Turn Around 老師,你會不會回來?(2017)


Director: Chen Dapu  陳大璞

Studio: Fengshang International 風尚國際

Language: Mandarin 國語, Taiwanese 台語

Genre: True Story

Running Time: 108 minutes


In Taiwan’s rural Nantou County, a trainee teacher, Wang Zhengzhong 王政忠, is placed at a remote school for evaluation. Despite being a Nantou native, Wang nonetheless finds the poor facilities and unruly students difficult to deal with. Unable to secure a transfer elsewhere, Wang tries many different teaching methods in order to improve his teacher evaluation, including forming a Chinese orchestra. Gradually, he wins over his students, but also draws the ire of his colleague, Xiao Lun 小倫, who chides him for having selfish motives.

Time passes, and Wang leaves the school to undergo compulsory military service on the island of Kinmen. On September 21st, 1999, a devastating earthquake strikes Nantou County, claiming thousands of lives and leaving many more homeless. Wang is released from his service in order to check on his family, but also takes the opportunity to visit his old workplace. What he finds are chaotic ruins. The town and school completely destroyed, students and teachers living in makeshift camps — some gone forever.

Among these ruins, a student tearfully asks Wang, “Teacher, will you come back?”

Faced with the desperate faces of those around him, Wang determines that he must stay and help. But, amongst the rubble and broken families, can he do anything to rebuild what was lost?

Based on the book of the same title Turn Around is a film that knows what it’s trying to be. It would have been easy for the film to drift into trying to be a disaster film, rather than focusing on the relationship between Wang and his students. A massive earthquake such as that show in the film can tempt to show hundreds of buildings collapsing and lengthy rescue efforts, but instead director Chen chooses to keep such scenes short (although perhaps due to budgetary constraints). This gives the audience more time to appreciate the nuances of the teacher-student relationship; something that naturally builds up over a long period of time.

It’s this which helps carry the film for someone, such as myself, who did not live through the experience of the 921 earthquake, and who also did not go through the Taiwanese school system — two factors that will certainly help the film to connect with domestic audiences.

The two leads, Jay Shih 是元介 as Wang and Hsia Yu-chiao 夏于喬 as Xiao Lun, give steady performances, but its the array of characters that make up the students which keep the film entertaining with their fun-albeit-typical school antics.

The tragic aftermath of the earthquake strikes the correct tone, never overplaying its hand but remaining moving enough to bring tears to our eyes on more than one occasion.

Although it’s hard to think of any one thing that Turn Around does spectacularly well, it’s equally a film that does the things it needs to do at a good level. For those who grew up in Taiwan during the time, it’s probably going to be a better experience. But, its story of rebuilding from tragedy and the way a teacher can lift their pupils beyond what they thought possible, are global.


Pigeon Tango 盜命師 (2017)


Director: Li Qiyuan 李啟源

Studio: Chi & Company

Language: Taiwanese 台語, Mandarin 國語

Genre: Thriller

Running Time: 107 minutes

Recommended. Good performances and interesting characters are always a solid combination.

In Southern Taiwan, Barbie 金芭比 eeks out an existence pole dancing on Taiwan’s infamous electric flower cars. Her abusive, drunkard boyfriend races pigeons, until one day his prize pigeon Tango goes missing. Enraged that he’ll be unable to pay his debts, he dies in a fatal car accident while Barbie is working.

At the scene of the crash, Barbie is approached by a mysterious man, who offers to buy her deceased boyfriend’s organs. Faced with being hounded by the loan sharks her boyfriend borrowed from, she reluctantly agrees. This is how she meets the quiet Malacca, who performs the operation.

Elsewhere, local gang leader Ronin  肉仁 hopes for a kidney donor for his ailing sister. But her blood type is rare, and the only match found — an autistic girl in his church — is not a relative and so cannot undergo a live transplant according to Taiwanese law.

Then he’s approached by veteran detective Yang Kaiming 陽開明, who has been searching for Malacca for many years. He has a plan to catch him, but who are they willing to sacrifice to get what they want?

We have to admit, when we saw the poster we weren’t optimistic about this film. We had in mind some low-budget horror tropes, but Pigeon Tango does a very good job of confounding those expectations. Indeed, despite the ominous look of the poster, the gore shown in the trailer below is the sum total in the film. The organ selling is but one part of the story, and arguably not even the main one. Thus we have a film who’s Chinese title 盜命師, Life Robber, is far removed from its English title Pigeon Tango, which refers very literally to the pigeon Barbie inherits from her deceased boyfriend.

