Condemned Practice Mode 徐自強的練習題 (2017)


Director: Chi Yueh-chun 紀岳君

Studio: Broken Scene 斷境音像

Language: Mandarin 國語, Taiwanese 台語

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 95 minutes

Recommended. The story of one of Taiwan’s most infamous miscarriages of justice, and the fight to save someone from death row.

In 1995, a real estate agent named Huang Chun-shu 黃春樹 was kidnapped and then murdered in Taipei County (modern day New Taipei City). Police arrest Huang Chun-chi 春棋落 (no relation), who quickly fingers two accomplices — Chen Yi-lung 陳憶隆 and Hsu Tzu-chiang 徐自強. The other participants’ stories all agree that Hsu was the mastermind behind the operation.

After a period in hiding, Hsu voluntarily handed himself in, where he joined the others in being sentenced to death. But, was Hsu really involved?

Despite his relationship with the other conspirators, one of whom was his cousin, there are parts of the others stories which don’t add up. Then there’s the CCTV which proves he was elsewhere helping his mother when the murder took place.

Huang’s conviction was upheld in 2000. What followed was over a decade of appeals, retrials, and even a constitutional interpretation, before Hsu was released in 2012, and finally declared not guilty in 2016.

In Taiwan, the case of Hsu Tzu-chiang is one of the most famous post-democratisation examples of injustice, but it is unlikely that many outside the island have heard about it. This is no surprise; every country has their own cases. But that does not make Hsu’s case any less compelling.

A quiet man first shown in a state of despondency, the layers of Hsu and the people around him are slowly peeled back through the course of Condemned Practice Mode. Originally with little faith in justice or the people who try to help him, Hsu slowly gains hope from the people who are unwilling to give up on his case — working for years pro-bono to try and ensure justice is done. This is the meaning of the documentary’s title (which makes more sense when directly translated: ‘Hsu Tzu-chiang’s exercises’). Constantly having his hopes raised and crushed over and over, Hsu has to endlessly overcome the hurdles of the judicial system.

As an outsider, this examination of Taiwan’s judiciary is particularly fascinating. Hsu’s case began just prior to Taiwan’s first fully democratic presidential election, and much of the justice system was still a hold over from its authoritarian past. The film makes clear that judges often stood scared of contradicting prior trial judges for fear of hurting their career prospects. A judge interviewed for the movie says that he was not assigned cases after making a decision to acquit on appeal.

The film makes good use of storyboards and animations to depict the crime, helping to clearly explain to those unfamiliar with the case the various discrepancies which ultimately led to Hsu’s acquittal.

The process of making this movie was clearly an emotional one for director Chi Yueh-chun — who reveals that he was married and then divorced in that time. That connection between him and his work is shown in the many small moments he spends revealing Hsu’s personality; no easy feat with a man who is clearly very shy (unsurprising after the best part of two decades in prison). Particularly notable are the scenes between Hsu and his son/grandson, whose live’s he has almost completely missed.

Overall, even if you are not interested in the intricacies of Taiwan’s justice system, Condemned Practice Mode still has a lot to offer. It’s a mystery, a true crime story, a tale of perseverance and of learning to live again.

The Island That All Flow By 川流之島 (2016)


Director: Chan Ching-lin 詹京霖

Studio: Greener Grass Productions 瀚草影視

Language: Mandarin 國語, Taiwanese 台語

Genre: Drama

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.

Our Time Will Come 明月幾時有 (2017)

Hong Kong / China

Director: Ann Hui 許鞍華

Studio: Bona Film Group 保利博納電影發行, Distribution Workshop 發行工作室, Class Limited 卡士

Language: Mandarin 普通話, Cantonese 粵語, Japanese 日文

Genre: Drama / History

Running Time: 130 minutes

Recommended. A moving female-led tale of resistance in 1940s Hong Kong. Whilst it doesn’t push any boundaries, it has plenty of moments, just don’t expect another Lust, Caution — this is a very different kind of film.

In 1940s Japanese-occupied Hong Kong, Fang Lan 方蘭 (played by Chinese star Zhou Xun 周迅) lives with her mother and their tenants, struggling to live amongst food shortages and harassment from Japanese forces and spies. She ends things with her boyfriend Li Jinrong 李錦榮 (Wallace Huo 霍建華) — seeing no point in marrying under such conditions.

