Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Machete Maidens Unleashed! (2010)

After viewing Machete Maidens Unleashed! (2010) I am conflicted as to whether I should be proud as a Filipino that a spotlight has finally been shined on a little known nook of film history or ashamed that not only were my countrymen being exploited by their former liberators, The United States,who freed us first from the Spanish and then again from the Japanese, but then because of blind greed, turned around and gave foreign companies carte blanche to use the entire country as one big playground. Though in fairness a lot of great films were made...okay, a lot of interesting films were made that had great eye-popping advertising to entice horny teens to take their dates to.
Utilizing the oft-used tactic of peppering documentaries with talking head interviews from filmmakers and scholars alike, Mark Hartley, whose  Not Quite Hollywood (2008) gave Australian exploitation films their day in the sun, divides his film up into sections, each section representing a specific Filipino filmmaker and the style and philosophy they brought to their pictures.
The family tree begins first with Gerardo de Leon, a man every bit as talented as any genre director currently in the business of show, who was ostensibly ground down to a fine powder by the commercial film industry.  de Leon was forced to make "women in cages"  (incidentally, the title of his 1971 Roger Corman-produced film) pictures by the end of his career because film distributors got tired of his "artsy" horror films. Moving into the late 60s, de Leon"s apprentice Eddie Romero, elected National Artist of the Philippines in 2003 and proclaimed the patron saint of grindhouse directors by Quentin Tarantino, started his career working on war films then shifted over to horror films before seamlessly making the transition to women in prison films. The chain that links all of these seemingly disparate moves being that, as Hartley"s documentary captures, for all the prestige Romero has received from cinephiles, back in the day he was hungry for two things: to be a filmmaker and to get the validation and respect from the biggest movie factory out there, Hollywood. He accomplished both, though I think he would have liked to have done it without relying on so many tits and asses.
Alongside the story of the rise of Eddie Romero, you have Roger Corman entering the picture. Neither an artist nor even an admirer of tropical settings, Corman served as the moneyman and international connection to get Romero"s celluloid fantasies off the ground.  But, just as de Leon suffered from artistic pretensions, so did Romero and though try as he might to get some respect there was no way anyone was going to mistake gore, bare-breasted beauties, or kinky S&M scenes as high art.
Beyond the individual adventure stories in Hartley"s film, there is also a socio-political arc running throughout its 84 minute runtime. The irony that films espousing armed revolt and Constitutional freedoms were being made in a country run by a despot and his beauty queen wife was not lost to those interviewed in the film nor to the audience watching. Advertised as the Wild East, young American actors, directors, and film producers came to try their luck in the Philippines in search of fame and fortune like some bizarro American Dream story.  However, with the exception of Pam Grier, no one managed to break on through to the other side.
What you do have is a plethora of shocking and hilarious backstage stories which Hartley doles out liberally throughout Machete Maidens Unleashed (2010). Stunt men were paid five pesos a day, the conversion rate currently being 50 Filipino pesos to 1 American dollar, to engage in real brawls, jump through plate glass windows, and be literally set ablaze if it meant better audience attendance. And of course the bevy of raw flesh on parade in the films had their own fair share of horror stories, with bugs, fecal matter, and empty promises of fame just to get them to disrobe all figuring into most of those stories.
However, what really fascinated me about Machete Maidens Unleashed! were scenes in which filmmakers like Joe Dante or John Landis would dissect the little tricks that Corman and company would use to get butts into theater seats. Be it mundane things like printing out really scintillating film posters, retitling a foreign film for American audiences, or just taking a bunch of raw outtakes footage from several disparate film sources and crafting an entirely new film out of them.  These Franken-films, no matter how shoddily made, seemed to never lose money. However, the funniest anecdote out of Hartley"s documentary was Joe Dante"s discovery that, if you take footage of a man firing a gun and cut to a random shot from another film of a helicopter exploding, the audience will believe that the former caused the latter, a perfect example of the Kuleshov effect in grindhouse action.
The 1980s spelled the end of the Filipino exploitation film industry. With the rise of event films like Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), the horny teen audience that film distributors had come to rely on made the switch from drive-in theaters to the climate controlled multiplex. Also, not really touched upon in Hartley"s film, Ferdinand Marcos lost political backing from the United States finally and was not-so politely asked to step down from power by the people. In the wake of his exile, the new government, although far more benevolent, was far too "Catholic" to allow such prurient trash to be made in their own backyard. It is a bit tragic that the primary claim to fame for the Filipino film industry are these schlock films not even popular with or seen by many in whose land they were natively shot. Inherently linked to American culture, like all former colonies,  life in the Philippines back then was cheap, production costs were low, and a different breed of filmmaker roamed the jungle. What a glorious time it must have been...

(Originally published on July 8, 2011 at VCinema Show Podcast and Blog.)

NYAFF/Japan Cuts 2011: "Won't Somebody Think of the Children!!"