Using animals as plot devices and metaphors is not unfamiliar territory for director Li, whose previous film, 2011’s Blowfish 河豚, used the titular fish in much the same way. In this case, Barbie’s pigeon is the link between her and Ronin, who happens to run the local pigeon racing club. We thought it worked well enough as a thread to link their stories together. One scene — where Malacca ends up feeding the boyfriend’s ashen remains to the pigeon by mistake — drew plenty of laughter, and was a very good example of the way the director used comedy sparingly to break up the long segments of tension building. It’s likely Li had a deeper meaning behind his decision to use pigeons in this film, but we’re not entirely clear what that might have been.

Despite the pigeon being effective in tying Barbie and Ronin’s stories together, overall the film still suffers from a narrative that is a little too large for its run time. There are a lot of interesting stories presented to us: Barbie, Ronin, Malacca, Detective Yang and Miu 貓丫are all characters that we were interested to know more about. Unfortunately, we are mostly just left guessing at details and motivations. At one point near the end, a rather large explanatory monologue is given by Yang, presumably as the director felt that the story was not clear enough. Whilst we had guessed at most of what was revealed from previous scenes, the fact it was needed at all is not a positive.

With that said, to craft a film with many interesting characters is something to be respected, even if they ultimately fall short of what they could be. This is aided by universally strong performances from the cast, with special mention to Hsiang Hsi 喜翔 as Ronin and Annie Chen 陳庭妮 as Barbie.

This is Li’s best work to date, and another good film to add to what is a growing list of quality releases coming from Taiwan in 2017.

Small Talk 日常對話 (2016)


Director: Huang Hui-chen 黃惠偵

Studio: Small Talk Productions

Language: Taiwanese 台語,Mandarin 國語

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 88 minutes

Recommended. A fantastic, emotional look into a mother and daughter’s relationship, revealed over a series of dialogues between the two.

Huang has always felt as though there’s a wall between herself and her mother. When she was young, she and her sister didn’t go to school, instead they helped their mother in her job as a priestess. At night, her mother would go out to meet friends, leaving her two children.

Now Huang has her own daughter, but her mother still lives with her. Things have changed little. Aside from the time she takes to cook, Huang’s mother still spends most of her time out with her friends.

In a documentary shot over more than a decade, Huang decides to find out the reasons behind the distance between them. But the truth will also force her to confront her own childhood memories, and her mother’s role in them.

Small Talk is a film which surprised us. Although it premiered last year to very favourable reviews, we had not taken the time to find out what the film was about, never having had the chance for one reason or another to see the film. However, by the time the opportunity to see the film came along, we had certainly had heard enough praise to know we should seize the chance.

The documentary can be split into two parts. The majority are the scenes shot following the birth of director Huang’s daughter, but there is also a large amount of material shot dating back to 1998, documenting many small moments of family life. According to the director, she had been recording this story for many years, but it was only after the birth of her daughter that she finally decided she had to put it all together to show the world.

It is a story that reaches into the very fundamental aspects of the human experience: love, family ties, societal expectations, and the depth that trauma can scar someone’s life.

Many of the documentary’s revelations about the lives of Huang and her mother take place at a table in her apartment, in a direct conversation between the two women. This incredibly private setting serves to emphasise the nature of this story, which in turn, can make it ever harder to watch some of the most emotional scenes. Yet they reveal such a remarkable story that you will do so.

Such a story cannot be properly served by a our words, but we will give a brief summary. Huang’s mother is gay, though she grew up in a time when there was not an acceptable life choice. She had two children with Huang’s father, in a loveless arranged marriage. He would gamble, drink and abuse her, and we later find out in one of the documentary’s most harrowing scenes, Huang. Her mother admits that if she ever had the choice, she’d have never gotten married and never had children. And yet, behind it all there it’s clear she does deeply love her children. But a lifetime of hiding, of bearing the “shame” of being beaten, and living a life branded a “deviant” have clearly worn deeply.

Although many families may not have a story quite as dramatic as Huang’s own, to us that is not the point of the film. It is rare, in any family, for people to truly peel back the layers behind the way we treat each other. Truly, every life is full of heartbreak and regrets. Imagine yourself sitting down with someone you love, and examining your relationship. What would you find?

Wolf Warrior 2 戰狼2 (2017)


Director: Wu Jing 吳京

Studio: Beijing Dengfeng 北京登峰 etc.

Language: Mandarin 普通話, English

Genre: Action

Running Time: 123 minutes

Not Recommended. If you really love action, there’s something here for you despite the aggressive nationalism. If you like a story, or a plot, or acting, please look elsewhere.

