Film Shots: Taiwan Cinefest 2011

Taiwan Cinefest, now in its third year, is the largest European Taiwanese film festival, taking place in London and other cities around the UK. This year, the festival consists of 4 features and a collection of shorts, aiming to showcase a diverse selection of Taiwanese cinema that ranges from art house to mainstream blockbuster hits. The films featured this year were the funeral themed comedy drama “7 Days in Heaven”, true life tragedy “No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti”, gangster hit “Monga”, and Taiwanese pop king Leehom Wang’s enjoyable romantic comedy “Love in Disguise” (previously reviewed here on the site).

7 Days in Heaven
Recently nominated for Best Film at the Golden Horse Awards, where Peng Fon Wu took home the Best Supporting Actor prize, “7 Days in Heaven” was a commercial as well as critical hit, ranking 2nd at the domestic box office, out-grossed only by “Monga”. Revolving around life, death and Taoist funeral practices, the film was directed by Wang Yu Lin and Essay Liu, and stars Wang Li Wen, Wu Tai Po and Chen Cha Shiang. Opening to the strains of ‘Hava Nagila’ in Chinese opera style, the film follows a young woman called Mei, who returns to her village for her father’s funeral. During the 7 day period of the rites which follow, as well as having to carry out her filial duties, she gets involved with her brother Da Zhi and cousin Zhuang as they come to terms with their loss and try to get on with their lives.

Although “7 Days in Heaven” may sound rather depressing, it’s actually a very funny film, which takes a charmingly light hearted approach to the material, with the directors never shying away from the often absurd nature of some of the colourful funeral rites. In this respect, the film was certainly a great choice for the festival, having an authentically Taiwanese look and feel, and is likely to be quite fascinating for Western audiences. At the same time, the naturalistic and nicely paced film taps into some very universal themes of family and grief, and is quietly moving and emotional, its laughs and tears sitting comfortably together and combining to make for a truly effective and humanistic experience that rings touchingly true.

Puedo Vivir Sin Ti
Based on a true story that took place in 2003, “Puedo Vivir Sin Ti” won considerable critical praise on its domestic release, winning Best Film, Director and Original Screenplay at the 46th Golden Horse Awards, and being chosen as Taiwan’s official entry into the 2009 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. Directed by Leon Dai (“Twenty Something Taipei”), the film stars Chen Wen Pin (who also produced and co-scripted) as Li Wu Hsiung, a man who lives in a shack at Kaohsiung port with his young daughter Mei (Chao Yo Hsuan), making a living through odd jobs. Although the two are happy, the authorities intervene after Li tries to enrol her in school, only to be informed that he is not her legal guardian. Threatened with losing his child, Li is thwarted at every turn by bureaucracy, and eventually turns to desperate measures, leading to a tense standoff on a pedestrian bridge.

Shot in stark black and white and with a convincingly down to earth feel, “Puedo Vivir Sin Ti” is a film well deserving of its acclaim, being incredibly emotional and frequently tear-jerking, though without ever falling back on melodramatic tugs at the heartstrings. As well as a superbly naturalistic script, this is mainly due to some marvellous acting, in particular from Chen Wen Pin, who is utterly convincing as the increasingly distraught father. Thematically the film recalls Zhang Yimou’s 1992 classic “The Story of Qiu Ju” in its portrayal of an everyday man caught in a maddening and inhuman labyrinth of bureaucracy, though playing the situation for tragedy rather than absurdity, the dramatic tension mounting slowly but surely as it builds towards a powerful conclusion.

Director Doze Niu’s gangster epic “Monga” was a massive hit at the Taiwanese box office, even managing to defeat James Cameron’s all-conquering “Avatar”. In this the film was no doubt helped by its fresh faced cast of idols, headed up by television stars Ethan Ruan (“Exit No. 6”) and Mark Chao (“Black & White”), with support from Rhydian Vaughn (“Winds of September”), former Super Idol contestant Cai Chang Xian, and veteran actor Ma Ju Lung (“Cape No. 7”), along with Doze Niu himself. Set back in the 1980s, the film follows Chao as Mosquito, who moves with his mother to Taipei’s mob district Monga and joins a local gang run by Dragon (Rhydian Vaughan), the charismatic son of boss Geta (Ma Ju Lung), in order to get some protection at school. Along with Dragon’s right hand man and best friend Monk (Ethan Ruan), Monkey (Cai Chang Xian), and A-Po (Huang Deng Hui), Mosquito soon learns the true meaning of brotherhood, as gang war breaks out and the young men are forced into a series of ever intensifying brawls and betrayals.

Although the plot of “Monga” should be instantly familiar to anyone who has seen an Asian gangster film, closely resembling the Korean hit “Friend” in particular, it’s a superior example of the form, being well made and thoroughly entertaining, creating a believable and engaging picture of youthful exuberance in 1980s Taiwan. Clocking in at over two hours, it spends a great deal of time on the bonds between the various characters, and really benefits from a genuine sense of camaraderie, making its occasional dives into melodrama and would-be meaningfulness far more palatable than they might have been. The young cast all acquit themselves well, and Doze Niu’s handling is solid, showing a good grasp of the genre and decent sense of pacing. Crucially, the film is impressively action packed, with a good few mass brawl scenes and plenty of knife fights and fisticuffs to help hold the interest, and as a result whilst not offering anything new, it’s entertaining and fun throughout.