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.