What’s For Dinner, Mom? (ママ、ごはんまだ?, Mitsuhito Shiraha, 2016)

What's for Dinner Mom posterJapanese cinema has a preoccupation with mothers and the nature of motherhood, but the mothers of the typical “hahamono” tend to be either saintly, self sacrificing figures whose selfless love often goes unrecognised, or problematic matriarchs whose fierce love and desire to protect their children has caused them to transgress and perhaps lose their children’s love. The mother at the centre of What’s For Dinner, Mom? (ママ、ごはんまだ?, Mama, Gohan Mada?) falls into a more realistic category – loving, self sacrificing, imperfect and perhaps sometimes misunderstood but always doing the best for her two daughters even in difficult circumstances. Where What’s For Dinner, Mom? differs from the accepted pattern is in its use of the domestic world to ask questions about culture and identity, and about all the various ways one never quite knows one’s family.

Tae (Haruka Kinami) and Yo (Izumi Fujimoto), sisters and now middle-aged women, are preparing to clear their family home 20 years after the death of their mother (Michiko Kawai). What’s taken them so long to make the decision is never revealed but both are as happy as possible about the idea and it seems Tae and her husband plan to knock the house down and build their own on the same plot – not quite so radical a thing as it might sound, Japan has no real housing market and “modern” houses are often knocked down and rebuilt every 20 to 30 years. Whilst packing things away, Tae finds a small box full of her mother’s keepsakes – chiefly letters and photographs along with a handwritten recipe book she began keeping in 1972.

Though Tae has lived in Japan for all her adult life, she was born in Taiwan and is half Taiwanese. Tae’s father passed away from lung cancer when she was small, but was a depressed, sometimes difficult man with ambivalent feelings towards his home nation. His own family had come from the mainland, but he’d lived in Taiwan under Japanese rule and attended university in Japan. He felt himself to be Japanese and was constantly upset and angry about the turbulent political situation of the post-war nation, facing its own series of identity crises and a protracted period of oppressive martial law.

Nevertheless, after their unpredictable whirlwind romance, Tae’s mother Kazue moved to Taiwan to live with her husband’s family and became determined to adapt to the local culture – chiefly through food. After her husband died in Japan, Kazue kept Taiwan alive for her daughters through continuing to cook the dishes she’d learned from her friends and family in Taiwan (even though her intensely “Japanese” husband only ever wanted to eat yudofu). Though Tae at one point urged to her mother to stop cooking Taiwanese and give her stereotypically cute high school bento, she quickly realised her mistake and Kazue’s unusual Taiwanese cooking became a local hit (even boosting the availability of the previously unobtainable pig’s trotters).

Despite her love of the food, Tae has all but forgotten her Taiwanese roots since her mother’s death and doesn’t know how to cook any of the dishes herself. Tae’s mild identity crisis comes to the fore in the second half of the film, though it’s an oddly under developed plot strand given the centrality of the cuisine. When she eventually makes the decision to visit her father’s remaining family, Tae seems to understand Taiwanese Mandarin but usually replies in Japanese (her uncle, accompanying her, is fluent). Like Kazue’s diary, Tae’s reminiscences are accompanied by on screen intertitles written in Chinese characters drawn childishly (even the characters which are identical to those used in Japanese are somewhat awkwardly rendered), which points to a kind of duality but is never really resolved even if Tae is able to explain a strange childhood memory and bring a piece of her past home with her.

Through her food odyssey and return to source, Tae is able to appreciate her mother’s love and sacrifice from an adult perspective, no longer left with teenage resentment and unfair anger over her early death but reclaiming her happy memories and appreciating the hardship her mother must have faced as a single mother in pre-bubble Japan. Despite its warm and fuzzy tone, What’s For Dinner, Mom? occasionally seems as if it wants to do something bigger by briefly introducing larger themes – Tae’s father’s depression, illness, the difficult political situation of post-war Taiwan, and the complex interplay between the two nations, but is content to settle back into a comforting “hahamono” tale of selfless motherhood finally appreciated only when it’s too late. Nevertheless it does what it set out to do in telling the story of a warm and loving family anchored by a kind yet determined woman and tables full of wholesome home cooking offered with an open, internationalist, heart.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Alifu, the Prince/ss (阿莉芙, Wang Yu-lin, 2017)

