Director: Chan Ching-lin 詹京霖
Studio: Greener Grass Productions 瀚草影視
Language: Mandarin 國語, Taiwanese 台語
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.