With all the hullabaloo over the plethora of kung-fu and samurai action pictures playing in this year's New York Asian Film Festival, especially with respect to the Tsui Hark retrospective starting on Saturday July 9th, it is easy to forget that the festival has a wide assortment of films to whet one's cinephilic appetite. And during a rainy afternoon I saw no better way to spend my Sunday then catching up on some funny, wild and, believe it or not, family friendly films.
The first film on the roster was Yoshihiro Nakamura’s A Boy and His Samurai (2010). As a fan of Nakamura’s previous masterpieces Fish Story (2009) and The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck, and God in a Coin Locker (2007, review here), I was anxious to catch this film, even though I was also aware of some of the lackluster reviews it had gotten. Ostensibly a family drama, and to be specific part of the “single parent trying to balance a family and a career” genre, A Boy and His Samurai pays just as much attention to the single mother, Yusa (Rie Tomosaka), as it does to the young boy, Tomoya (Fuku Suzuki), and his adopted father, Kajima, played by TV idol Ryo Nishikido. The twist in Nakamura’s domestic drama though is that Kajima is an Edo period samurai transported forward to the present day.
Like a true fish out of water, Kajima tries to force his Old World values onto Yusa and her little boy, but slowly realizes that the Way of the Sword has no place in the age of the blinking, beeping, neon lit world of skyscrapers and 24-hour convenience stores. Longing for a way back to his time, he entrusts his fate to Yusa in return for managing the daily domestic chores like cooking, cleaning, and taking care of little Tomoya.
In a lesser film this arrangement would have been treated as broad comedy, with the male lead bumbling his way learning how to do simple tasks like folding the laundry or washing the dishes, but Nakamura sidesteps such easy laughs and focuses his camera lens on Kajima’s new family and their attempts to adapt to their new visitor.
At first, Yusa seems completely unsure and apprehensive about having a man in her life again, throughout the film she prattles on with her girlfriends about how useless men and husbands are, but this low opinion of the male species is mainly rooted in her bitter experiences with her husband whose passive-aggressive method of keeping Yusa home led to their eventual divorce. And at first, Kajima fits the ultra conservative masculine mould as he parrots age-old conventions like  “a person should know their boundaries” and “a woman should maintain the household while the man goes out and earns” yet these lines are repeated not out of any real conviction to antiquated ideals. As the story progresses we find out that Kajima is a man hungry for a purpose. Back in his time he may have had the rights and title of a samurai, but he did nothing to earn that position.  My pretentious cinephile brain read this as the director commenting on the meaninglessness of patriarchal authority in most cultures today. Finding himself in the 21st Century though, Kajima discovers his purpose through the most unlikely arena that a warrior could excel at, pastry chef. In turn, it's through the art of baking that Kajima not only finds a job, but becomes a stable pillar for Yusa and Tomoya to lean on.
With the well-earned reputation as a journeyman director Nakamura peppers his film with plenty of sad and sweet moments to make the audience laugh and cry, but he earns these moments by showing that there is no such thing as a “perfect family”. In this day and age, dysfunction, in one form or another, is part and parcel to many domestic situations and Nakamura shows us with A Boy and His Samurai that whether you are a success or failure, it is far better to go through life with somebody by your side. Just as a chef is dependent on the hungry mouths that he must feed, a true man is measured not in how much “rice” he brings back home, but how much compassion and care he shows to the people he calls family.
Continuing on this streak of dysfunctional families, Noboru Iguchi’s Karate-Robo Zaborgar (2011) is like a fever induced sex fantasy which quickly derails into a very  weird nightmare. Flying heads, vicious raptors which burst forth from women’s breasts and lips which suck the very essence from a man’s body all contribute to making Sushi Typhoon possibly the only company currently to bridge the gap between nostalgic camp and low art.
The film’s protagonist Daimon (Yasuhisa Furuhara) is like a Japanese Batman having lost his mother during childbirth, brother to ingesting man-milk, and father to a wheelchair bound evil super-scientist. Motivated by revenge, Daimon fights the evil Dr. Akunomiya (Akira Emoto) with the help of his faithful robot/motorcycle Zaborgar, but of course all boys must grow up and learn of the real world.  For our helmeted hero, maturity is brought about through the form of a scantily clad woman, Miss Borg (Mami Yamasaki), who seduces Daimon with a confusing mix of pain and pleasure resulting in a pregnant Miss Borg and a jealous Zaborgar who kills himself instead of letting Daimon cross over to the dark side.
Iguchi then teleports us twenty-five years later to a middle-aged and diabetic Daimon (played by the respected actor Itsuji Itao)  struggling to find his place in a world devoid of heroes. Akunomiya and his cybernetic minions hunt and kill with impunity and no one seems to care. It is only when Daimon is reunited with his schizophrenic daughter that his heroic spark is lit again, making Karate-Robo Zaborgar just as much of a family drama as Yoshihiro Nakamura’s film. In fact, a more appropriate title for the film could have been A Boy and His Robot since, in between the scenes of ultra-violence and crude sex humor, we are really watching the story of a lonely young man trying, but not quite succeeding in finding a family that will love him. Sadly, like all comic book heroes, Daimon is fated to walk, or to be more specific ride, through this world alone.
The final film I caught was the world premiere of Takashi Miike’s Ninja Kids!!! (2011).  Marketed as a Harry Potter film for people who have an aversion to boy wizards I highly doubt Harry could go toe to toe with any of the first graders in the film’s eponymous Ninja Academy, since throwing stars and katana’s beat magic wands any day of the week. Adapted, just as Iguchi’s Karate-Robo Zaborgar was from a popular television show, Miike takes the kiddie material and beefs it up with scenes of spastic violence. The film’s child star Seishiro Kato plays Nintama Rantaro, the son of a lowly ninja family. Th film begins just as Rantaro is about to leave home for his first day at the academy, during which he is told sternly by his mother to not come back until his training is over. The boy, aware of the seriousness of her words, nods, and then quickly makes his way through beautiful meadows dotted with Jizo statues, bustling towns, and samurai battles in the middle of ancient riverbeds. To say that I was floored by the film’s visual beauty and laughed my ass off throughout the film’s runtime would be an understatement.
To try and explain the plot would be pointless since the pleasures gotten from Miike’s film come mainly from the never-ending supply of sight gags and physical comedy that he throws at the audience like throwing stars. In between the story and the jokes, Miike indulges his audience in ninja trivia. Do you wanna know the various types of paraphernalia and techniques used by shinobi, like the various types of explosives used to disable an oncoming onslaught of enemies? Well, you’re in luck because Miike stops the film dead in its tracks to explain all sorts of mundane facts to the viewer. In fact, as I watched Ninja Kids!!! I couldn’t help thinking that the band of warriors in Miike’s earlier 13 Assassins (2010) could have used the expertise of the instructors at the Ninja Academy as they took down the cruel Lord Naritsugu.
Although the cast consists mainly of children and the violence is cartoonish at best, with characters getting bashed in the face and then quickly getting back up, Miike never lets you forget that these boys are engaging in brutal bloodsports. You may laugh at the violence on the screen, but you do cringe as you hear bones crack and witness flesh being cut or bruised since the next attack may mean the last time we see any of these boys alive again. Thus, Miike’s film is in the style of a very colorful and gaudy Grimm's fairy tale rather than the typical Disney-fied kid’s pictures playing at your local multiplex.
These three Japanese films directed by well-established genre filmmakers are products of a commercial film industry that has been around just as long any in the West, and yet unlike their Hollywood counterparts, these directors have consistently challenged convention and have proven to the naysayers of these films that a “family picture” need not talk down to its audience.  Children’s entertainment can be fun and wholesome as well, even if they don’t always have the prerequisite Hollywood-style happy ending.
You still have a chance to see two of the three films featured in this article!  Karate-Robo Zaborgar will be shown at the Walter Reade Theater on Tuesday , July 5th at 8:45 PM.  For tickets, visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s NYAFF website here.  Ninja Kids!!! will be shown as a NYAFF/Japan Cuts co-screening at the Japan Society on Saturday, July 9th at 6:00 PM.  For tickets, visit the Japan Society website here.

(Originally published on July 4, 2011 at VCinema Show Podcast and Blog.)