She is suddenly sucked into an escape plan for her mother’s tenant, the famous writer Mao Dun 矛盾,who is evacuated across the border into China by a team of communist resistance fighters led by the famous “Blackie” Lau  劉黑仔 (Eddie Peng 彭于晏).

Having helped the resistance once, she is offered further work helping the band, first through spreading propaganda leaflets, before ultimately becoming the leader of the group’s city unit.

Fang’s mother worries over her daughter’s work with the resistance, but she determines the best way she can help is to try to take on some of the burden herself, doing more and more of the groups tasks. One day, she helps a young woman to smuggle important documents by sewing them inside of her clothes. However, the pair are discovered when two guards search their clothing for money.

Meanwhile Fang’s old flame Li has been working undercover at the Japanese army headquarters as a Chinese teacher — frequently smuggling out stolen bits of information — and immediately informs Fang of her mother’s plight. She in turn asks for Lau’s assistance, but it soon becomes clear that any attempt to free her mother would be too dangerous for the group.

Director Ann Hui is undoubtedly one of Hong Kong cinema’s treasures, with a string of classic films dating back over 30 years. She has done a number of historical dramas, and this film follows 2014s The Golden Era 黃金時代 in adapting some of modern China’s historical figures and events for the big screen. Whilst The Golden Era focused on several of China’s most famous twentieth century writers, Our Time Will Come takes on the familiar subject matter of the Sino-Japanese war (although there is a nod to China’s literary past in the shape of Mao Dun and Zou Taofen).

As China has ramped up its patriotic education, it is has become common to see a new TV drama or movie about the war with Japan. As such, despite the worthiness of the subject, it’s sometimes hard to avoid a sense of déjà vu.

Luckily, Hui is far too skilled of a director to let this one fall flat. The film is anchored by star Zhou Xun — incidentally, always our favourite of the Four Dan — and supported, as always in these sorts of films, by some of Chinese cinema’s best.

The film is tension filled and its ending tear inducing, but it has its fair share of lighthearted moments. These mostly come in the form of Eddie Peng’s “Blackie” Lau, who is portrayed as a larger-than-life figure, a kind of lovable rogue who happens to be very good at killing. James Bond with a heart of gold, perhaps. We are not familiar with the real life Lau’s story, but it’s fair to say this may not be a nuanced interpretation. It does, however, work well with Hui’s decision to intersperse the film with scenes from modern Hong Kong, as survivors from that time recall their heroes. In this sense, it is entirely understandable that the audience is getting a lionised version of history.

Our Time Will Come is in many ways what big budget productions in Hong Kong look like today — almost invariably co-produced with one or more mainland studios, with a cast from across the Chinese diaspora and a story that links them together. Thus we get the link between Hong Kong and communist resistance fighters, Chinese artists, and in the final shot a flourishing modern Hong Kong.

All of this does sit somewhat incongruously with the current malaise which seems to sit over the city and its future 20 years after its return to the PRC*. Yet it would be harsh to judge the film too strongly on those points, when it still delivers a worthy and original story on one of the unexplored arenas of the World War 2. It reminds the audience of the small acts of resistance that can ultimately become part of a greater whole, and how those acts can resonate long into the future.

* A fact that was noted by several audience members during the Q&A session after the film. This, unsurprisingly, got short thrift from the director.

You can watch the trailer below:

Missing Johnny 強尼.凱克 (2017)


Director: Huang Xi 黃熙

Studio: Mandarin Vision 華文創

Language: Mandarin 國語, Taiwanese 台語, Cantonese 粵語, English

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 104 minutes

Not Recommended. Some good ideas and moments are let down by a weak main character in this directorial debut by Hou Hsiao-hsien disciple Huang Xi.

In Taipei, we follow the lives of a few people who are all connected to one apartment. Xu Ziqi 徐子淇 lives on the top floor with her pet birds. She keeps on getting phone calls from a family asking to speak to Johnny, but she has no idea who that is. Li Li 李立 is the autistic son of the landlady, who spends his time reading old newspapers and wandering from place to place. And, Ah Feng 阿風 is a handyman, hired by the landlady to do various jobs for her.

