political allegory through the oppressive rule of Mr. G who refuses Baggy and the others permission to leave though he does so apparently for their own safety in order to evade the “armoured trucks” which literally suck up dissidents and crush them like rubbish in their rear compactors. In escaping Trash City, however, what Leaf must overcome is his sense of powerlessness and inconsequaility to believe that there is a place for him where he can lead a happy life surrounded by people who love him rather than regarding himself as human “trash” rejected by and unworthy of regular society. 

Nevertheless, there’s a slightly less cheerful metaphor in play in the obvious ironic twist that the place they’re looking for is a recycling centre which points to an external transformation rather than the change from within implied by Baggy’s constant messages of the importance of learning to love one’s self a little more. It also gives rise some awkward humour as Leaf looks for his friend in plastic buckets and subway seats which eventually leads to a slightly inappropriate adult joke likely to confuse younger viewers while uncomfortably implying that people and things only have value when they’re transformed into something “useful”. While the animation style is relatively simple, the charming worldbuilding and innovative production design of the almost steampunk city with its mannequin lamp guards and disco-crazy white goods help to smooth over any sense of hollowness while the overarching story of growing self-acceptance as the path out of despair is a refreshing take on potentially destructive adolescent angst as the hero resolves to find his place in the world rather than exiling himself from it. 


City of Lost Things screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Clip (English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Trailer (Traditional Chinese subtitles only)

A Touch of Zen (俠女, King Hu, 1971)

“A man has his code” a late villain explains in King Hu’s radical Buddhist wuxia epic, A Touch of Zen (俠女, Xiá Nǚ), justifying his villainy with weary fatalism as a matter dictated by the world in which he lives and of which he is merely a passive conduit. Based on a story by Pu Songling, Hu’s meandering tale begins as gothic horror yet ends in enlightenment parable that in itself reflects the values of Jianghu as a warrior monk achieves nirvana in the apotheosis of his righteousness. 

Hu begins however with slowly mounting tension as lackadaisical scholar Gu Shengzhai (Shih Chun) begins to notice something strange going on in the sleepy rural backwater where he lives. There are several strangers in town from the recently arrived pharmacist Dr Lu (Xue Han), to the blind fortune teller Shi (Bai Ying), and a young man who stops into his shop to have a portrait done (Tien Peng) but is behaving somewhat suspiciously. Shengzhai has also noticed unexpected activity at a house opposite his long thought to be “haunted”, activity which turns out to be caused by a young woman, Miss Yang (Hsu Feng), living in penury with her bedridden mother. 

Shengzhai is often described as feckless or immature, his mother (Zhang Bing-yu) constantly complaining that he refuses to take the civil service exam and has stubbornly wasted his life with “pointless” study while they live harsh lives with little comfort. Shengzhai is, however, an unconventional jianghu hero who has rejected a world of courtly corruption in order to live by his own principles even if that means a poor but honest existence. In a sense he becomes a man through his brief relationship with Yang who turns out to be a noblewoman on the run from the East Chamber after being sentenced to death because of her father’s attempt to expose the corruption of a high ranking eunuch. After he and Yang enjoy a single night of passion in the middle of a thunderstorm, Shengzhai becomes determined to protect her and reveals he has spent much of his life studying military strategy, but he also fully accepts Yang’s agency and right dictate her future walking back his claim of feeling duty-bound because they are “almost married” to be content to help “even as a friend”. 

Nevertheless, there is something of boyish glee in the machinations of his trickery, repurposing the gothic horror of the “haunted” fort as a means to “demoralise” the enemy. His second antagonist, Men Da (Wang Rui), refuses to take the rumours, ably spread by Shengzhai’s gossipy mother panel to panel through a series of expanding split screens, seriously describing them as something only “ignorant country folk” would believe but later falls victims to Shengzhai’s elaborate setup. After his victory, Shengzhai walks through the fort laughing his head off playing with the lifeless mannequins he positioned as ghosts and idly tapping various traps and mechanisms, but it’s not until he leaves the ruined building and ventures outside that he realises the true cost of his childish game in the rows of bodies stretching out and around before realising Yang is nowhere to be found. Shengzhai becomes a man again, forced to accept the consequences of his actions, but also defiant, ignoring advice and instruction on leaving home in search of a woman who asked him not to look for her. 