The Fourth Portrait (2010)

In celebration of the Centennial of the Republic of China, the Walter Reade Theater hosts a rare panorama of the ever-surprising Taiwanese Cinema - from the intimate looks at daily life in the early 1960s, to the breathtaking new wave of filmmakers that arose in the 1980s (such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang), and on to the fresh turning point marked by recent Taiwanese hits.
Presently, Taiwan's film industry is enjoying what many are calling a "Golden Transition Period". What this ultimately translates to is that although Taiwanese films can compete in the global market, mainly through the aid of co-productions, the filmmaker is at the mercy of their financiers. Filmmakers can receive government funding in order to make and distribute their films, but the maximum amount of aid provided covers only a third of the overall budget. The other two-thirds become the personal responsibility of the director and their executive producer. To add further strain on an already complicated system, once filmmakers collect their government funding, they are then obligated to finish and release the film, whether or not that means financially bankrupting themselves to get it done. Thus, unlike other regional cinemas, where there is a somewhat clear division between mainstream and independent films, in Taiwan every working director is an indie filmmaker since they are all in a never-ending search for completion funds.
To offset these difficulties, Taiwanese filmmakers have resorted to guerilla tactics. Many  have adopted the aesthetics of digital filmmaking and developed small, close-knit crews who operate on a very low budget with oftentimes simple equipment. As a result, the documentary has been a very important genre in Taiwanese cinema since the lifting of Martial Law in 1987. This is bolstered by the fact that there are several film festivals and even a channel, PTC (Public Television Channel), on which to view these works.
Besides that option, the second route a filmmaker can take is by catering to the audience. Although Hollywood movies have 95% of the Taiwanese market share and various other media outlets constantly wrestle for the audience's attention, a savvy enough studio with the right kind in packaging, e.g. front-loading the film with bankable stars, big budget spectacles or playing to mainstream trends, just as Wei Tei-Sheng's populist melodrama Cape No. 7 (Hai Jiao Qi Hao, 2008review here) and Doze Niu's gangster film Monga (2010review here) have done.
Standing firmly in-between these two poles is Chung Mong-Hong, a director who has been billed as a promising new voice in Taiwanese cinema. He is a disciple of Hou Hsiao-Hsien in more ways than just style and philosophy. Chung's first experience with the Taiwanese New Wave goes all the way back to the mid-80s when he took his girlfriend to a local theater to catch Edward Yang's Qing Mei Zhu Ma (Taipei Story, 1985and was amused to find that only one other person was present for the film's screening, a man who didn't even bother to wait until the end of the first act before making a quick exit out of the theater. This intersection between Chung's personal and professional life would take an even odder turn years later when Hou Hsiao-Hsien's mother-in-law, most likely a connection made due to all of the director's work in commercials, offered to put up the money to purchase a home for Chung and his family. The fledgling director not wanting to pass up such a once in a lifetime opportunity took the money but invested it not on a home mortgage but on his first feature, Ting Che (Parking, 2008; review here), a favorite on the festival circuit.
Building upon the momentum gained from his debut, Chung quickly went to work on The Fourth Portrait (2010) taking the aesthetics of the art film and blending them with the conventions of the family melodrama. The bleak interior drama revolves around ten year old Chu Wen-hsiang (Bi Xiao-Hai) who is forced back into his mother's care after his father dies in the film's opening. Living with his mother, played by Hao Lei, and her new husband, Leon Dai, Chu struggles to get accustomed to his new life, but the past and a missing older brother keep Chu from having anything even remotely like a normal childhood.
During the Conference on Taiwanese Cinema held at the Walter Reade Theater, when the group panel was asked about the defining traits of the Post-New Wave directors several important points were made. The first was that directors like Chung Mong-Hong are constantly asking themselves and their audience, be they Taiwanese or foreign, "What is the local?" Especially since many recent films coming out of Taiwan are co-productions, utilizing popular genres and themes to bring the local film industry back from the brink of oblivion, it is just as important to cater to the international as well as the domestic market if a filmmaker wants to continue their directing career. Just as Chung's film does by blurring genre boundaries by having had a sprinkle of art house melodrama with a pinch of psychological horror, ghost story, coming-of-age fable and social realism, there is something for every film fan to gravitate towards. Of course, it is this specific characteristic that have many critics labeling Chung's sophomore effort as directionless. Though that criticism is a valid one, especially in regards to The Fourth Portrait's anti-climactic ending, it is unfair to put a work down just because of narrative excess.
The Fourth Portrait works best as a mood piece. Adopting a somewhat episodic structure, Chung's feature is really more of a series of vignettes. Nagao Nakashima, the film's cinematographer, carefully coordinates each scene in the film around a specific color palette, i.e. yellow to mark Wen-hsiang's life with his grandfather, blue to represent death, and gaudy neon for the club scenes with the mother. Chung and Nagao's careful attention to the film's  visual aesthetics contribute to enveloping the viewer in the harsh reality of Wen-hsiang's life. The images and scenes that are conjured up on screen are at once beautiful and melancholic. Chung's film shows a little boy born into a broken family, punished for sins he never committed and ultimately doomed to a hardscrabble life. Offering no solutions or happy endings The Fourth Portrait does away with the false optimism of the healthy realist dramas of the 50s and 60s, dabbling in melodrama it evoked the work of Taiwanese directors in the 1970s and its documentary-like eye to detail evokes the art-house work of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang. With only two films under his belt, Chung Mong-Hong has rightfully carved a niche for himself in Taiwan's burgeoning film scene and stands on the shoulders of many important artists and innovators in the industry.

(Originally published on June 16, 2011 at VCinema Show Podcast and Blog.)

Story of Mother (1972)