Former member of the Chinese special forces, Leng Feng 冷鋒, has moved to Africa following his dismissal from the armed forces. He lives a directionless life, hoping to somehow track down the kidnappers of his lover, Long Xiaoyun 龍小雲. Suddenly, he is caught up in an armed uprising, which threatens the lives of many Chinese nationals who are trapped and unable to be evacuated. With the Chinese military unable to intervene due to UN regulations, Feng sets off on a daring solo rescue mission.

Along the way, he runs into new friends — including the beautiful Dr. Rachel Prescott Smith — and adversaries. The rebels have hired a western mercenary group who are hell bent on destruction, and have a connection with Feng’s past.

Having contracted a deadly virus during the rescue of Dr. Smith, Feng faces a race against time to try and evacuate the remaining Chinese citizens from a Chinese-owned factory. But, facing overwhelming firepower, and an incurable disease, all looks lost. Luckily, Dr. Smith trials an untested vaccine on Feng, allowing them to face the oncoming assault together with their few remaining allies.

Will they be able to hold on? Will the Chinese military intervene? And, what is this mysterious connection between Feng and the mercenary group which hounds them?

Few films this year have got the Western media talking more than Wu Jing’s sequel to 2015’s relatively anonymous Wolf Warrior 戰狼. Once again Wu Jing both directs and stars, and what’s on offer remains the standard action film fair of the first effort. So, what is it that has suddenly sparked a flurry of interest in the film outside of China? Well, there’s the fact that it’s smashed box office records for a Chinese-made film; it continues to climb the all-time lists as well. However, most of the column inches in English-language media have focused on the film’s decidedly nationalist tone. A lot of coverage has particularly focused on one of the film’s taglines: “If you offend my Chinese people, no matter the distance, you must be killed” 犯我中華者,雖遠必誅. This is certainly an alarming sounding line, although one that has been adapted from a famous historical saying (Traditional Chinese), but equally it’s a tagline to a ridiculous action movie, and was used for the previous movie as well. Truthfully, this movie is merely another part of a long narrative of increasing nationalism in the PRC, though it has gained pace under the leadership of current President Xi Jinping 習近平.

In our view, the film’s nationalism is perhaps a little more brazen than the majority of modern Hollywood’s output. In one (unintentionally amusing) scene, Dr. Smith says they should seek aid from the American embassy, only to find they are closed and thus her only way to contact them is through Twitter, a not-so-subtle dig at the banned-in-China platform. There are constant references to China’s great relationship with Africa, and of course China’s military is on full display. With that said, despite its lack of subtlety, it is not really any worse than generations of action films that have come out of the USA. It reminded me of last year’s London Has Fallen (a terrible film). So, it is somewhat disingenuous for anyone who tries to sell this film as being fundamentally more nationalistic in content than things that have come before. It is often a trapping of the genre, with its focus on military might.

In fact, it’s refreshing on some level to see a high budget action film like this produced outside of Hollywood. Though Chinese action films are not unusual, with a long history of martial arts films, this kind of solo military hero is rarely anything but an American on the big screen. And, Wu makes a good hero. He’s clearly got the physique and the moves for the role, which has no doubt helped sell the movie at home. We are less convinced by his ability as a director. The action scenes are sometimes well done, but often hampered by a directorial style that leans heavily on fast cuts. The result is far too confusing, with it often being unclear who is doing what, or even what exactly they are doing. Of course action films are meant to be fast paced, but when the scenes have a bit more room to breath, the results are much more effective; there’s stuff in here for action aficionados to enjoy.

We could ignore the nationalism and enjoy the film for its action scenes if it had a plot to bring us in. Unfortunately, Wolf Warrior 2 has one of the worst plots ever. Almost nothing is explained, and characters are as shallow as could be. No doubt those who’ve watched the first instalment will get more out of it, though given their relative success it’s highly likely most of the audience have not seen the first film. It’s impossible to give a fair judgement on anyone’s acting ability because the script is a joke, full of terrible one liners and plot exposition. The numerous Caucasian actors give hilariously hammy performances, presumably on the basis of the script. This makes it very hard to understand why they are so murderous; something which is never explained.

The positives that the film puts forward in portraying an Asian action hero are completely undone by the stereotypical and dismissive portrayal of Africa. Although the film clearly tries to talk up China’s relationship with the continent, it manages to fall into every single stereotype in the book. War torn and ravaged by rebellion? Check. In need of saving by a benevolent foreign power? Check. Dancing round a fire? Check. Living in camps and infected by an unknown deadly virus? Check check check. All of these sins have been committed by others many times before, but it’s sad to see a film that is clearly trying to say that China does things differently in Africa demonstrate it does nothing differently.

