One of my favorite regular “getaways” in Los Angeles was to trek from the Valley into Hollywood, where, among the opportunities for people-watching and eating at the original Tommy’s, I’d find my favorite repository of Asian films available on DVD. If you knew this, then you’d be surprised how infrequently I see Asian cinema now, even though I actually LIVE in Asia and in the age of BiTorrent.
Instead, my once 2-hour gaze into the life of another culture (or at least a highly romanticized and kung-fued version of it) has since been replaced with a glazed-over view of daily life, and all this familiarity allows me to take for granted the incredible force of history that somehow lies behind it all.
It’s the same for anyone in any culture, I suppose, even Taiwan, my home at the time, and it’s the set up for the new film Twa Tiu Tiann (大稻埕). The story centers around a Taiwanese student who time-travels from the jaded modern era to a more volatile period of Taiwan’s history in order to to learn a little something about himself, love, and his country.
The hero is Jack (Chris Wang, 宥胜) and we first see him less concerned with the oddities of history provided by the goofy Professor Pig (Chu Ko Liang, 猪哥亮) than with the elaborate flash mob he’s concocted to sing Happy Birthday to the object of his desire. It turns out to be a bust, of course, and he and his group of bumbling friends go with Pig through an exhibition of Taipei’s historical Da Dao Cheng district (from which the film takes its name.) In his funk, Jack accidentally finds himself activating a magic painting by way of a magic camera, transporting himself inside and thus through time. He ends up in 1920s’ Taiwan, during the time Japan occupied the island with colonial rule (it’s interesting to note that even today you are supposed to use the words “occupy” over the word “rule,” or vice versa depending on your perspective.)
After a bit more fortuitous bumbling, he ends up in the care of shopkeeper Ginger (Sonia Sui, 隋棠) and befriending analogues of his friends from the future– in a bit of Wizard of Oz kind of doubling. Mysteriously, there’s even a Professor Pig here, too! In short order, Jack falls in love at first sight with the Taiwanese girl Rose (Jian Man-shu, 简曼书), who nevertheless acts as a geisha for the Japanese ruling class, and becomes embroiled in Ginger’s rivalry with her Japanese-backed merchant neighbor, and friends Chiang Wei-shui (played by Lee Li-jen, 李李仁), a real-life hero in Taiwan’s struggle for democracy.
All of this sets up Jack to be in the middle of various conflicts– it’s rich vs. poor, Japanese vs. Taiwanese, sympathizers vs. rebels, and just a bit of past vs future. (Such as Jack “updating” his wardrobe into something a bit more fashionable/comfortable– I guess overall it’s one trope too many for this film to have many more examples.) And this is where the film tries its best to be more than just a romantic comedy.
Because, firstly, this is intended as a rom-com, and it does quite well on that level. The lead actors brings a sincerity to their roles that allow them to overcome the otherwise stock nature of each, and they interact quite well together. The comedy is broad enough to land pretty much every joke, and the audience really enjoyed the delivery. Professor Pig/Chu Ko Liang is a successful and accomplished comedian, and he plays to his strengths and becomes quite endearing instead of simply a caricature (from a Western perspective, his antics are bit dated in a 70s-style Benny Hill kind of way.)
However, the film fails as a time travel caper, as the logic behind its gimmick isn’t really explored. The “magic” painting/camera isn’t really explained, nor does it work consistently, as the whole point is just to get the protagonist to the past, and keep him there, except when it doesn’t. All of this would be fine, but when Professor Pig’s secret is revealed, it’s too much suspended disbelief and it kind of falls apart, being more distracting than revelatory. More time travel hijinks involve the painting and an attempted assassination of Japanese boy-emperor Hirohito (again, a real-world event to play with), but it’s hard to care for such plot points when they doesn’t make sense.
Perhaps the Hirohito moment, one of the film’s climaxes, is an example of the film’s failings. It seems to want a sweeping, mundane tale that captures a key moment in Taiwan’s national identity, but instead, the film has to juggle this gravitas with cartoony villains and tangental subplots. Ginger gets caught up in the latter, as she somewhat out of left field becomes the example of the opium addiction that gripped Taiwan (and indeed much of Asia) at the time, and the film’s “solution” seems a bit too quickly resolved to be able to “get on” with the other plot points.
After all, as in any heroic journey, Jack must return from his ordeal, changed, with a renewed sense of patriotism and zeal for the future. This is actually one of the most effective moments of the film, including an effective shot composition as Jack and his buddies shout their newfound ambition to the skyline of Taipei. It’s pretty emotional that how this time travel movie to the past can inspire its characters (and audience?) to view the future.
My local friends were at first surprised when I agreed to see the movie with them; they were concerned that I “wouldn’t get it.” The more they explained the movie, however, the more I was interested. Taiwan has only two or three generations of national identity, of sorts, and that in and of itself is a complicated and sometimes touchy subject. By learning a bit more about these issues, I can learn a little bit more about the people around me. I think the filmmakers must be hoping for such inspiration, too. I hope they are using the opportunity to compare past and future and not simply in order to provide love story complications. Maybe they hope it will end with a whole theater of moviegoers chanting “To the future!” with Jack and his friends.
Or, at least, I hope they hope that. The final, final moments is a return to funny-man Chu Ko Liang for some opportunity to improv in a PG-13 way, with a bit of fourth-wall breaking to boot. It’s a bit jarring from what could otherwise have been a significant thematic moment. I mean, the theater I went to didn’t erupt in newfound patriotic fervor, at any rate. Hopefully, my friends did leave, however, with a satisfaction, security, and sense of being Taiwanese.