In celebration of the Centennial of the Republic of China, the Walter Reade Theater hosts a rare panorama of the ever-surprising Taiwanese Cinema - from the intimate looks at daily life in the early 1960s, to the breathtaking new wave of filmmakers that arose in the 1980s (such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang), and on to the fresh turning point marked by recent Taiwanese hits.
Song Cunshou's Mu Qin San Shi Sui (Story of Mother, 1972) unapologetically embraces all the conventions of the family melodrama.  Though you might laugh at all the contrivances in the story, its unironic approach to the neverending conflict between parents and children makes it worthy of any discerning cinephile's attention. Although the most popular export of Asian cinema during Story of Mother's release was the wuxia, exemplified by King Hu's Xai Nu (A Touch of Zen, 1969), or the kung fu films of action superstar Bruce Lee the melodrama is a genre which has never lost its homegrown staying power in Taiwan.
Diving right into the action, the film opens with a young boy on his bike, chasing after a woman riding in a pedicab and then going inside a nondescript house. We follow the boy as he sneaks through the bushes and gasp along with him as he discovers the woman in bed, post-coitus, with a man. That boy will grow up to be Qingmao (Chin Han), an overachieving student with serious mother issues.  And that woman, Qingmao's mother, will suffer through an endless cycle of abusive men, feckless sons, and judgmental mothers. As one can tell from my terse plot description, Song Cunshou's film doesn't reinvent the wheel in regards to the family melodrama.  But like a good Douglas Sirk weepy from the 1950s, the film might initially make you snicker at the bigger than life situations being played on the screen, but all of the cheesy dialogue, Freudian symbolism, and rack focus shots all add up to something.  In short, style is substance.
To get a better understanding of why Story of Mother is such an important film within the larger picture of Taiwanese cinema, you have to look at the events occurring around the time of its production and release.  By the end of the 1960s, the country's rapid steps towards modernization had resulted in a commitment to providing a solid education system, opening its domestic markets to foreign competition, and investing in homegrown industries. These hard won victories in turn allowed Taiwan's burgeoning film industry to create a national cinema. The first steps of which required the move away from the sermonizing of the "healthy realism" pictures of the 1950s and early 1960s, exemplified by Li Xing's Our Neighbors (Jietou Xiangwei, 1963, review here), to  more commercially viable genres, specifically the kung-fu/wuxia pictures, which were a popular sell to foreign film distributors.
Within this very cosmopolitan milieu stood Song Cunshou, an integral figure in Taiwanese cinema whose reputation rests on a series of controversial melodramas that he directed in the 1970s. From what little information there is available in English, Song Cunshou is mostly famous for giving Chinese cinematic icon Brigitte Lin her first breakthrough role in his racy 1972 feature Outside the Window (Chuang Wai) which depicts the very taboo relationship between a high school student and her teacher. Responding to the political and economic changes occurring within Taiwan at the time, Song's melodramas are devoid of the blind optimism typical of films in the "healthy realism" vein and although they employ emotionally cloying dramatic techniques, his films are a precursor to the Taiwanese New Wave in the way that they embraced realism, sympathetically portrayed everyday life, and addressed never-before challenged beliefs and traditions.
As the film's title clearly states, the central crux of the narrative lies with Qingmao's mother, played by Lee Seung. She initially comes off as a caricature: a selfish she-devil who abandons her sick husband and small children to be with her portly lover (Kon Tak-Mun).  However, we soon learn in the second act that her character is not as cut and dry. Lee's performance upturns age-old Confucian tradition and eschews simplistic madonna-whore categorizing through her portrayal of a headstrong woman with very real passions and desires. Thus, although it may seem at first like Song's film is espousing antiquated notions of femininity, one female character going so far as to state that "once a woman becomes a mother she can no longer be called a woman anymore",  Story of Mother is really more of a subversive jab at Taiwanese tradition and social custom.
Qingmao may have been the epitome of filial piety and obedience to Taiwanese audiences back then, but he is also guilty of cruelty, arrogance, and hypocrisy. Although he condemns his mother for abandoning her family, Qingmao does the exact same thing to his siblings as soon as his father dies, leaving his small hometown to live in cosmopolitan Taipei with his aunt and uncle. As a young man, his mood swings leave his family and girlfriend constantly flabbergasted at his hot-and-cold behavior and not to mention his borderline misogynistic belief that all women are like his "licentious" mother.  The latter reveals more about his own narrow-minded thinking than it does about his own mother's failings. Thus, although we may start off condemning the mother in the title, by the final reel we find the "villain" of Song's film really to be the filial son who we ironically sympathized with at the beginning of the picture.
Although Story of Mother can be seen as an attack on antiquated traditional beliefs, it is also wary of the modernization rapidly occurring in Taiwan then and now. The quaintness of Qingmao's hometown with its bicycle traffic and friendly pedicab drivers stands in contrast with the aggressive metallic behemoths of Taipei's cars, buses, and trains which clog the soundtrack. Beyond that, Song utilizes a clever little film in-joke by using Italian composer Ennio Morricone's score from Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (C'era una volta il West, 1968), a picture which not only had a female lead with a sexually promiscuous past, but also utilized the locomotive as a symbol of modernity.
Like many real-life family dramas, the conflict between Qingmao and his mother is never resolved. Old wounds may have scabbed over, but they will leave everlasting emotional scars for all those caught in the middle of the conflict. Though it is difficult to assess a director solely after viewing only one out at least 23 films that he's directed, Story of Mother is integral to the overall discussion of Taiwanese cinema because it stands at the crossroads of Taiwan's own history. Chiang Kai-shek would die a couple of years after the films release, martial law would end in less than 15 years after that, and the little island on the Pacific would go from being a Chinese territory and former Japanese colony to its own state. Having outgrown many of its antiquated ideals, Taiwan was still in search of a new system to fit its new modern look that its sons and mothers had inherited.

(Originally published on June 10, 2011 at VCinema Show Podcast and Blog.)

Monga (2010)