Alifu posterAmong Asian nations, Taiwan has a reputation for being liberal and permissive but if you’re a minority within a minority life is far from easy even if you manage to find support from others in a similar position. So it is for Alifu (Utjung Tjakivalid) – the conflicted soul at the centre of Wang Yu-lin’s nuanced depiction of the road towards self acceptance and actualisation in the face of competing duties and obligations, Alifu, the Prince/ss (阿莉芙, Ālìfú). While Alifu struggles with the demands of being the heir to the Chieftainship of an indigenous tribe with all the rights and obligations that entails, her lesbian roommate struggles with a bad breakup and growing feelings for her transitioning best friend, a drag queen is conflicted about his sexuality, and a transgender bar owner worries for the future of those close to her after she is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Despite the multitude of difficult circumstances, each attempts to deal with their problems in a mature and rational fashion finding love and mutual support from their friends and community even if others sometimes require a little more time.

Alifu, born the son of a tribal chief, identifies as a woman and has been working in a hairdressers in the city to save up for gender reassignment surgery. Her plans for the future are thrown into disarray when she is abruptly called home, walking into a family meeting during which her father (Ara Kimbo) suddenly announces that he is stepping down because of poor health and that his son will be taking over. Though it is possible for a woman to succeed as chief, Alifu has not disclosed her intentions to transition to her traditionally minded father who wears a prominent wooden cross around his neck and does not seem to be particularly understanding of his child’s feelings or emotions, caring only for his appearance in the eyes of the tribe.

Alifu’s transition is subtly revealed in the lengthy opening in which she slowly sheds her “masculine” appearance by discarding her baseball cap, rearranging her hair and stepping into the ladies loos where she puts on colourful lipstick and hoop earrings before making her way to the hairdressers where she earns her living. Meanwhile, her lesbian roommate Pei-Zhen (Chao Yi-Lan) thinks nothing of leaving the house dressed in a way which best makes her feel comfortable only to cause a mini ruckus in the salon when her ex gives her the side-eye for openly flirting with another client apparently after “something special”. After hours, Alifu picks up extra money by doing hair and makeup for the drag acts at a local gay bar where she has also drawn close to the owner, Sherry (Bamboo Chen), who is in a long-term though apparently non-sexual relationship with a former gangster (Wu Pong-fong).

Alifu soon develops a liking for a new drag act at the bar, describing him as somehow “not like the others”. Chris (Cheng Jen-shuo), a local government worker, is a mild mannered sort apparently happily married to a piano teacher (Angie Wang) and living a conventional middle-class life, except that he likes to stay out late on Fridays performing at Sherry’s drag bar. Though it would be a mistake to assume Chris is gay just because he enjoys drag, his “secret life” eventually places a wedge between himself and his wife who is hurt to find out about his alter-ego through a third party. Chris’ wife doesn’t necessarily disapprove of his drag career but is disturbed to discover such a big secret in her married life and, understandably, has a lot of questions about the status of their relationship – something Chris isn’t keen on talking about leading to his wife finally throwing him out. Struggling to reconcile his drag persona with his need for a conventional life, Chris finds himself exiled and unable to integrate himself fully as whole person, torn between his conflicting desires. 

Meanwhile, Alifu’s ever supportive best friend Pei-Zhen has begun to develop feelings for her roommate despite the fact that Alifu has no interest in women and Pei-Zhen is a lesbian with no previous interest in male genitals. Seducing her, Pei-Zhen reassures Alifu that male or female she will always love her – something which becomes a minor theme in arguing for fluidity and self identification over culturally defined notions of gender, echoed in the relationship of Sherry and her partner which seems to be deep and loving but also celibate. Perhaps overly convenient, the union of Alifu and Pei-Zhen does at least provide an opportunity to experience the best of both worlds in allowing Alifu to fulfil her obligations to her tribe while also living an authentic life as a transgender woman.

Warm and filled with a particularly Taiwanese brand of humour, Alifu is a sympathetic exploration of life on the margins, both from the perspectives of the LGBT community and that of the indigenous peoples attempting to preserve their traditional culture whilst acknowledging their place in the modern world. Arriving at an important moment, Wang Yu-lin’s empathetic drama is a celebration of love and equality but most of all of the power of self-acceptance and actualisation in bringing about real social change.


Screened as part of the Chinese Visual Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)