The Monotony of Poverty: ‘Return to Burma’ Review 《歸來的人》影評

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KTV; Source: Return to Burma

For me this film doesn’t work for completely the opposite reason that another film by this director, Ice Poison, didn’t work. Whereas Ice Poison is centred around the rather hackneyed trope of “young man led astray by damaged young girl”, this film is rather unclear in its voice and direction.

The film is underlaid with a pseudo-neo-colonial gaze, as much of it is pure exposition aimed at a Taiwanese audience, what people earn in relation to wages in Taiwan, what the different smuggled Chinese imports cost etc. This is not an unworthy goal, given that South East Asian workers are reported to have faced substantial discrimination and exploitation when employed in Taiwan and China, but I’m not sure if this makes the film interesting beyond its Taiwanese context. Otherwise the kind of poverty that they suffer, although awful, is rather unexceptional: the struggle to find work and support oneself and one’s family.

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Temple; Source: Return to Burma

Not much happens in the film and I felt that, although the director might be aspiring to capture the fatalistic outlook of the characters in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films in the face of tragedy, the tragedies seemed too distant from the core of the film to give the impassivity of the protagonist any gravity in contrast. We hear his sister was kidnapped and forced to marry an older Chinese man, but she’s resigned herself to her circumstances and is wealthier than the rest of her family now, with two kids that she loves (interestingly Ice Poison shows us a woman who makes a different choice, in that she runs away from her husband in China and, long story short, she ends up in jail for drug-dealing (moral lesson: stay with your kidnapper?)). While I might criticize that sentiment, it underlines the desperate poverty of many of the people featured in his films. It’s also a common trope in the Chinese anti-modernist tradition, in which writers like Shen Cong-wen suggested that though tradition might seem overly exploitative or repressive of a certain group or class (i.e. women), the discretionary power inherent in traditional social relations tended to mitigate this harshness in everyday practice and that “modernity” could actually be more repressive in its lack of this discretionary power (see his short story 〈蕭蕭〉).

There is no real exploration of the political state of Myanmar (Burma) in the film (it occurs in the run-up to substantial political change) and the regime is largely invisible, other than the rather amusing pro-government songs that play, praising the new congress and a vague reference to strict anti-smuggling measures. This in a way reinforces the neo-colonial idea that the film is aimed solely at creating “Taiwanese guilt” for the way they take advantage of this poverty, which, although it may have some merit, doesn’t do anything to address any of the domestic causes of this poverty. Nor is there any exploration of the ethnic conflicts that have surfaced in the country over the last decades. This means that the telling of this story of poverty is so universal, that it would have had to take a more interesting narrative line or adopted a more interesting technique to keep it from being a rather monotonous retelling of what we’ve all heard before. I almost feel that Ice Poison was an attempt at breaking from this monotony by staging a romance, it’s just a pity that it felt so… staged.

 

 

Memory and Small Town China: ‘Hometown Boy’ Review 《金城小子》影評

jinchengThis is a slow-brewing documentary and Taiwanese director, Yao Hung-yi (姚宏易) clearly shares a love of long but poignant camera shots with executive director Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝賢). The documentary is about Chinese artist and actor Liu Xiaodong (劉小東) going back to his hometown of Jincheng in China’s north-western Liaoning province to paint his childhood friends. Liu was a producer on Devils On the Doorstep, which I reviewed here, and starred in the film The Days (《冬春的日子》), which I haven’t yet seen. Continue reading

Review of ‘Scars on Memory’ a documentary by Mickey Chen 陳俊志的《無偶之家,往事之城》 影評

f48a5bc55fab76e0d4d353a35bd60654The Chinese title of this documentary translates literally to “A home without a spouse, the city of the past.”  It is directed by Mickey Chen (陳俊志), who wrote quite a good biographical book Taipei Dad, New York Mom (《台北爸爸紐約媽媽》) a few years ago. I’m halfway through it, but I would recommend what I’ve read so far – as it is a touching account of a gay man’s life without being trite or shmaltzy. Continue reading