In celebration of the Centennial of the Republic of China, the Walter Reade Theater hosts a rare panorama of the ever-surprising Taiwanese Cinema - from the intimate looks at daily life in the early 1960s, to the breathtaking new wave of filmmakers that arose in the 1980s (such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang), and on to the fresh turning point marked by recent Taiwanese hits.
It all began with a chicken leg. The start of a close brotherhood, a makeshift family for a young man who never had one and the subsequent bloody downfall all stem from an arrogant punk, Dog Boy (Han-Tien Chen), taking the wrong kid's lunch.
Getting his start in the entertainment business by starring in a series of critically acclaimed films directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien, Doze Niu eventually made a complete break from acting, started his own production company, Red Bean Production Co, and fully committed himself to directing. His debut, What on Earth Have I Done Wrong?! (Qing Fei De Yi Zhi Sheng Cun Zhi Dao, 2007), garnered the actor-director a lot of critical acclaim, winning a Golden Horse award for best film as well as a FIPRESCI Prize. For his sophomore film, Niu mines his own life and the tropes of a universally loved genre, the gangster picture, to create an enjoyable 141 minute film.
Titled after one of the oldest districts in Taipei, Monga (2010) is set in the mid-1980s and has as its central core the theme of brotherhood and loyalty. Mosquito (Mark Chao) finding no other way to survive high school ends up joining the "Gang of Princes", a motley crew of street urchins who are more of a tight-knit boys club than a gang. They engage in the occasional street rumble but because the gang's mullet-haired leader, Dragon Lee (Rhydian Vaughan), is the son of Geta (Ma Zu-Long), one of Taipei's most respected underworld kingpins, trouble tends to vanish into the ether. Mostly, these bored young men spend their days drinking, riding their motorcycles around town, and spending the few bits of cash they have on girls or in the local brothel.
Of course, just as in every coming-of-age gangster picture these five friends will eventually turn against one another. Be it for reasons of money, power, or the age-old standby, familial vendetta, ultimately good friends will reveal themselves to be like coiled vipers ready to strike at the first signs of weakness and bitter enemies will turn out to be surprising allies. Unlike American gangster pictures which usually hinge on a rise-and-fall narrative, e.g. Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990), or Japanese yakuza eiga which have at the center of the drama the conflict between giri and ninjo, e.g. Kinji Fukasaku's Jingi Naki Tatakai (Battles Without Honor and Humanity, 1973-1974) series, Doze's film is predominantly concerned with the illusory nature of loyalty and brotherhood. The gang's formation was born primarily out of a need to survive and the bonds between each member are strengthened or weakened depending on who stands at the top of the totem pole.
Monk (Ethan Ruan), the clear alpha male in the group, gladly takes a beating to protect his brothers from further reprisals, but his blind loyalty quickly evaporates upon discovering that his own father, a rising figure in the criminal underworld during his time, was forced to capitulate to gang politics, relinquish control over to Monk's current boss, Geta, and had one of his arms chopped off by him as punishment. When the choice is presented to these eager young men, brotherhood or power, the latter is of far greater importance to one's survival than the former.
However, Doze doesn't just mine the gangster film to entertain his audience; there is squeezed into Monga an extended training sequence which is clearly lifted from any number of 70s-era wuxia. The boys train in traditional martial arts, including a mastery in several forms of of weaponry, and to round it all up, Geta shows up towards the end of the training montage to espouse his philosophy on the purity of fighting with one's fists and the dishonor in even thinking about picking up a gun.
Although a few minutes too long, Doze Niu's Monga is an entertaining masculine drama. It has all the requisite ingredients for a successful gangster picture and even throws in a romantic subplot and bits of family drama into the mix. It treads familiar narrative grounds, but the film isn't merely a parade of pretty faces parroting lines from a script. Ma Zu-Long and Doze Niu himself, playing the mysterious Grey Wolf, should be specifically commended since both men could convey through just a stare a lifetime's worth of regret and sorrow. Watching the film I was reminded of Edward G. Robinson's gangster roles whenever Geta ambled onto the screen and Grey Wolf was, in my opinion, channeling Paul Muni whenever he languorously took a drag of his cigarette or the handful of scenes in which he talked. The classic age of the gangster film may be over, but Monga proves that its influence has crossed the boundaries of time and culture.

(Originally published on June 8, 2011 at VCinema Show Podcast and Blog.)

Cape No. 7 (2008)

In celebration of the Centennial of the Republic of China, the Walter Reade Theater hosts a rare panorama of the ever-surprising Taiwanese Cinema - from the intimate looks at daily life in the early 1960s, to the breathtaking new wave of filmmakers that arose in the 1980s (such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang), and on to the fresh turning point marked by recent Taiwanese hits.
Wei Tei-Sheng's Cape No. 7 (Hai Jiao Qi Hao, 2008) has the reputation of not only being a blockbuster success in Taiwan, becoming the 2nd top grossing film in the country, second only to Titanic (1997), and in the process grossing over 5 billion Taiwanese dollars, but it also has the lofty distinction of revitalizing the once dead Taiwanese film market. As the filmmaker Shen Ko-shang stated during the May 7th Conference on Taiwanese Cinema held at the Walter Reade Theatre, at the start of the 2000s, the Taiwanese film industry was ostensibly dead, leaving many recently graduated film students scurrying like ants as their once lofty ideals were quickly brought down to earth with the burden of not only finding funding for their films but also money to pay the rent. These confusing times were made more complicated by the fact that the stories and values that they wanted to project on screen ran counterpoint to contemporary audience tastes. Basically, if  a filmmaker wanted to keep making films in Taiwan there really was only one of three routes they could take: commercials, music videos, or documentaries. And yet even in these not-so-halcyon days, there was a glimmer of hope.
It is often said that from severe restrictions, be it social, financial, or technological, can come great art and though Cape No. 7's place in the film canon may not be assured, it is the culmination of a lot of the upheavals going on in the industry during that time, which made not only its eventual popularity but also its completion and eventual theatrical release such a miracle. The biggest change in Taiwan's film industry during the noughts was that there was a conscious moving away from thinking of the medium of film as an art, exemplified by the works of Hou Hsiao-Hsien or Edward Yang, to now looking at film as more of a commodity to be sold in as many foreign markets as possible. This new agenda gave way to several co-productions and though filmmakers themselves began to look outside of Taiwan for inspiration, it is still being heavily debated if this boon in viewership and increase in the amount of films produced per year was well worth the cost of many film artist's ideals.
Although Cape No. 7 is considered a contemporary box office, hit the film belongs to a genre which has a long history of popularity in Taiwanese culture not just in film but also in literature, theater, and television. The melodrama, as film critic and programmer Wen Tien-hsiang put it, is a genre having reached its apotheosis in the 1970's alongside the martial arts/kung-fu genre and is replete with characters who "talk about nothing" and also involve " a lot of self pity." However, even though Wei Tei-Sheng's film fits these conditions to a tee, there is far more to the film than meets the bleary eyed gaze of the Asian cinema fan.
First of all, there is the entrenched longing to return to an idealized past that runs throughout a majority of the film's runtime.  In fact, the film's b-plot is the story of a native Taiwanese woman being reunited with the love letters her recently departed Japanese lover was too scared to send her during the immediate Postwar period. These flashbacks to that era are shot in a very glossy style, reminiscent of a classic MGM romantic melodrama. Through voice-over monologues we hear her phantom Japanese lover recount his sorrow and regret not only to his Taiwanese girlfriend, Tomoko, but to us, the audience, as well. And, of course, like any true melodrama, these scenes have the conventional weepy melancholic score running almost on auto-pilot.
This vein of nostalgia present throughout every scene in Sheng's film can be boiled down to two concurrent conflicts within the story. The first is the classic generational conflict between young and old. Hengchun, the town where the story takes place, is a seaside town which has seen better days. Young men are in a constant flux, migrating away to cities like Taipei with dreams of "making it big" and local industries like fishing and farming have now been replaced with tourism as the main source of income for the town. The town's governing body, populated by old men, fight any outsiders who threaten to invade their town, which I think can be read as a comment on Taiwan's long colonial history starting with Japan and then through the large influx of Chinese from the mainland coming into the country after 1949.
This second conflict, native Taiwanese versus Chinese/Japanese transplants, is a complicated issue to address in Sheng's film. With the stress of having to not only recoup expenses but also turn a profit for his financial backers it's difficult to sort out what in the film was an "artistic" choice and  what was included to attract a more global audience. Rock music, American pop culture, J-Pop singers, a multilingual cast, a female lead, Chie Tanaka, who plays a character of mixed Japanese and Chinese descent, and an A-story that relies on the tired Western plot convention of an entire town scrambling to making the needed preparations for the arrival of a big name star are all ingredients put in to make Cape No. 7 as globally palatable, assuring the film's distribution in as many foreign markets as possible. And even the central dramatic conflict in Sheng's film does little to rewrite the rules of the romantic melodrama by having Hengchun's Town Council Representative, played by Ju-Lung Ma, use his position to stop the concert unless the promoters hire a local group to be the opening band. The perfect segue for the poet/artist  Aga (Van Fan), a failed musician living back home, to be conscripted into hastily assembling a band and writing two new songs before J-Pop star Kousuke Atari arrives.
A major factor, I believe, in Cape No. 7's popularity though came not only because of a conscious decision to have a multi-ethnic cast or shooting in beautiful locales but because of Wei Tei-Sheng's move towards exoticism. Populating his film not only with Mainlanders, Japanese, Australian and every skintone under the sun, Sheng also casts various Taiwanese minorities. Although the Hoklo, Hakka, and Rukai tribes all have prominent representation in the film, it is in the role of the "other". Reminiscent of the West's portrayal of Native Americans as the "noble savage", Sheng paints these indigenous groups as simple, living their quaint small town livesm and also intrinsically connected to an ancient traditional past, thus playing into age-old cliches of the purity of the rural and the corrupting effects  of the modern world. Also, a tangential issue that is brought up several times in Cape No. 7 is the division between "real Taiwanese" and foreign born transplants. Hong Kuo-jung, Aga's step-father, constantly voicing his complaints about Mainlanders invading the town and taking away jobs from locals or the recurrent gag of Tomoko (Chie Tanaka) being unable to speak/understand the town's regional dialect are just some examples of just how divided Taiwan is even as it is rapidly becoming a major financial force.  The alcohol salesman (Ma Nien-hsien)  who peddles Malasun, a cheap rice wine marketed as an ancient "aboriginal" drink, the beaded trinkets which become important totem objects for each band member, and the conflict between the older generation of musicians who only know how to play traditional instruments like the yueqin ,but still want a stage to showcase their abilities all offer audiences a pseudo-anthropology lesson into Taiwanese culture couched in-between the melodramatic love story playing before their eyes.
Of course, the love story is the film's main attractions. Aga and Tomoko are fated to end up together before the end credits roll and the long protracted scenes where they fight, quarrel, cry, have sex, make up, and finally express there true feelings for each other are all abundantly there to irritate or enrapture the viewer. Aga, tanned and sporting a musician's goat tee, is the quintessential portrait of a brooding poet/musician and Chie Tanaka's  sympathetic portrayal of shrill and emotional Tomoko all conform to the mandates of schmaltzy Asian dramas one can find playing on TV or ViKi.
Beyond the love story, the other big draw for audiences is the film's soundtrack. Incorporating love ballads, aboriginal folk tunes, inoffensive rock songs and romantic poetry, it's not really a leap to find the soundtrack to be so popular. Releasing a soundtrack recording becomes just another form of branding; fans of the film will buy the CD to prove their loyalty to the Cape No. 7 brand.  Even the actress Chie Tanaka, because of the film's popularity, now concentrates all her attention in Taiwan, all due to the established fanbase that grew from working on Wei Tei-Sheng's film.
Though admired more for its financial success rather than its artistic accomplishmentsm Cape No. 7 did something that the whole Taiwanese New Wave movement could never do: it guaranteed a future for the Taiwanese film industry. Although the works of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, and Edward Yang will always be held in high regard by cinephiles, all that admiration does not mean a boost in ticket sales. The move towards more streamlined Hollywood productions may mean a more homogenous product, but it does not mean that the film artist has vanished in Taiwan.  Instead, filmmakers now must find a way to market themselves as well as their films.