As he later discovers, Yang and her retainer have renounced the world for a monastic life returning to the Buddhist temple in which Yang learned martial arts during her two years of exile under the all powerful master Hui Yuan (Roy Chiao) who is now it seems close to achieving enlightenment though that won’t stop him helping Yang deal with her “unfinished business”. Like the heroes of jianghu, Yang removes herself from a world of infinite corruption though in this case to pursue spiritual enlightenment and thereafter forgoes her revenge, acting in defence only rather striking back at Eunuch Wei or the East Chamber. At the film’s conclusion, Hui Yang’s act of compassion brings about his betrayal but through it his enlightenment. Struck, he bleeds gold blood and sits atop a rocky outcrop as the sun radiates around his head in a clear evocation of his transcendence witnessed at a distance even by Shengzhai alone and placed once again in a traditionally feminine role literally left holding the baby but perhaps freed from the web of intrigue in which he had been trapped spun all around him just like that weaved by the spider in the film’s gothic opening. 

Stunningly capturing the beauty of the Taiwanese countryside with its ethereal rolling mists and sunlit forests, Hu’s composition takes on the aesthetic of a classic ink painting finding Shengzhai lost amid the towering landscape while eventually veering into the realms of the experimental in the transcendent red-tinted negative of spiritual transition. For Hu’s jianghu refugees, there can be no victory in violence only in the gradual path towards enlightenment born of true righteousness and human compassion.


A Touch of Zen streams in the US until Sept. 28 as part of the 13th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International restoration trailer (English subtitles)

Secrets of 1979 (弓蕉園的秘密, Zero Chou, 2021)

Love is a political act in the latest film from Zero Chou, Secrets of 1979 (弓蕉園的秘密, Gōng Jiāo Yuán de Mìmì). As history repeats itself, a now ageing woman is called back to the past on witnessing the Hong Kong democracy protests triggering memories of the Kaohsiung Incident and her youth fighting for political freedom in martial law Taiwan. Chou’s betrayed heroine dreams of a future in which all voices can be heard and all loves embraced, a future that in some senses may have come to pass, yet tragically too late for some forced to believe that their love must forever remain a secret. 

Malaysian student Shu-lan (Daphne Low) falls for Kuan (Chen Yu), the daughter of a banana plantation owner majoring in art as part of a teacher training programme. The pair draw closer while sharing a room, and a bed though partly because those two things are mainly the same, over the summer while Shu-lan takes a job at the farm but their innocent romance is soon overshadowed by the revelation that Kuan’s brother Siu (Hsu Yu-ting) has become involved with the movement against martial law producing a magazine critical of the government. Though they could never know it, their love will lie at the centre of a political divide, cruelly used against them even while they commit themselves to the battle for freedom and human rights. 

Soon after the film opens, a young man walks into Shu-lan’s classroom with application forms to join the nationalist governing party of the martial law one party state, the KMT. The idea does not seem popular among the students, but some are interested if treating it with a degree of irony explaining that they’d only be joining to take advantage of the generous perks which include free travel back to your hometown to vote and access to scholarships, or else because it may be advantageous in their future careers. Shu-lan is fiercely disinterested and attempts to politely decline, but the recruiter, Chih-hsiang (Sean Sun), has an obvious crush on her and won’t take no for an answer thrusting a form into her hand to think about later while lowkey resentful as she distances herself from him to leave with Kuan. 

Kuan, meanwhile, has just been subjected to an unpleasant grilling in her art class when she tried to stand up for a painter rumoured to be gay provoking a homophobic rant from several of her classmates who then openly mock her for being a lesbian. Perhaps surprisingly the rumour of homosexuality does not cause either of the girls particular problems with the authorities or their fellow students save for further irritating the extremely creepy, generally evil, and cruelly manipulative fascist Chih-hsiang who views it as merely another bargaining chip in his pointless quest to convince Shu-lan who has no interest in men (or members of the KMT) to go out with him. The problems that Shu-lan faces which are partly set up by Chih-hsiang so he can save her from them, are largely to do with her status as a foreign national and involvement with politics accused of collaborating with communists for listening to Chinese folk songs sent by her teacher in Malaysia. 

These are all reasons, along with her treatment at the hands of the authorities, that eventually convince her she must renounce her love for Kuan in order to keep her safe in fear that she too will be implicated as a politically suspicious person. Prior to that, she’d been learning Taiwanese and hoped to stay living on the banana farm with Kuan whose family seem relatively relaxed about the relationship, only for their love to be stamped out by oppressive authoritarianism and the machinations of a petty and jealous man. The bookending sequences set in the present day and featuring a Kuan who seems much older than a woman who’d only be in her mid-60s remind us that though Taiwan may have become a relatively progressive place in which same-sex marriage has been legalised, the battle is never really won as the young people of Hong Kong too campaign for freedom and democracy. But Kuan is left only with her secrets and her sadness stuck in the summer of 1979 and a love never to be told. 


Secrets of 1979 screens at Lexi Cinema on 21st September as part of this year’s Queer East. It is also available to stream in many territories via GagaOOLala.

Original trailer (English subtitles)