Chen Wen-tang's 'Tears' takes place in the context of Las Vegas-bright betel nut shops, where women ward off the sexual advances of customers.

Taiwan Film Days Returns

Adam Hartzell October 21, 2010

The scope and quality of work in Taiwan Film Days' second year proves this relatively small East Asian nation continues outpacing expectations based on size. Now presented in Viz Cinema at New People, the three-day showcase of contemporary Taiwanese film curated by programmers at the San Francisco Film Society offers art film, popular cinema and documentary spanning a wide range of subjects October 22–24.

Opening the weekend is a piece of popular filmmaking that beat out Avatar at the box office when it debuted in Taiwan, Niu Doze's gangster epic Monga. It's always a sign of a national cinema's health when one of its own kicks a James Cameron film to the curb; in 1999, Jang Ke-gyu‘s Shiri jumpstarted a South Korean wave by beating Titanic.) Another film on the popular front, Taiwan's top-grossing film of 2009, is Cheng Fen-fen's Hear Me, which utilizes the services of pop idol Eddie Peng, who plays a delivery boy for his parents’ restaurant. His routine drop-offs to a group of deaf swimmers lead to a love story built through sign language.
Art film Tears is one of my favorites of the showcase. Director Chen Wen-tang shows us that it's not only neon-signs and stimulating chews attracting passers-by to Las Vegas-bright betel nut shops.  Since men are the primary purchasers of the betel nut, further enticement is provided by the women manning these shops in mini-skirts and high-heels, leading to the assumption that more than just betel nuts are being sold. Our two shop ladies make efforts to ward off the sexual advances of customers, but eventually require protection from frequent customer Guo (Tsai Chen-nan), a police officer who keeps his profession hidden from the women since he knows they have no respect for the police, who often treat them poorly as well. What has brought Guo to offer his services is an existential crisis as he nears retirement from the precinct. This is not Bad Lieutenant, but neither is Guo squeaky clean. (More on urban uptake of the betel nut can be found in Daniel Y.H. Wu's essay from the excellent Golden Arches East: McDonald's in East Asia anthology.)

Leon Dai‘s stark black-and-white based-on-a-true-story film No Puedo Vivir sin Ti returns for a second year at TFD. Taiwan’s submission for 2010’s Foreign Language Oscar, it's a heart-wrenching tale of a poor single father who takes on odd (and dangerous) jobs yet still manages to cultivate a happy home for his young daughter. That is, until the government takes her away. What follows is the father’s public fight with political bureaucracy.

In Seven Days in Heaven, directors Essay Liu and Wang Yu-lin bring a daughter Mei (Wang Li-wen) back to Taipei to arrange a funeral for her father. Although Japanese director Juzo Itami’s classic The Funeral is an obvious reference point here for fans of global cinema, the low budget style and shifts between the comedy of ritual for ritual sake mixed with the seriousness of modern malaise seems more similar to South Korean director Park Chul-soo’s Farewell, My Darling. Yet Liu and Wang put their own stamp on this film niche by not conveying the family as estranged from each other, merely estranged from archaic rituals. When daughter Mei finds herself crying, it‘s not from the funeral rites, but from mundane signifiers of her father and their fondness for each other. In this way, Seven Days in Heaven is a refreshing take on funerals and the loved ones left behind.

Another of my favorites in this year’s Taiwan Film Days, Wuna Wu‘s documentary Let’s Fall in Love (2009), focuses on the impressive success rate of Matchmaker Chen, whom director Wu Compares to "a director who specializes in romance movies." Wu interviews many couples throughout the film who have forgone whatever might be Taiwan’s variant of for Matchmaker Chen. For those who do not know Taiwanese Hokkien dialects, the unfortunate speed of the subtitles might make you wish you had the benefit of watching this film on DVD like I did. But if you can keep up, the layering of interviews on these unions melded by Matchmaker Chen leaves one feeling hopeful for the modern couple, at least in Taiwan.

In a gutsy move, Wu turns the camera on her own difficulty finding a relationship while all her friends (many clients of Matchmaker Chen) marry around her. The sad scene of her wailing through a karaoke song is particularly honest because her raw vulnerability is clearly on display. As a result, this is a personal documentary as well as what Wu sees as a "public issue." Although the expository commentary focuses on individual responsibility, Wu also provides visual juxtapositions of conversations between couples against backgrounds that reveal the larger systematic contexts of the circumstances within which these couples and individuals find themselves. For example, one man who is not satisfied with his girlfriend’s looks is placed in front of one of the very ads the media thrusts upon us that might fuel such dissatisfactions.

It is this critical reflection on modern Taiwan that is a running theme through all the films and a positive sign of things to come for Taiwanese cinema.