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)

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (不散, Tsai Ming-Liang, 2003)

Goodbye, Dragon Inn poster“So much of the past lingers in my heart” laments the melancholy song which closes Tsai Ming-Liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn, (不散, sǎn) “I’ll remember with longing forever”. What is cinema if not an expression of irresolvable nostalgia, a kind of visual hiraeth for something that probably never quite existed but is so painfully missed. Everything in here stayed the same, but everything outside changed and now the present seems to be literally raining in leaving the last few fugitives from reality lost in halls of memory like lonely ghosts trapped on the wrong side of the screen.

On the wrong side of the screen is where we find ourselves. We begin in darkness with the opening narration from King Hu’s 1967 wuxia masterpiece Dragon Inn before the curtain in front of us begins to flicker and reveal an entire theatre filled with people. We pull back, and eventually the people are gone leaving just a few desperate souls returning to watch this now classic picture on what could be its very last evening as this theatre – now so unsuitable for the modern cinema environment, will be closing “temporarily” as soon as the reels stop turning.

Truth be told, no one much is even very interested in the movie. Some have merely come in to shelter from the rain, but unfortunately for them not even here is safe thanks to a leaky roof. The dazzling labyrinths of the backstage environment seem to have been co-opted by the local cruising community, men brushing past each other looking for another like them but needing to be sure their desires will be returned. Meanwhile they gaze at each other in the dim half light of the cinema screen, aching with unspeakable longing.

Longing is also something on the mind of an older gentlemen, seemingly the only one actually watching the film, who turns out to be one of its actors shedding a silent, solitary tear for time passed. Running into a friend much like himself outside he laments that “No one comes to the movies anymore”. Everyone has forgotten them, turning them into ghosts of cinema, immortal but unremembered. They have, in a sense, been attending their own funeral, entombed inside a moribund building lit only by spectres of the past.

All this is, however, secondary to the backstage drama of the lonely box office cashier (Chen Shiang-chyi) and her inexpressible crush on the projectionist (Lee Kang-sheng) who never seems to be around when she needs him. Sadly cutting into a celebratory bun, she saves half of it for him – the least ambiguous expression of love which seems to be possible within this space. Slowly climbing the stairs with a lame leg, she gazes fondly at the screen while the heroine fearlessly dispatches a series of bad guys, but the light cast on her face seems only to emphasise her lack of courage before she sadly retreats back to the ticket booth where no customers require her services.

Meanwhile, in the auditorium, a young woman (Yang Kuei-mei) munches peanuts and throws her legs over the backs of the seats in front much to the chagrin of the confused tourist whose confusion seems only to deepen when the crushing noise stops and the woman disappears (unbeknownst to him she’s on a mission to retrieve a lost shoe, or perhaps has evaporated into thin air). The first words spoken, which occur at the 45 minute mark, are to state that this theatre is haunted. Departed spirits all, the lonely denizens are indeed haunting the room and themselves as they attempt to escape the relentless march of the modern world through self-internment in a damp and crumbling mausoleum of cinema.

A lament for a dying world stripped bare by the passage of time, Tsai’s exploration of urban loneliness is a nostalgic elegy for a simpler age, filled with unresolvable longing and the ironic misconnection of an individualised communal activity. Stillness and solitude define all for these lonely, disconnected souls chasing oblivion. The past can never return, nor can the missed opportunities and brief moments spent bathed in celluloid splendour, but then perhaps you wouldn’t want it to anyway because then you couldn’t miss it. “I’ll remember with longing forever” – romanticism at its finest, but it’s a trap that’s difficult to resist.


Goodbye, Dragon Inn screened at Tate Modern as part of the Taiwan Film Festival UK 2019 and The Deserted film series.

International trailer (dialogue free)

Liu Lian by Yao Lee – the poignant song playing over the end credits.

Sen Sen (生生, An Bon, 2018)

Sen Sen poster 1“The rules are dead but we are not” jovial granny Lili (Nina Paw Hee-ching) insists as she shows some young whippersnappers how pool should be played. An Bon’s Sen Sen (生生, Shēng Shēng) offers more than a few life lessons along its merry way as it wanders through the grieving process from both ends – an elderly woman deciding to live her best life in her last days, and a young boy trying to come to terms with the death of his older brother, but for all of its melancholia affirms that life should be lived without regrets or rancour and with as much understanding as it’s possible to have while remaining firmly rooted in the present.

An begins with an ending – Lili’s middle-aged daughter sadly dealing with her late mother’s effects, before winding back a few months to young Sen Sen (Wu Zhi-xuan) who has inherited his older brother’s smartphone. A lonely child, Sen Sen spends his evenings in fast food restaurants to avoid to going home to an empty house while his mother works nights in a convenience store. Not quite understanding how smartphones work, he is struck by the enormity of his friend’s explanation that if he wants to go on using it he will need to delete some of his brother’s files to make more space. While scrolling he gets a notification that “Live 100 Days” is currently streaming and discovers that his brother had been an avid fan of Lili’s popular web channel via which she livestreams her everyday life as she deals with her terminal cancer diagnosis.

Sen Sen and Lili are of course dealing with a similar problem but from very different positions. Lili has fully accepted her terminal prognosis and decided against chemotherapy, preferring to live out her final days as fully as possible rather than spend them in hospital suffering with the effects of the treatment. Her daughter, Yi-an, however, does not approve of her mother’s choice and keeps nagging her to keep up with her doctor’s appointments which has only placed further strain on their positive yet perhaps distant relationship. Like Sen Sen, Lili is often alone at home, her husband having passed away some years ago and Yi-an now living in the capital, which is perhaps why she gets so much out of sharing her everyday life with strangers online.