(Originally published on June 7, 2011 at VCinema Show Podcast and Blog.)

The Peach Blossom Land (1992)

In celebration of the Centennial of the Republic of China, the Walter Reade Theater hosts a rare panorama of the ever-surprising Taiwanese Cinema - from the intimate looks at daily life in the early 1960s, to the breathtaking new wave of filmmakers that arose in the 1980s (such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang), and on to the fresh turning point marked by recent Taiwanese hits.
The only thing I knew before sitting down to watch Stan Lai's The Peach Blossom Land (Anlian Taohua Yuan, 1992was that Christopher Doyle was the film's cinematographer, Brigitte Lin had a starring role and that Stan Lai, the film's writer/director, had an equally impressive stage career. Beyond that I was clueless as to what to expect from Lai's debut as a filmmaker. Although the film is a transposition of Lai's most famous stage play for the screen, it would be an egregious mistake to assume that The Peach Blossom Land is merely a filmed stage play.
Begun as a series of sketches by Performance Workshop, a renowned Taiwanese theater troupe, Secret Love for the Peach Blossom Spring premiered in Taipei in 1986 with such critical fanfare that, in 2007, it was chosen as one of the top ten Chinese plays of the century. Taking the simple premise of two stage productions attempting to rehearse in the same theater space, Lai's film takes the inherent comedy of the situation and imbues it with an equal part of nostalgic melancholy to create a very wry commentary about the displaced Chinese residents in Taiwan who still long to return back home.
The play was written in the mid-1980s and premiered a year before the end of martial law in 1987, a time when Taiwan's political relationship with mainland China improved to the point that tourism to and from these countries was possible for the average citizen.  Questions of identity were on the minds of not just politicians, but also writers, filmmakers, and artists. The mashing up of two plays, the melodramatic Secret Love and the fabulist The Peach Blossom Land, was a genius move by Lai since melodrama and mythology share many of the same characteristics: both employ exaggerated plots and characters, their enjoyment depends on at least a basic understating of social and cultural customs/history, and both genres are rooted in a longing for an idealized past.
Secret Love has at its center the story of Yun Zhifan (Brigitte Lin) and Jiang Bingliu (Chin Shih-Chieh) two college students who are separated first by a World War and then the political strife brewing between Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-Shek. Both independently find themselves making the sojourn to Taiwan in the 1950s to escape the repressive Communist government, but it takes another 30 years before they are reunited again. In stark contrast, the production for The Peach Blossom Land is a baroque absurdist comedy about the cuckolded fisherman Old Tao (Lee Li-Chun) who upon getting lost in a storm washes up in the eponymously named Peach Blossom Land, an Edenic paradise, and lives there for several years with a married couple, played by Ismene Ting Nai-Zang and Gu Bao-Ming, who look exactly like the wife and scheming landlord he left behind. Though he loves his new life nostalgia brings him back to his old hometown but upon his arrival he is mistaken for a ghost and the family he left behind cannot accept his return nor can they believe his stories about the land of Peach Blossoms.
These two differing tales share the common theme best exemplified by a quote from American author Thomas Wolfe:
You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time-back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.
The two male protagonists in Secret Love and The Peach Blossom Land are torn away from their respective homes, Jiang Bingliu by the winds of political change and Old Tao by the literal winds of a storm, and though they find themselves in a foreign land they refuse the opportunity to build a new life there. Bingliu on his deathbed clings onto the past and even though his college love Yun Zhifan has obviously moved on, having married and had kids just as Bingliu had done, he clings onto the memory of their last night together. The repetition of this one night is repeated over and over again throughout Lai's film, the narrative reason being the actors are rehearsing the scene in an attempt to please the director, but thematically it can be read as a comment on the displaced Chinese who are stuck in their own memory-loops hoping that they can make sense of the traumatic events in Chinese history which they had no part in, but were still greatly effected by.
Old Tao's story, though more rooted in comedy, repeats this same sentiment but Lai adds a twist in his illustrating the inhabitants of the Peach Blossom Land, which obviously represents Taiwan, being completely ignorant of their past and what lies outside their borders. Tao's anxiety and reason for leaving then is his attempt at engaging the world, but because he has been absent for so long he is thought of as a ghost. Just as Taiwan, whose presence on the world stage was always that of a colony, first by the Dutch, then the Chinese, followed by the Japanese and finally being controlled by the Kuomintang regime. With no formal identity, Taiwan really was like a mythological place, spoken about but always in relation to whatever country was governing it.
Beyond the complicated issues the film raises, the film's aesthetic look is another topic for discussion. Unlike his work with Wong Kar-Wai, Christopher Doyle's camerawork is far more reserved in The Peach Blossom Land. Keeping his camera stationary for most of the film's runtime, save for a few tracking shots towards the end of the film, Doyle's invisible camerawork captures the actors and the stagehands as they attempt to function in such a limited space. Though the realistic stage design of Secret Love clashes with the bright gaudy colors of The Peach Blossom Land's sets they do eventually form a beautiful mess, dialogue, props, and characters blend together till you really can't decipher where one production ends and another one is attempting to start. An apt metaphor for Taiwan itself which, although finally an independent state, could not divorce itself from the influence of its past colonizers.