‘You Are the Apple of My Eye’ Review《那些年,我們一起追的女孩》 – What it’s like to be a dull person in Taiwan…

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The nicest thing one can say about this film is that it gives an idea of what it was like growing up as a straight boy in Taiwan for the generation born in the 1980s, or at least an idealized “idol drama” version of it – but I think that this is done in a more interesting way in Eternal Summer (《盛夏光年》), which incorporates a gay story line and has more complex character development beyond the Taiwanese “everyman” represented in this film  and even Winds of September (《九降風》). Based on a short story by Giddens Ko, a Taiwanese blogger-cum-novelist, You Are the Apple of My Eye is an extended idol drama, a dreary recounting of the author’s high school and university years. The humor in the film incorporates several wank jokes reminiscent of American Pie, but in this film these just came off as weird as the film tries to be an idol drama and The Inbetweeners at the same time, so the protagonist is a compromise between the typical  Taiwanese drama male lead and an inbetweeners-style comically unself-aware weirdo and the balance didn’t quite work here, as he just came off as cocky.  Continue reading

What not to watch: Mazu Procession review 最好不要看的《媽祖迺台灣》影評

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OK, so I’ll start with the positives, this is not the worst film on the Mazu procession that I’ve ever seen, but that’s mostly because I had to trawl through the NTU vault of Taiwanese documentaries to write a review every week for my professor. The film makes a good (albeit an unquestioning and superficial) attempt at explaining what’s going on formalistically during the pilgrimage, which sets out from the north of Taiwan over 9 days, bringing Mazu, the sea goddess from her home temple to tour the island before returning home, followed by pilgrims hoping to get her blessing by carrying flags which they get blessed at every stop along the way. The film also made an attempt to explain why people were providing food and the different ways in which people participate in the pilgrimage, which already beats out the shaky student films that don’t even put Chinese subtitles, with only a brief, rather smug voiceover telling you the name of each bit in Taiwanese, but no explanation offered as to what it actually represents. You soon realize that this film was made with a specific purpose, however, and that purpose is encapsulated well at the end when the indefatigably cheerful presenter Richie Jen (a Mandopop star and actor, who finishes almost every sentence in the film with an 喔!/wo! a 加油!/jiayou! or a 辛苦啦!/sin-khó͘la!) sings a song which is as about as subtle as China’s foreign ministry: he changes the lyrics of his previous saccharine hit 〈對面的女孩看過來〉 (Look over here, girl [opposite]), to 〈對面的觀眾看過來〉(Look over here, audience [opposite]) into a marketing ploy packaging the Mazu procession for tourists from what I’m guessing he means by 「對面的觀眾」(the audience opposite), could it be… on the other side of the strait? (shock horror! Quick! Take siege to the theaters!).

The changes aren’t limited to the title, he continues to drivel on about how cute Taiwanese people are, especially the old ones and the young ones (Yes, yes, Taiwan, we already got the memo… NO, BUT WE’RE REALLY FRIENDLY!!! REALLY REALLY FRIENDLY喔!!!!!… Yeah, you’re alright I suppose… NO, WE’RE REALLY REALLY SUPER FRIENDLY! SUPER FRIENDLY, LIKE REALLY REALLY FRIENDLY喔!!!!!… I know, I know, Taiwanese people are very friendly… THAT’S BETTER喔!!!!!!!). The film failed to examine any darker side of the procession, like the associations between mafia and certain temples in Taiwan, although it pretended it was going to for a while in Changhua with the promise of fights over the direction of the pilgrimage by local temples, though it ultimately led to nothing. Other documentaries on the subject go into this link in more detail, and it provides a more interesting perspective than this cutesy romp. It also failed to give any critical perspective on the social purpose of Mazu, or to question the beliefs of those taking part. This wasn’t in the film’s remit, however, as it was essentially a promotional video – a glorified travel program, representative of the ruling Kuomintang’s line on mainlanders, specifically, “let’s take them for all the money we can.”

2/10 (It at least made an effort to be understood)

That is all.