Wolf Warrior 2 is a film which doesn’t deserve to be as popular as it is. Its record breaking success may make many wonder if Chinese cinema goers are completely devoid of taste. But, most media outlets have failed to mention some important facts. Firstly, the Chinese authorities have delayed a number of big Hollywood films to allow Wolf Warrior 2 and The Founding of an Army 建軍大業 (made to celebrate the People’s Liberation Army’s 90th anniversary) a free run at the summer box office. These include Spiderman: Home Coming and Dunkirk. The Founding of an Army is a CCP-sponsored history film, and has been utterly rejected by cinema goers. Thus, the choice for the millions of audience looking to escape the summer heat is actually not much of a choice at all. Secondly, clearly the film’s themes and positive portrayal of China are going to play well to a domestic audience. Finally, stupid action films are almost always solid performers at the box office. See: Transformers.

For us though, Wu Jing should stick to playing the hero. His work as a director is much less appealing than his action man credentials.

The Man Who Has A Camera 持攝影機的男人 (1933)

China / Taiwan

Director: Liu Na’ou 劉吶鷗

Studio: N/A

Language: Mandarin 普通話, Japanese 日文

Genre: Silent / Travel

Running Time: 30 minutes


Although the most famous works of early Chinese cinema come from the so-called leftist films of the 1930s, a number of which have been covered on this blog e.g. Street Angel 馬路天使, it’s important when looking at the historiography of Chinese cinema to remember that it was mostly formalised during the initial years of Communist rule post-1949. One of these notable works is The History of the Development of Chinese Cinema 中國電影發展史 by Cheng Jihua 程季華.

Cheng’s analysis of the pre-war Shanghai cinema puts great emphasis on the differences between leftist “hard” films, and reactionary pro-KMT/colonialist “soft” films. The hard/soft nomenclature had in fact been used previously, but Cheng’s work was the first time that these terms came to mean that “hard” films were serious political works whilst “soft” films were inherently tainted by impure ideologies and thus, less worthy pieces of art.

This led to the large scale abandonment of these films for serious viewing until into the 1990s, when those works that survived began to be reexamined by both domestic and international scholars. In the late 1990s, The Man Who Has A Camera was discovered in an attic by relatives of Liu Na’ou — famous not just for his own directorial work in Shanghai, but his critical essays and literature as a member of the cosmopolitan class.

Liu is truly a product of this particular moment in history. Born into a southern Taiwanese family during its time as a Japanese colony, Liu would go on to spend several years studying in Japan itself, before relocating to Shanghai in 1926. Thus, Liu was exposed to a great number of cultural influences that would influence his own world view and aesthetic.

The Man Who Has A Camera is clearly not a film that was intended for public audiences, being partially a study of Liu’s family and friends, mixed in with various scenes from travels around China, Taiwan and Japan. But its 30 minutes are today a glimpse into the much-criticised world of elite cosmopolitan Shanghai.

Despite not featuring on film at all, the influence of the Shanghai lifestyle can be seen throughout. Comprising sections filmed in Tainan, Taiwan; Tokyo, Japan; Guangdong, China; and Mukden in then-Japanese puppet state Manchukuo (modern day Shenyang in Liaoning Province), Liu’s camera frequently focuses on his glamorous companions, or on a bustling mechanised cityscape. He travels by road, by boat and by air, interacting with people across cultural boundaries (notably finding a gurning foreigner in Guangdong). This is interspersed with more traditional street scenes, including an extended parade replete with lion dancers in Tainan, or a tranquil walk through the Japanese countryside. The calm, stillness and simplicity of the scenes with his family in Tainan — an elderly woman, young children with their parents puzzled at this new kind of photography — is starkly contrasted with a military parade by Nationalist forces in Guangdong.

To watch The Man Who Has A Camera is to be taken to a world where the concept of national identities has been blurred into a cosmopolitan whole. This is a private film, and as such had been made in order to convey emotions and memories of a time that we cannot truly understand, but it still tells us much about Liu as a man and his style. It bears many of the hallmarks of his preferred style of filmmaking, with a wonderful kineticism on display in its numerous travel and street scenes.

Liu’s life was cut short in 1940 following his assassination in Shanghai, a fate he shared with friend and fellow author and filmmaker Mu Shiying 穆時英, apparently for collaboration with the Japanese. The life and times he portrayed in his work were but a brief snapshot in history, but they remain somewhat of an enigma, buried as they are under the politically unappealing headings of “collaborationist” and “reactionary”.

There is no doubt, however, that The Man Who Has A Camera stands as an important record of that time, and the unique identity of those such as Liu who straddled cultures in 1930s Shanghai. 