(Originally published on June 3, 2011 at VCinema Show Podcast and Blog.)

Our Neighbors (1963)

In celebration of the Centennial of the Republic of China, the Walter Reade Theater hosts a rare panorama of the ever-surprising Taiwanese Cinema - from the intimate looks at daily life in the early 1960s, to the breathtaking new wave of filmmakers that arose in the 1980s (such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang), and on to the fresh turning point marked by recent Taiwanese hits.
According to film scholar Wen Tien-Hsiang, during the Conference on Taiwanese Cinema held at the Walter Reade Theatre on May 7th, the Taiwanese film industry during the 1950's was a decade defined by propaganda pictures and sad melodramatic love stories. With the arrival of Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang army came a flood of equipment and trained personnel who wasted no time in creating resistance pictures which extolled two things: the cruelty of Mao's regime and the eventual collapse of the communist government which would finally allow the thousands of Chinese refugees in Taiwan to finally return to the Mainland.
By the start of the 1960s though these overt propaganda pictures gave way to more subtle works. The new generation of filmmakers were fueled less by patriotic fervor and were more interested in showcasing the daily lives of everyday people. Taking a cue from Italian Postwar cinema, this new genre became known as "healthy realism." Although this new type of film was willing to address serious social issues it handled them with kid gloves; approaching issues like poverty and crime in a naive and simplistic manner. This blind optimism towards many of the crippling ills of Taiwanese society was thought by many to be the best way to "fix" the problem. Basically, since film was a popular medium, especially during the pre-TV and internet era, then it was the best teaching tool for the masses. Obviously, the era of the propaganda picture had not fully died out yet in Taiwanese film but merely evolved into a far more sophisticated medium.
Li Xing's Our Neighbors (Jietou Xangwei, 1963) is a prime example of this new brand of healthy unrealism. Made at the start of the 1960s Li's film is a serious attempt to address the relationship between Mainlanders and Native Taiwanese but is completely undone by heavy moralizing and a reliance on cliches like "money corrupts" and the nobility of the poor, not to mention the fact that all the dialogue is in Mandarin and there isn't one substantial character of Native Taiwanese descent in the film. The only thing that Li's film has going for it is the technical virtuoso's working behind the camera. Chin-Ying Lai's chiaroscuro lighting and  free moving camera, especially when Li takes his crew out into the streets to do some on-location filming, or Lin Li's hyperactive score which shifts from jaunty jazz score to brassy rhumba and then a hard left into a weepy ballad  makes one wish that a better script could have been written for such talented artists.
Set in a studio-constructed slum, Li positons the main players of the drama living separately from Taipei itself. In fact, the film's opening narration goes out of its way to state that "The people who work here are without hatred. There is only love", giving the film a distinct fairy tale flavor. And, of course by the time we meet the ensemble players this "uplifting tale" quickly becomes so saccharine that only those with the most resilient of sweet tooths can manage to digest it all without wretching from all the sentimentalism.  There is the sick mother (Yu Hua Ho) and her daughter Pearl (Wan-Lin Lo), the pimp/gangster Wu Gen-Tsai (Ming Lei) and his hooker wife Miss Chu, a Mainland grandmother and her obedient grandson, and of course there is roly-poly garbage collector Shih San-Tai (Kuan-Chang Li) who, like all movie fat men, has a heart as big as his stomach.
No surprise to anyone whose seen more than one melodrama but Pearl's mother soon dies and San-Tai becomes surrogate father to little Pearl. And, for a timem all is well in the slum as Pearl and San-Tai become a family. The bliss is short-lived, though, when Pearl's teacher starts asking about her whereabouts.  It seems that while the filial Pearl was busy helping San-Tai collect garbage and maintain the household she completely neglected school. Poor San-Tai, not wanting to deprive sweet Pearl of an education, begins to work even harder to provide for her education.  The rest of Li's film is just a series of melodramatic catastrophe's as Pearl and San-Tai try to stay together as a family even as social, financial, and medical woes seem relentlessly bent on tearing them apart.
In between the De Sica-esque story of Pearl and San-Tai we get a peek into the lives of the other slum occupants as their stories intersect with Pearl and San-tai's. Though the only two which merit any substantial discussion, in my opinion, is the slum's head matriarch, the Mainland grandmother, and Miss Chu (Chuen Yu), the prostitute. Both women are ostensibly orphans; the grandmother having been forcefully separated from her son and beloved homeland due to the communist takeover and Miss Chu sold by her poor parents to a rich childless couple. Throughout the film, both women wax nostalgic of an idealized time and cling onto antiquated dreams; the grandmother believing that those left behing in her hometown will rebel and bring back Kai-Shek's old regime and Miss Chu who desires money and wealth so she can stop working the streets to support her gangster pimp husband. Neither woman achieves what they really want, but they do learn to live with what little they have left.  Although their stories suffer from cheap sentimentalism, Li ultimately does grant each woman a modicum of dignity through their quiet suffering, thus not just making their struggles melodramatic fodder to wring tears out from the audience's eyes.
Even though Our Neighbors gets high marks for the level of technical skill involved in its production, ultimately one leaves the theater feeling quite hollow after watching it. As Bernardo Bertolucci once said, "I don't film messages. I let the post office take care of those" and this should have been the sentiment that Li stood behind while making his film. As Taiwan's film artists embraced new movements and took greater risks the films themselves became more complicated and challenged well established social cliches, but as for Our Neighbors, its importance lies less on the artistic and more as a nostalgic look back to a constructed unreal past. By the time the eighties came about healthy realism was finally pushed aside for the social realist dramas of Taiwan's young turks, exemplified by Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang, and that is the legacy which should represent Taiwan's hallowed cinematic history.

