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.