Condemned Practice Mode 徐自強的練習題 (2017)


Director: Chi Yueh-chun 紀岳君

Studio: Broken Scene 斷境音像

Language: Mandarin 國語, Taiwanese 台語

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 95 minutes

Recommended. The story of one of Taiwan’s most infamous miscarriages of justice, and the fight to save someone from death row.

In 1995, a real estate agent named Huang Chun-shu 黃春樹 was kidnapped and then murdered in Taipei County (modern day New Taipei City). Police arrest Huang Chun-chi 春棋落 (no relation), who quickly fingers two accomplices — Chen Yi-lung 陳憶隆 and Hsu Tzu-chiang 徐自強. The other participants’ stories all agree that Hsu was the mastermind behind the operation.

After a period in hiding, Hsu voluntarily handed himself in, where he joined the others in being sentenced to death. But, was Hsu really involved?

Despite his relationship with the other conspirators, one of whom was his cousin, there are parts of the others stories which don’t add up. Then there’s the CCTV which proves he was elsewhere helping his mother when the murder took place.

Huang’s conviction was upheld in 2000. What followed was over a decade of appeals, retrials, and even a constitutional interpretation, before Hsu was released in 2012, and finally declared not guilty in 2016.

In Taiwan, the case of Hsu Tzu-chiang is one of the most famous post-democratisation examples of injustice, but it is unlikely that many outside the island have heard about it. This is no surprise; every country has their own cases to focus on. But that does not make Hsu’s case any less compelling.

A quiet man who is first shown in a state of despondency, the layers of Hsu and the people around him are slowly peeled back through the course of Condemned Practice Mode. Originally having little faith in justice or the people who try to help him, Hsu slowly gains hope from the people who are unwilling to give up on his case — working for years pro-bono to try and ensure justice is done. This is the meaning of the documentary’s title (which makes more sense when directly translated: Hsu Tzu-chiang’s exercises). Constantly having his hopes raised and crushed over and over again, Hsu has to endlessly overcome the hurdles of the judicial system.

As an outsider, this examination of Taiwan’s judiciary is particularly fascinating. Hsu’s case began just prior to Taiwan’s first fully democratic presidential election, and much of the justice system was still a hold over from its authoritarian past. The film makes clear that judges often stood scared of contradicting prior trial judges for fear of hurting their future career prospects. A judge interviewed for the movie says that he was not assigned cases after making a decision to acquit on appeal.

The film makes good use of storyboards and animations to depict the events on the day of the crime, helping to clearly explain to those unfamiliar with the case the various discrepancies which ultimately led to Hsu’s acquittal.

It’s clear that the process of making this movie was an emotional one for director Chi Yueh-chun — who reveals that he was married and then divorced in that time. That connection between him and his work is shown in the many small moments he spends revealing Hsu’s personality; no easy feat with a man who is clearly very shy (unsurprising after the best part of two decades in prison). Particularly notable are the scenes between Hsu and his son/grandson, whose live’s he has almost completely missed.

Overall, even if you are not interested in the intricacies of Taiwan’s justice system, Condemned Practice Mode still has a lot to offer. It’s a mystery, a true crime story, a tale of perseverance and of learning to live again.

The Story of 90 Coins 九十枚硬幣的故事 (2015)


Director: Michael Wong 黃振宙

Studio: E&T Films 北京意唐

Language: Mandarin 普通話

Genre: Short Film

Running Time: 9 minutes

Recommended. It’s hard not to recommend less than 10 minutes of your day to a nicely shot romance.

Wang Yuyang 王宇陽 makes a deal with Chen Wen 陳雯. Give him 90 days to prove his love for her. In return he’ll give her a coin every day, and if she doesn’t love him after the 90 days are over, they’ll take the money and buy a farewell drink — never to meet again.

As it happens, they do fall in love, and save those coins for the time they can afford to buy their own place. As time passes, jealousy enters into their relationship in the form of a dashing French colleague who wants to show Chen around Paris. Wang cannot handle his jealousy, and Chen believes he cannot love her enough if he doesn’t trust her. They break up.

As Chen prepares to leave for Paris, she comes across the coins Wang gave her, and the letters he wrote for her. Suddenly, she recalls all they once had.

Official Poster

At just under 10 minutes, The Story of 90 Coins does not have long to make an impression. Indeed, even for a short film this is particularly compressed. Despite that, it manages to pack quite a lot of story telling into its limited time frame.

To achieve this, director Michael Wong has used a style that is reminiscent of music videos, with each scene having an exact emotion and moment in the story related to it. That feeling carries across into the what’s on screen — with everything having a very clean and just-too-perfect feeling. That said, it is all very beautiful, and it’s not hard to understand why it won numerous awards for its cinematography.