(Originally published on June 2, 2011 at VCinema Show Podcast and Blog.)

Pinoy Sunday (2009)

Manuel and Dado are simple men. In fact, one could argue that they are simpletons. Part of the ever-increasing Philippine migrant worker community, not just in Taiwan but also all over Asia and the world, they live a lonely life apart from their friends and family back home.  The money they send back fuels a national economy that seems to have always had a dependence on foreign currency. During the day, they work blue-collar jobs at a bicycle factory, while at night they pass the time by flirting with women or drinking beer. The monotony and constant threat of deportation would drive anyone crazy, but the trade-off is not so bad. An overseas job means larger pay, which in turn allows these men and their families to enjoy simple luxuries like brand name toys for their children, nice clothes, and store-bought sushi. Many Filipinos would envy Manuel and Dado, but ironically all these men want to do is go back home.
Wi Ding Ho’s Pinoy Sunday (2009) is, in every sense of the word, a true pan-Asian production. Written and directed by a Malaysian director, shot in Taipei, starring Filipino actors, and funded by NHK and Les Petites Lumieres, the film stands as an example of globalization at its finest. And although the film takes on a serious social issue, the boon provided by guest workers from third world countries like the Philippines into more highly developed/economically stable nations like Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Europe, and the United States, the first time filmmaker never employs emotionally cloying techniques to gain some free publicity for his movie. Shot in a magic-realist vein, Ho and his cinematographer Jake Pollock take to the streets and although they utilize the daily bustle and noise of Taipei to add a certain depth of realism to the film, audiences should not mistake Pinoy Sunday for some sort of tourist romp. One of the most famous landmarks in the Taiwanese skyline, Taipei 101, formerly known as the Taipei World Financial Center, is reduced to a tiny dot. Ho and his crew, to ground the film in a familiar milieum, utilize a street level perspective, but they are never bogged down in capturing reality just for reality’s sake.
There are moments in the film when the narrative will just veer off into the realm of the fantastic, bordering on Jeunet-style comedic quirk, like during fantasy sequences in which each man imagines how awesome their lives will be once they bring their couch back home.  However, Wi and his co-screenwriter Ajay Balakrishnan restrain themselves from getting bogged down in tired gimmicks. Ultimately, what sells the entire cinematic affair are the two leads, Bayani Agbayani and Jeffrey Quizon (credited as Epy Quizon). Comedy superstars back home in the Philippines, it is a miracle that a first time director could lure these two men away from the cushy gig of TV variety show appearances and big budget film spectacles, especially since Epy Quizon is the son of Dolphy, the King of Filipino comedy, whose own film career stretches as far back as the 1940s. Neither man was starved for money or attention, yet their willingness to take a risk on Wi Ding Ho’s script and talent is a positive sign that Hollywood doesn’t have a complete monopoly in the Filipino film industry.
Taking a cue from such classic buddy duos like Martin and Lewis or Abbott and Costello, Bayani and Epy play country bumpkins with neither the brains to get ahead nor the ambition to achieve much more than a paycheck.  However, their simple desire to bring a red leather couch that they stumble upon in the street, abandoned by a young quarreling couple, back to their dorm humanizes these imbeciles from becoming just one-dimensional caricatures. Dado (Bayani Agbayani) is the pudgy realist, constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, and so weak-willed that he eventually abandons the couch of his dreams to make curfew. And though constantly worried about his wife and kids, he has no qualms about shacking up with another woman.  In Dado’s defense. the relationship was born out of a necessity to combat loneliness rather than true love. In stark contrast to Dado’s pragmatism. Manuel is a romantic dreamer.  Clothed in brightly colored t-shirts, tight pants, and sporting a tramp stamp, he spends the first half of the film trying to woo a barroom chanteuse, but when that fails he quickly devotes all his attention to dragging his beloved red couch back to his rooftop sanctuary.
Both men have made a lot of compromises to come and stay in Taiwan and though the script shows Dado and Manuel to ultimately be simple fools, Wi does not allow the Taiwanese to walk away unscathed either. Presenting the native population as cruel, xenophobic, and petty while the Filipino expat’s are na├»ve, polite to a fault, walking penises that are controlled by their urges is reminiscent of the age-old conflict between traditional societies and modernity. Manuel and Dado are strangers in a strange land who are really out of place in the city and though the trend has been to utilize progress as the main reason for globalization, a prime example being a pan-Asian production like Pinoy Sunday, Wi Ding Ho presents this headlong rush towards economic prosperity as the major factor in corrupting newly arrived third world immigrants and also the major cause in the emotional stagnation of its first world citizens.
Watching Manuel and Dado cart around their red leather couch through Taipei, it’s difficult not to root for them. Their success would be a reaffirmation of all they had abandoned, but ultimately we know better. Happiness doesn’t come from couches or the momentary pleasure that comes from store-bought hamburgers. It is an untenable state of mind, beautifully captured by Wi as both men, finally tired of trying to keep their fantasy literally afloat, give up. Finally allowed to enjoy their couch, Manuel and Dado toss back some beers, pull out a guitar and bongo drums, and begin to play. The upbeat lyrics and melancholic tune perfectly encapsulating both these men’s bittersweet failures. You can't help but hope that they sail away to parts unknown, finding happiness in their own lives someday.

(Originally published on May 18, 2011 at VCinema Show Podcast and Blog.)