Their lives intersect at various points. Li sees Xu carrying a box with what he suspects is a bird in it on the subway [ed. specifically banned on public transport in Taiwan!]. Xu denies it, but Li’s seen it before and he’s right. When she gets home Xu has a new bird to add to her pets.

But one day, one of Xu’s birds escapes out the window, and she recruits Ah Feng — working on her landlady’s property — along with Li to help her catch it.

From that day, she gets to know Ah Feng as he does various jobs around the apartment. Her relationship with her boyfriend is strained, as he suspects her of seeing another man whilst he lives in Taizhong, and after one argument she storms out of her apartment, taking refuge in Ah Feng’s car. A surprised Ah Feng brings her along to a gathering at his old teacher’s place. Ah Feng explains to Xu his parents divorced when he was young, and this teacher became a father figure to him. Xu then reveals that she actually has a daughter in Hong Kong, living with her grandparents.

Xu keeps on getting phone calls asking for Johnny. One time, from his mother, another time, from a whole group to wish him happy birthday.

Meanwhile, Li spends his day cycling around an underpass in the rain. When he returns home to his worried mother, we discover this is the spot his brother was killed in an accident. His mother doesn’t want him to go there, but it makes Li feel close to his brother.

It may seem that the plot summary is incomplete, but Missing Johnny is not a movie which lives on its story. The film is Huang Xi’s directorial debut, but she has a wealth of experience in Taiwanese cinema working for one of Taiwan’s foremost directors, Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢 — which would explain why Hou is the executive producer for this film. And she has certainly inherited Hou’s penchant for the subtle, preferring to tell a larger story through the lives of individuals, whilst not feeling any need for a clear resolution.

That is where the stylistic comparison should end, Huang does not share Hou’s love of the long take, and has her own style for framing shots. Her directorial style is pleasant, and we here are big supporters of Taiwanese cinema, so hope to see her continue to grow as a film maker.

Unfortunately, it is very hard for to recommend Missing Johnny. A slow pace, a look into the way every day events and interactions hide a deeper story — these are not things that turn us off. In fact they are films we often love. So, what’s wrong with Missing Johnny?

The number one issue is that we just don’t care about the main character, Xu Ziqi. It’s not the fault of actress Rima Zeidan 瑞瑪席丹, who does an okay job. She just has very little to work with, and what she does have makes Xu unlikable. She’s cold and distant, then we find out her daughter lives abroad. We don’t know why that is, and it’s not even hinted at. At one point she shouts at her boyfriend that he married someone for money; it’s never mentioned again.

This lack of information is a problem for other characters too, but none of them are the main character. They’re also not revealed to be nearly as flawed as Xu. Ah Feng is eminently likeable, and we can sympathise with his story. Li is autistic and his brother died. Xu is separated from her daughter…but why? Her boyfriend, who is seemingly married, pays for her to live the life she wants, yet she treats him terribly. Money certainly doesn’t buy love, but it also doesn’t buy scorn. We are given nothing to help us understand the dynamic.

Just as we could begin to form a connection with Xu as she makes friends with Ah Feng, the film ends. After the film, the director explained that this was because it felt like the best time to end the film, and in terms of length that’s hard to argue with. But it’s frustrating for an audience.

A grand statement in the Taipei Film Festival programme calls this a Millenium Mambo (Hou’s turn-of-the-millenium film about life in the city) for today. And the ideas are related; about the stories behind every person, and the distance between them in the big city. We liked the way Xu switches between English, Mandarin and Cantonese depending on the situation. The way she straddles so many places at once at least goes some way to explaining her mystery (and speaks to our own personal experience living in Taipei). The concept of the phone calls for Johnny (apparently inspired by real life) is also interesting; that there’s a window into another life in these calls.

Unfortunately, without the foundation, ideas can’t shine through. Hou’s films are not for everyone, but they are all built on character’s that you care about.

It is probably unfair to hold Huang’s first film up the lofty standards of Hou, despite his executive producer credit. There’s stuff to like in Missing Johnny, and it is after all a directorial debut, but its flaws are too glaring for us to be able to recommend it.