Underneath its stylish exterior is a very simple and human film about the difficulties faced in love — and all the small things which make up a relationship. The flashback scenes as Chen reads his letters are particularly memorable, and the idea of the 90 coins a nice touch. In every relationship there’s something that only those involved can truly understand, and these often invoke the strongest emotions.

The film is available to watch online on Vimeo:

The Story of 90 Coins from Michael Wong on Vimeo.

The Island That All Flow By 川流之島 (2016)


Director: Chan Ching-lin 詹京霖

Studio: Greener Grass Productions 瀚草影視

Language: Mandarin 國語, Taiwanese 台語

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 97 minutes

Recommended. A TV movie that looks and feels like something greater. Not anything new, but solidly made and featuring some top quality performances.

Ah Wen 阿雯 is a single mother who works as a toll collector on one of Taiwan’s national highways. She and her colleagues are soon to be made redundant as the highways move to an automated system, when she is contacted by the father of one of her son’s schoolmates. Her son has had sex with his daughter, and in accordance with Taiwan’s legal system — as he is 16 and she is 15 — this constitutes statutory rape. In order to “save his daughter’s honour”, the father demands a compensatory payment of NTD$800,000 (US$26,000).

For a single mother working a normal job, this kind of money doesn’t come easily in a year, let alone in the month Ah Wen has to get it together before the father presses charges. Despite begging relatives and the bank for loans, and accepting her job’s severance package — turning her striking coworkers against her — Ah Wen makes little headway.

This is how Ah Wen becomes involved with a truck driver named Zhi Hao 志豪. He drove past her toll booth every day, hoping for a date. Now, he says that he can help with Ah Wen’s money issue. As it turns out, this help comes in the form of payment for sex — NTD$10,000 each time.

Despite her reluctance, Ah Wen has no other recourse if she is to save her son from the law. Over time, her relationship with Zhi Hao comes to resemble something real. But, when the money runs out, what’s left for them, and her son’s future?

Originally a made-for-TV movie, The Island That All Flow By received its theatrical debut at the 2017 Taipei Film Festival, and also serves as the director’s first feature-length work.

The made-for-TV market is relatively vibrant in Taiwan, with the domestic market for homegrown cinema in theatres distinctly lacking (often unfairly in our view). For up-and-coming directors the TV market offers more opportunities, with studios happier to produce low budget — and thus low risk — productions.

This is how director Chan Ching-lin got his opportunity for a long-form debut, having previously gained some fame for his 2013 short film A Breath From The Bottom 狀況排除.

The financial realities of TV movies, especially in Taiwan, mean that directors must curtail their aspirations. Chan has mentioned in interviews the difficulties faced working on a limited budget, notably having to work to a very tight and draining schedule, but we can only praise him and all involved on the film, as it is impossible to tell that this movie suffered from any such issues. The film is well shot and acted, and if we had been told it was made for cinemas it would have come as no surprise.

(Not to denigrate made-for-TV films, many of which can be high quality, but there’s a reason it lowers expectations when you hear the phrase)

Chan and his cinematographer Chen Qiwen 陳麒文 utilise a handheld style that suits the subject, and stands out particularly well in the scenes where Ah Wen and Zhi Hao get drunk at a karaoke bar.

Regarding the story — it’s nothing new. The trope of a desperate mother selling her body to do what’s right for her son has been in cinema for a very long time and it remains compelling and identifiable. It is hard, however, to add much of anything new to it, and Chan doesn’t do so here — though the context of the (real) redundancy of toll-booth workers is interesting.

In fact, it has a large obstacle to climb in making the relationship between Ah Wen and Zhi Hao believable. The first time they have sex, Zhi Hao clearly forces himself on Ah Wen in a rape scene — thus to believe that this shortly evolves into any kind of positive feeling is difficult. However, it is clear throughout that any positive feelings Ah Wen develops towards Zhi Hao are tempered by multiple conflicting negative feelings, which is somewhat the directors point, we’d imagine. That said, we still think it was clumsily done.

The acting in The Island That All Flow By is of a high quality, and this helps alleviate any issues with the story. Special mention should go to both the leads, Yin Xin 尹馨 as Ah Wen and Zheng Renshuo 鄭人碩 as Zhi Hao, who give constantly engaging and nuanced performances. Yin took home the Best Actress Award at the festival — no small feat for a TV movie — and Zheng crafts a memorable and human character from what on the page is a deeply unlikable individual.

The English title is an awkward translation, but when seen in the context of a motorway toll booth becomes more understandable.