Sen Sen, meanwhile, struggles to accept his brother’s death and his mother’s way of coping with her grief. He fears that he will eventually forget him and that his mother seems indifferent to his memory. Perhaps in an effort to ease the feeling of absence, the pair will be moving to a new, smaller apartment and Sen Sen has dutifully sorted out his brother’s things but his mother has all but ignored them. Like Sen Sen, his mother doesn’t like being in the apartment surrounded by a sense of incompleteness and so she throws herself into work to avoid thinking about her loss, leaving Sen Sen feeling neglected and unloved as if she’d forgotten about him too while consumed by her own grief.

Making friends with Lili, Sen Sen begins to understand a little about his mother’s grieving process just as Lili channels some of the things she’d like to say to Yi-an into the videos she gets Sen Sen to film for her. As Lili later puts it, everybody needs to learn to let go – of past resentments, of life, and of loss that can’t be avoided. Sen Sen becomes a surrogate grandson for Lili who admits that no one really knows what happens in life and she doesn’t quite know what advice to leave behind for her daughter, while she becomes a substitute maternal figure him as she gently tries to explain that his mother isn’t rejecting him or his brother but only attempting to deal with loss in her own way.

A gentle tale of learning to enjoy life while it lasts while recognising what it is that’s really important, Sen Sen is a strangely uplifting look at life in the shadow of death seen both by those approaching the end and by the ones who are left behind. Filled with warmth and humour, An’s whimsical screenplay is as cheerful as it’s possible to be just like its openhearted heroine keen to pass on the joy of being alive even as she prepares to say goodbye.


Sen Sen screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-up Cinema on 27th March, 7pm at AMC River East 21 where director An Bon and Nina Paw Hee-ching will be present for an introduction and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

On Happiness Road (幸福路上, Sung Hsin-yin, 2017)

On happiness road posterSung Hsin-yin attempts a series of impossibles with her debut feature, On Happiness Road (幸福路上, Xìngfú Lùshang). In a bold move she has crafted what is possibly the last Taiwanese animated feature while attempting to pack 40 years of turbulent political history into the story of a lost middle-aged women ruminating on her cheerful, uncomplicated childhood on the distinctly humble Happiness Road. Battling the weight of parental expectation and the false promises of a better life overseas, her heroine, Chi, makes an enforced return to source on hearing that her beloved, part-aboriginal grandmother has passed away.

Chi (Gwei Lun-mei), an unhappy 30-something woman, receives the call in America where she has been living with her American husband. Unbeknownst to her family, Chi’s marriage is all but over and she finds herself at something of a crossroads, half wondering if it’s time to come home to Taiwan and half humiliated in being seen to have returned with her tail between her legs. She comes home, alone, to mourn her grandmother but finds herself wandering back through the streets of memory and fantasy recalling all the small details and minor incidents that brought her to his point in the hope of figuring out where it is she needs to go next.

Chi was born in 1975 on the very day that Chang Kai-shek died. Chang was by then a brutal dictator but the brainwashed little Chi who still sees his picture everywhere and has been taught to respect his many virtues idolises him all the same. Her family, uneducated ordinary working people, speak Taiwanese Hokkien at home but at school she has to speak Mandarin – the “official” language, all dialects are banned. Thus little Chi finds her parents’ language backward and embarrassing, their failure to adapt to “modernity” a hurdle in her own forward development.

As time moves on, Chi’s “Taiwaneseness” becomes something she feels she must sacrifice in order to purse the conventional success expected by her parents and the society at large. Little Chi, riding in the back of a pickup truck with her parents on the way to Happiness Road, asks them one of the biggest questions of all – what does “happiness” mean. Her parents, unable to answer, shush her, but her father (Chen Po-cheng) seems pleases his daughter has such big thoughts and wonders if she might become a philosopher one day. Oh no, replies her mother (Jane Liao). There’s no money in that – she’ll be a doctor! Her parents want for her all the material comforts of the settled middle classes, but her society tells her to attain them she must leave her nativeness behind – speak Mandarin, forget about granny’s ancient wisdom, and eventually go abroad leaving the “old fashioned” island far behind.

Chi has done everything she was supposed to do. She studied hard, got a good degree, got an OK job, and then ended up going to America almost on a whim. She reached the destination expected of her, but still she isn’t happy. Her marriage is failing as she and her American husband want very different things out of life and Chi wonders if she really belongs in this insincere culture which, at the end of the day, has never quite accepted her. In America she experienced mild forms of racism but then didn’t her half-American friend, Betty (Li Chia-hsiu) – blonde with blue eyes but speaking only Mandarin, experience exactly the same thing in Taiwan? Pregnant but seeking an escape from an unhappy marriage, Chi also worries what the future will be if she chooses to come home and raise her half-American child alone in a perhaps unforgiving society.

Yet reuniting with Betty she discovers that even if her life has not quite turned out the way she planned, she is blissfully happy as a single mother to two children, blonde like her but with brown eyes. Chatting with the ghost of her late grandmother who still has a few lessons to impart, Chi learns to see with the eyes of her heart and comes to realise that sometimes the road to happiness passes through a few uncertain turns but that that’s OK. Her parents, whom she feared would judge her for a failed marriage and a child born after divorce, are predictably enough only too happy at the prospect of their only daughter coming home for good and finally making them grandparents no matter the circumstances surrounding the origin of both those events. Chi may not have wanted the “road” her parents and her society had attempted to lay down before her, but discovers that departing from it is not failure and that “happiness” is a concept you are free to define for yourself. Beautifully animated and filled with whimsical flights of fancy, On Happiness Road is a sometimes melancholy but heartwarming tale of life in modern Taiwan as one lost woman finally discovers the road home and realises it has been waiting for her all along.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)