Too Much Heaven, Part Four: Taiwan Film Days at the San Francisco Film Society
Taiwanese cinema has produced several world-class filmmakers, including Hou Hsaio-Hsien, Edward Yang, and Tsai Ming-Liang, but fans of those arthouse titans would be hard-pressed to recognize the current crop of Taiwanese films now popular on the island nation. Cape No. 7 (2008), the second-highest grossing film in Taiwan of all time (just behind Titanic), was a frothy, melodramatic little flick that nostalgically recalled the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (!), and Monga (2010), another recent blockbuster, had more in common with Hong Kong’s gangster movies than Hou or Yang’s thoughtful, epic dramas. Taiwan’s biggest box office hit this year, popular novelist Giddens Ko’s adaptation of his book, You Are The Apple Of My Eye, is a coming-of-age comedy that’s light years from earlier Taiwanese arthouse fare.
Taiwan Film Days, the upcoming three-day festival at the San Francisco Film Society which is now in its third year, reflects the recent upswing in Taiwan’s commercial film industry and showcases its wide range of moviemaking styles and themes. Opening night film Formosa Mambo (2011, dir. Wang Chi-tsai )bears no relation to Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Millenium Mambo, and in fact, other than its country of origin, is pretty much unrelated to the Taiwanese auteur in any way. A quirky and breezy movie that touches lightly on the Taipei underworld, the story follows several characters including a gang of incompetent kidnappers, an underemployed businessman running a popcorn chicken stand, and a group of shady entreprenuers involved in a telephone scam. After the kidnappers snatch a schoolkid various hijinks ensue, with the hapless gang attempting to collect ransom from the kid’s recalcitrant single mom, who can ill-afford the modest ransom. The film’s interlocking stories comment on fate and free will against a backdrop of modern-day Taiwan.
Ranger, (2010) a much darker gangster movie, closes the festival. Wen-Sheng, a convicted killer, is released from prison after 25 years and finds himself immediately re-enmeshed in the hard-knock life. A gritty and observational crime drama, Ranger is also a character study of a man seeking redemption after a wasted life. Director Chienn Hsiang makes good use of the mean streets of Taipei and the film’s handheld camerawork underscores the everyday brutality of Sheng’s woeful existence. Lead actor Wu Pong-fong effectively conveys the resilience of his worn down but not yet defeated character.
Honey Pu Pu (2011, dir. Chen Hung-i) presents a dreamy, visually imaginative view of Taiwanese society, following a group of young groovesters as they ramble the streets of Taipei apparently in search of the a totemic beehive. The screener DVD that I tried to view was alas very janky and I wasn’t able to watch the film in its entirety but the little I saw was engaging, full of pretty young art-student types blithely wandering through trippy, experimentally framed cityscapes.
Also notable at the festival are Giddens’ aforementioned hit film (although both screenings have gone to rush), as well as the intriguing documentary Taivalu (2011, dir. Huang Hsin-yao), which looks at the effect of climate change on the southern Taiwan city of Tainan, and Pinoy Sunday (2009, dir. Ho Wi-ding), a comedy that follows the travails of a pair of Filipino immigrants in Taipei. The festival opens with two screenings of Formosa Mambo sandwiching a reception and party.
Taiwan Film Days
October 14–16, 2011
San Francisco Film Society | New People Cinema
1746 Post Street, San Francisco, CA
Tickets and full schedule for Taiwan Film Days here.