You can watch the trailer below:

Our Time Will Come 明月幾時有 (2017)

Hong Kong / China

Director: Ann Hui 許鞍華

Studio: Bona Film Group 保利博納電影發行, Distribution Workshop 發行工作室, Class Limited 卡士

Language: Mandarin 普通話, Cantonese 粵語, Japanese 日文

Genre: Drama / History

Running Time: 130 minutes

Recommended. A moving female-led tale of resistance in 1940s Hong Kong. Whilst it doesn’t push any boundaries, it has plenty of moments, just don’t expect another Lust, Caution — this is a very different kind of film.

In 1940s Japanese-occupied Hong Kong, Fang Lan 方蘭 (played by Chinese star Zhou Xun 周迅) lives with her mother and their tenants, struggling to live amongst food shortages and harassment from Japanese forces and spies. She ends things with her boyfriend Li Jinrong 李錦榮 (Wallace Huo 霍建華) — seeing no point in marrying under such conditions.

She is suddenly sucked into an escape plan for her mother’s tenant, the famous writer Mao Dun 矛盾,who is evacuated across the border into China by a team of communist resistance fighters led by the famous “Blackie” Lau  劉黑仔 (Eddie Peng 彭于晏).

Having helped the resistance once, she is offered further work helping the band, first through spreading propaganda leaflets, before ultimately becoming the leader of the group’s city unit.

Fang’s mother worries over her daughter’s work with the resistance, but she determines the best way she can help is to try to take on some of the burden herself, doing more and more of the groups tasks. One day, she helps a young woman to smuggle important documents by sewing them inside of her clothes. However, the pair are discovered when two guards search their clothing for money.

Meanwhile Fang’s old flame Li has been working undercover at the Japanese army headquarters as a Chinese teacher — frequently smuggling out stolen bits of information — and immediately informs Fang of her mother’s plight. She in turn asks for Lau’s assistance, but it soon becomes clear that any attempt to free her mother would be too dangerous for the group.

Director Ann Hui is undoubtedly one of Hong Kong cinema’s treasures, with a string of classic films dating back over 30 years. She has done a number of historical dramas, and this film follows 2014s The Golden Era 黃金時代 in adapting some of modern China’s historical figures and events for the big screen. Whilst The Golden Era focused on several of China’s most famous twentieth century writers, Our Time Will Come takes on the familiar subject matter of the Sino-Japanese war (although there is a nod to China’s literary past in the shape of Mao Dun and Zou Taofen).

As China has ramped up its patriotic education, it is has become common to see a new TV drama or movie about the war with Japan. As such, despite the worthiness of the subject, it’s sometimes hard to avoid a sense of déjà vu.

Luckily, Hui is far too skilled of a director to let this one fall flat. The film is anchored by star Zhou Xun — incidentally, always our favourite of the Four Dan — and supported, as always in these sorts of films, by some of Chinese cinema’s best. The film is tension filled and its ending tear inducing, but it has its fair share of lighthearted moments. These mostly come in the form of Eddie Peng’s “Blackie” Lau, who is portrayed as a larger-than-life figure, a kind of lovable rogue who happens to be very good at killing. James Bond with a heart of gold, perhaps. We are not familiar with the real life Lau’s story, but it’s fair to say this may not be a nuanced interpretation. It does, however, work well with Hui’s decision to intersperse the film with scenes from modern Hong Kong, as survivors from that time recall their heroes. In this sense, it is entirely understandable that the audience is getting a lionised version of history.

Our Time Will Come is in many ways what big budget productions in Hong Kong look like today — almost invariably co-produced with one or more mainland studios, with a cast from across the Chinese diaspora and a story that links them together. Thus we get the link between Hong Kong and communist resistance fighters, Chinese artists, and in the final shot a flourishing modern Hong Kong. All of this does sit somewhat incongruously with the current malaise which seems to sit over the city and its future 20 years after its return to the PRC*. Yet it would be harsh to judge the film too strongly on those points, when it still delivers a worthy and original story on one of the unexplored arenas of the World War 2. It reminds the audience of the small acts of resistance that can ultimately become part of a greater whole, and how those acts can resonate long into the future.

* A fact that was noted by several audience members during the Q&A session after the film. This, unsurprisingly, got short thrift from the director.

You can watch the trailer below:

Missing Johnny 強尼.凱克 (2017)


Director: Huang Xi 黃熙

Studio: Mandarin Vision 華文創

Language: Mandarin 國語, Taiwanese 台語, Cantonese 粵語, English

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 104 minutes

Not Recommended. Some good ideas and moments are let down by a weak main character in this directorial debut by Hou Hsiao-hsien disciple Huang Xi.

