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Chen Yin Yen’s “The Way We Are” is a unique and highly moving documentary that charts the relationship between a blind woman called Ningyu and a nearly-blind man called Shufeng. Theirs is a strange, shifting bond characterised by an at times uneasy ambiguity – are they just friends, or something more? Certainly, Ningyu has feelings for Shufeng, and dedicates herself to doing what she can to take care of him despite her own troubles. He on the other hand seems to only want friendship, and frequently, often cruelly, pushes her away and refuses to commit to anything further. At the same time though, he keeps coming back to her, and there’s clearly a deep-seated connection between the two of them.
The complexity of the tie between Ningyu and Shufeng is very much at the heart of “The Way We Are”, and the film resonates strongly as a meditation on the human need for friendship and love, and the desire to find someone to truly connect with in this world. Chen Yin Yen (who majored in social working at university before moving into film and documentary making) describes this and the film in general in his own words:
“There must be something going on between them: she takes care of him day after day. He takes it for granted and never puts forth any effort. Nor is he ready to make any commitment to her. An interesting relationship involving mind-reading and wrestling. For them, love is never blind.”
This is a pretty accurate description, and the film is emotional without being manipulative, working in a number of very affecting scenes as Chen explores their relationship and issues, many of which are likely to be recognisable to the audience. As such the film goes beyond being simply about two visually impaired people and taps into something more universal – this of course is precisely the point, to ensure that Ningyu and Shufeng are not merely defined by their disabilities. It’s a deeply humanistic piece of documentary cinema as a result, and benefits from the fact that Chen never pushes too hard or tries to offer easy answers as to whether it’s their condition that binds them together or something else, inviting viewers to draw their own conclusions.
At the same time, “The Way We Are” also offers commentary on the lives and treatment of blind and disabled people in modern Taiwanese society, depicting the difficulties and attitudes they face. It’s here again that Ningyu and Shufeng differ, and through capturing their experiences as well as those of various other people in a similar situation, Chen Yin Yen questions not only the way we look at less abled people, but at ourselves and our connections with each other and the world.
(“The Way We Are” screens as part of the 2014 Chinese Visual Festival in London on Friday May 9th as part of the Vision Taiwan strand, with director Chen Yin Yen in attendance.)