Destructive and outdated conservative patriarchal social codes drive a young man to madness, cause a young woman to lose her sight, and push another towards nervous breakdown in Hsin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)