In Taipei, we follow the lives of a few people who are all connected to one apartment. Xu Ziqi 徐子淇 lives on the top floor with her pet birds. She keeps on getting phone calls from a family asking to speak to Johnny, but she has no idea who that is. Li Li 李立 is the autistic son of the landlady, who spends his time reading old newspapers and wandering from place to place. And, Ah Feng 阿風 is a handyman, hired by the landlady to do various jobs for her.

Their lives intersect at various points. Li sees Xu carrying a box with what he suspects is a bird in it on the subway [ed. specifically banned on public transport in Taiwan!]. Xu denies it, but Li’s seen it before and he’s right. When she gets home Xu has a new bird to add to her pets.

But one day, one of Xu’s birds escapes out the window, and she recruits Ah Feng — working on her landlady’s property — along with Li to help her catch it.

From that day, she gets to know Ah Feng as he does various jobs around the apartment. Her relationship with her boyfriend is strained, as he suspects her of seeing another man whilst he lives in Taizhong, and after one argument she storms out of her apartment, taking refuge in Ah Feng’s car. A surprised Ah Feng brings her along to a gathering at his old teacher’s place. Ah Feng explains to Xu his parents divorced when he was young, and this teacher became a father figure to him. Xu then reveals that she actually has a daughter in Hong Kong, living with her grandparents.

Xu keeps on getting phone calls asking for Johnny. One time, from his mother, another time, from a whole group to wish him happy birthday.

Meanwhile, Li spends his day cycling around an underpass in the rain. When he returns home to his worried mother, we discover this is the spot his brother was killed in an accident. His mother doesn’t want him to go there, but it makes Li feel close to his brother.

It may seem that the plot summary is incomplete, but Missing Johnny is not a movie which lives on its story. The film is Huang Xi’s directorial debut, but she has a wealth of experience in Taiwanese cinema working for one of Taiwan’s foremost directors, Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢 — which would explain why Hou is the executive producer for this film. And she has certainly inherited Hou’s penchant for the subtle, preferring to tell a larger story through the lives of individuals, whilst not feeling any need for a clear resolution.

That is where the stylistic comparison should end, Huang does not share Hou’s love of the long take, and has her own style for framing shots. Her directorial style is pleasant, and we here are big supporters of Taiwanese cinema, so hope to see her continue to grow as a film maker.

Unfortunately, it is very hard for to recommend Missing Johnny. A slow pace, a look into the way every day events and interactions hide a deeper story — these are not things that turn us off. In fact they are films we often love. So, what’s wrong with Missing Johnny?

The number one issue is that we just don’t care about the main character, Xu Ziqi. It’s not the fault of actress Rima Zeidan 瑞瑪席丹, who does an okay job. She just has very little to work with, and what she does have makes Xu unlikable. She’s cold and distant, then we find out her daughter lives abroad. We don’t know why that is, and it’s not even hinted at. At one point she shouts at her boyfriend that he married someone for money; it’s never mentioned again.

This lack of information is a problem for other characters too, but none of them are the main character. They’re also not revealed to be nearly as flawed as Xu. Ah Feng is eminently likeable, and we can sympathise with his story. Li is autistic and his brother died. Xu is separated from her daughter…but why? Her boyfriend, who is seemingly married, pays for her to live the life she wants, yet she treats him terribly. Money certainly doesn’t buy love, but it also doesn’t buy scorn. We are given nothing to help us understand the dynamic.

Just as we could begin to form a connection with Xu as she makes friends with Ah Feng, the film ends. After the film, the director explained that this was because it felt like the best time to end the film, and in terms of length that’s hard to argue with. But it’s frustrating for an audience.

A grand statement in the Taipei Film Festival programme calls this a Millenium Mambo (Hou’s turn-of-the-millenium film about life in the city) for today. And the ideas are related; about the stories behind every person, and the distance between them in the big city. We liked the way Xu switches between English, Mandarin and Cantonese depending on the situation. The way she straddles so many places at once at least goes some way to explaining her mystery (and speaks to our own personal experience living in Taipei). The concept of the phone calls for Johnny (apparently inspired by real life) is also interesting; that there’s a window into another life in these calls.

Unfortunately, without the foundation, ideas can’t shine through. Hou’s films are not for everyone, but they are all built on character’s that you care about.

It is probably unfair to hold Huang’s first film up the lofty standards of Hou, despite his executive producer credit. There’s stuff to like in Missing Johnny, and it is after all a directorial debut, but its flaws are too glaring for us to be able to recommend it.

This review is from the world premiere, we will update if there is a home release.

You can watch the trailer below: