Turn Around 老師,你會不會回來?(2017)


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.

Pigeon Tango 盜命師 (2017)


Director: Li Qiyuan 李啟源

Studio: Chi & Company

Language: Taiwanese 台語, Mandarin 國語

Genre: Thriller

Running Time: 107 minutes

Recommended. Good performances and interesting characters are always a solid combination.

In Southern Taiwan, Barbie 金芭比 eeks out an existence pole dancing on Taiwan’s infamous electric flower cars. Her abusive, drunkard boyfriend races pigeons, until one day his prize pigeon Tango goes missing. Enraged that he’ll be unable to pay his debts, he dies in a fatal car accident while Barbie is working.

At the scene of the crash, Barbie is approached by a mysterious man, who offers to buy her deceased boyfriend’s organs. Faced with being hounded by the loan sharks her boyfriend borrowed from, she reluctantly agrees. This is how she meets the quiet Malacca, who performs the operation.

Elsewhere, local gang leader Ronin  肉仁 hopes for a kidney donor for his ailing sister. But her blood type is rare, and the only match found — an autistic girl in his church — is not a relative and so cannot undergo a live transplant according to Taiwanese law.

Then he’s approached by veteran detective Yang Kaiming 陽開明, who has been searching for Malacca for many years. He has a plan to catch him, but who are they willing to sacrifice to get what they want?

We have to admit, when we saw the poster we weren’t optimistic about this film. We had in mind some low-budget horror tropes, but Pigeon Tango does a very good job of confounding those expectations. Indeed, despite the ominous look of the poster, the gore shown in the trailer below is the sum total in the film. The organ selling is but one part of the story, and arguably not even the main one. Thus we have a film who’s Chinese title 盜命師, Life Robber, is far removed from its English title Pigeon Tango, which refers very literally to the pigeon Barbie inherits from her deceased boyfriend.

Using animals as plot devices and metaphors is not unfamiliar territory for director Li, whose previous film, 2011’s Blowfish 河豚, used the titular fish in much the same way. In this case, Barbie’s pigeon is the link between her and Ronin, who happens to run the local pigeon racing club. We thought it worked well enough as a thread to link their stories together. One scene — where Malacca ends up feeding the boyfriend’s ashen remains to the pigeon by mistake — drew plenty of laughter, and was a very good example of the way the director used comedy sparingly to break up the long segments of tension building. It’s likely Li had a deeper meaning behind his decision to use pigeons in this film, but we’re not entirely clear what that might have been.

Despite the pigeon being effective in tying Barbie and Ronin’s stories together, overall the film still suffers from a narrative that is a little too large for its run time. There are a lot of interesting stories presented to us: Barbie, Ronin, Malacca, Detective Yang and Miu 貓丫are all characters that we were interested to know more about. Unfortunately, we are mostly just left guessing at details and motivations. At one point near the end, a rather large explanatory monologue is given by Yang, presumably as the director felt that the story was not clear enough. Whilst we had guessed at most of what was revealed from previous scenes, the fact it was needed at all is not a positive.

With that said, to craft a film with many interesting characters is something to be respected, even if they ultimately fall short of what they could be. This is aided by universally strong performances from the cast, with special mention to Hsiang Hsi 喜翔 as Ronin and Annie Chen 陳庭妮 as Barbie.

This is Li’s best work to date, and another good film to add to what is a growing list of quality releases coming from Taiwan in 2017.

Small Talk 日常對話 (2016)


Director: Huang Hui-chen 黃惠偵

Studio: Small Talk Productions

Language: Taiwanese 台語,Mandarin 國語

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 88 minutes

Recommended. A fantastic, emotional look into a mother and daughter’s relationship, revealed over a series of dialogues between the two.

Huang has always felt as though there’s a wall between herself and her mother. When she was young, she and her sister didn’t go to school, instead they helped their mother in her job as a priestess. At night, her mother would go out to meet friends, leaving her two children.

Now Huang has her own daughter, but her mother still lives with her. Things have changed little. Aside from the time she takes to cook, Huang’s mother still spends most of her time out with her friends.

In a documentary shot over more than a decade, Huang decides to find out the reasons behind the distance between them. But the truth will also force her to confront her own childhood memories, and her mother’s role in them.

Small Talk is a film which surprised us. Although it premiered last year to very favourable reviews, we had not taken the time to find out what the film was about, never having had the chance for one reason or another to see the film. However, by the time the opportunity to see the film came along, we had certainly had heard enough praise to know we should seize the chance.

The documentary can be split into two parts. The majority are the scenes shot following the birth of director Huang’s daughter, but there is also a large amount of material shot dating back to 1998, documenting many small moments of family life. According to the director, she had been recording this story for many years, but it was only after the birth of her daughter that she finally decided she had to put it all together to show the world.

It is a story that reaches into the very fundamental aspects of the human experience: love, family ties, societal expectations, and the depth that trauma can scar someone’s life.

Many of the documentary’s revelations about the lives of Huang and her mother take place at a table in her apartment, in a direct conversation between the two women. This incredibly private setting serves to emphasise the nature of this story, which in turn, can make it ever harder to watch some of the most emotional scenes. Yet they reveal such a remarkable story that you will do so.

Such a story cannot be properly served by a our words, but we will give a brief summary. Huang’s mother is gay, though she grew up in a time when there was not an acceptable life choice. She had two children with Huang’s father, in a loveless arranged marriage. He would gamble, drink and abuse her, and we later find out in one of the documentary’s most harrowing scenes, Huang. Her mother admits that if she ever had the choice, she’d have never gotten married and never had children. And yet, behind it all there it’s clear she does deeply love her children. But a lifetime of hiding, of bearing the “shame” of being beaten, and living a life branded a “deviant” have clearly worn deeply.

Although many families may not have a story quite as dramatic as Huang’s own, to us that is not the point of the film. It is rare, in any family, for people to truly peel back the layers behind the way we treat each other. Truly, every life is full of heartbreak and regrets. Imagine yourself sitting down with someone you love, and examining your relationship. What would you find?