You can watch the trailer below:

The Foolish Bird 笨鳥 (2017)


Director: Huang Ji 黃驥, Otsuka Ryuji 大塚龍治

Studio: Coolie Film Corporation 庫里  Yellow-Green Pi 龍驥映畫

Language: Hunanese 湘語

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 118 minutes

Recommended. This style of film isn’t for everyone, and is not the rarity of 15 years ago. That said, this kind of story from a female perspective by a woman director sadly still is. Just remember it’s raw and it’s grim.

This is part one of our Taipei Film Festival 2017 coverage! Over the next 2 weeks, we’ll be reviewing the best in Chinese-language cinema from the festival.

Lin Sen 林森, played by non-professional actress Yao Honggui 姚紅貴, lives in an unremarkable town in Hunan Province. Her mother is frequently away trying to deal with her faltering businesses, and Lin remains in her hometown with her grandparents. She faces the same mundane challenges as many in her position: the pressure to do well at school, bullying and a lack of privacy at home. The only person she seems to enjoy spending time with is her friend Mei Zi 梅子, and the two of them spend hours hanging around in internet cafes like most of their peers. Yao has secretly been stealing confiscated phones from school, and her and Mei decide to sell them to boys, replete with nude selfies discovered on some of the phones.

Having sold a phone to one boy, the two go to get their hair done to celebrate. Afterwards, the owner of the hairdressers invites the girls for drinks, promising to take some photos of the girls to hang in his new store. The two drink until they are passed out, and Yao awakes the next morning to find she is alone, and she cannot get in contact with Mei.

Some time passes, and there is still no word from Mei. Yao’s mother comes home, needing to borrow some money for the business. She spends some time with Lin, who is suffering from stomach pains. After examining her daughter, she realises she has an STD, but does not talk to her about it. Suddenly one day, Lin receives a message from Mei, asking for some money. However, Lin has started dating the local police chief’s son, and tells her she’ll deal with it later.

Soon after, Mei is dead, having committed suicide by jumping from a local pagoda. At her funeral, Lin discovers photos relating to STDs in Mei’s phone’s memory card. Having previously thought she may be pregnant, she suddenly understands what has happened — they have been raped by the hairdresser’s owner, who has an STD.

However, her confrontation with him goes nowhere, as he brushes off her accusations, and chases her away. Lin has nowhere to go, and her relationship with the police chief’s son is too distant, filled with brief and worrying sexual encounters — he forces her to perform oral sex and she implores him to rape her, if he’s man enough.

There’s no happy endings, as she’s caught and punished for the stolen phones. The only resolution comes from the police — they have found a murderer and rapist who’s been on the loose throughout. It’s the boy they sold the first phone to.

This is a film which will not comes as much of a surprise to many who have kept up with the latest generation of independent Chinese film makers. This kind of hyper-realistic, slow-paced film has been something of a calling card for a generation that was inspired by the works of Sixth Generation directors such as Jia Zhangke賈樟柯.

However, directors Huang Ji and Otsuka Ryuji (a husband and wife team) have certainly brought their own flourishes to this particular story. This is the second of what is planned to be a trilogy of films following life in smalltown Hunan Province, with both starring local girl Yao Honggui.

From the moment the film opens with a rather grotesque shot of Lin stuffing fish bladders, it is clear that this is a film which is not here to make you feel comfortable. Everything about the film feels not quite right, an eeriness that is present on the gloomy architecture, the incessant rain and mist and the ever present phones and internet cafes, which represent an escape for all these young people.

There is a lot to dissect, and for some, the film may not provide any answers at all.

But, in our view, it does much of what director Huang has stated she wanted to achieve. She successfully shines a spotlight on the real issue of sexual assault, and an inability to talk about sexual relationships openly in today’s China. Despite progress, and many years of stated equality, China remains a deeply patriarchal society.

It’s also refreshing to have that expressed via a female director, and it shows in the way that Huang chooses to shoot a number of scenes.

The film’s title refers to a Chinese proverb 笨鳥先飛,  which literally means the stupid bird’s fly first, and is traditionally used to mean that those with less ability need to start first. For this film, however, the director commented that she wanted to focus on how foolish decisions at that age can often lead to tragedy at that age. So it is likely to be a play on the phrase.

We will certainly be keeping an eye on her future work, and will try to secure a copy of the first part in this meant-to-be trilogy, Egg and Stone for review.

You can watch the trailer below: