The Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival is one of the oldest and most prestigious film festivals in the region, founded in 1961. From its beginnings, TGHFF has served as a showcase for films made in Taiwan and neighboring countries that share the Chinese language and culture. Even in recent years, beyond the insurmountable political differences between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (i.e., Taiwan), there has been no shortage of films from powerful mainland China in the competition.
The FIPRESCI jury – Jason Tan Liwang (Philippines), Estella Huang (Taiwan), and this writer (Mexico) – had the responsibility of watching eleven films from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Macau, all of which were either debut or second features in Mandarin or Cantonese. It was an impeccable selection that showed an impressive creative versatility among the region’s young filmmakers, from crime thrillers to romantic comedies, women’s films, and family melodramas. There was not a single film that did not have an interesting premise– although, perhaps, not all of them executed it in the best possible way.
This was the case with The Post-Truth World (Taiwan, 2022), a journalistic thriller directed by If Chen. It was the only unsuccessful film in the competition, although it does not have a bad plot per se and is not badly executed. Li-min, a widowed journalist, is kidnapped by a runaway prisoner, Zheng-yi, who was sentenced to life in prison after being accused of murdering his girlfriend. Zheng-yi maintains not only his complete innocence, but that Li-min’s deceased wife, who was also a journalist, framed him. The thriller is entertaining, but its critique of modern journalism, where people are capable of anything in order to earn a few clicks in this volatile era of social media, is too simplistic to be taken seriously.
Operating at a higher level were a handful of films with competent production and popular genres. Geylang (Singapore, 2022), Boi Kwong’s second feature, tells the story of a complex web of intertwined lives and deaths in the rough neighborhood of Geylang, a district of Singapore that, at least from what we see in this film, is perpetually dangerous – especially at night.
The night also looms large in A Light Never Goes Out (Hong Kong, 2022), Anastasia Tsang’s debut set in the neon streets of Hong Kong. The newly widowed Heung (Sylvia Chang, winner of the Best Actress Award) discovers that her husband, who spent his entire life manufacturing neon signs, died without fulfilling his last wish: to recreate one of those signs. This is a sweet, nostalgic comedy that could well be labeled the Cinema Paradiso of neon.
Sweetness is ever-present in Ajoomma (Singapore-South Korea, 2022), Shuming He’s debut, which is Singapore’s submission for the 2023 Oscars for Best International Film. The protagonist is Mrs Kim, another middle-aged woman, also a widow, obsessed with Korean soap operas, who travels on solo vacation from Singapore to Seoul. She ends up getting lost at night but, as cliché would have it, this allows her to make new friends and give meaning to her solitary existence. It’s easy to imagine a Hollywood remake of this story, with the cities and settings replaced.
Another story that could be told anywhere is The Sunny Side of the Street (Hong Kong, 2022) by debut Malaysian filmmaker Kok-rui Lau. The film shows the difficulties of Pakistani refugees living in Hong Kong. When Yat, an alcoholic and resentful taxi driver, alienated from his own son, causes the accidental death of a Pakistani immigrant, he seeks out the dead man’s son to help him, without telling the boy about his true relationship with his dad. This is a very conventional but well-written redemption melodrama, largely bolstered by the presence of veteran Anthony Chau-Sang Wong, who has previously worked with John Woo and Ringo Lam, and who quite rightly won Best Actor. Lau also took home two awards: Best Screenplay and Best New Director.
My Best Friend’s Breakfast (Taiwan, 2022) also explores generic territory, but does so with grace and empathy. It is a fun romantic comedy in which a high school girl, Wei-xin, eats the daily breakfasts sent by admirers to her best friend, Qi-ran. Predictable confusion arises when Tao, an attractive athlete and swimmer, also begins to send his breakfasts to Qi-ran, to the dismay of Wei-xin who is hopelessly attracted to this unattainable boy. Apart from the attractive and very charismatic young cast, what struck me the most is how practical teenage courtship is in Taiwan. It is not about sending flowers or poems, but rather some rice bread, a milk tea or some meat rolls. The fastest way to the heart is through the stomach.
Three other films took on well-established formulas and genres with very satisfying execution. Bad Education (Taiwan, 2022), by actor Kai Ko in his directorial debut, is a vibrant nocturnal thriller in which three recent high school graduates confess their most embarrassing secrets, leading to a nightmarish night worthy of Scorsese’s After Hours, only with more violence and less humor. As an exercise in Tarantino-esque style, it’s not bad at all.
Even better is The Abandoned (Taiwan, 2022), Ying-ting Tseng’s debut. The protagonist, Wu Jie, is a tough, rude policewoman who, in the middle of New Year’s Eve, is about to shoot herself when she comes across the body of a woman, bled out and missing a heart. There is a serial killer on the loose in Taipei and Wu Jie finds this reason enough to postpone her impending suicide. The Abandoned is a vigorous crime thriller, the best genre film in the entire competition.
Kissing the Ground You Walked On (Macau, 2022), Heng-fai Hong’s debut, immediately reminds us of the Oscar-winning film Drive My Car. The protagonist is a novelist suffering from writer’s block who shares his apartment with a young actor trying to get a role in Chekhov’s The Seagull. The writer vampirizes the doubts and anxieties of the rookie actor in a delicate film about art, inspiration and second chances.
Finally, the best two films of the competition. The Narrow Road (Hong Kong, 2022), Sum Lam’s second feature, is a deceptively simple film set in Hong Kong at the beginning of the pandemic. Chak is the owner and sole employee of a small cleaning company. His neighbor is Candy, an outgoing single mother with a young daughter whom she can barely support. Chak, who is lonely but kind, hires Candy to help him with his daily chores. Everything seems to indicate that there is a new family in the making. Lam triumphs by shying away from the typical love story to present us with something much more challenging: the portrait of a simple, generous, no-nonsense guy, and his encounter with a true survivor, the unsinkable Candy, played by the charismatic Angela Yuen. Yuen has what it takes to become a true movie star: it’s impossible to take your eyes off her.
The FIPRESCI Prize went to Coo-Coo 043 (Taiwan, 2022), the second feature by Ching-lin Chan, who was nominated for Best New Director here in 2017 for The Island that All Flow By. The title is the name of a racing pigeon who, after being lost for seven years, returns to the home and coop of Guo-ching. Exactly seven years ago, Guo-ching lost his 12-year-old son, who disappeared without a trace. The return of Coo-Coo 043 awakens in Guo-ching the desire to compete in pigeon racing – a popular sport in Taiwan according to the film. This further distances him from his long-suffering wife Ming and their rebellious daughter Lulu, who has brought her new boyfriend Tig to live in the house.
As in The Narrow Road, it seems that there is a new family in the making, but in reality, the opposite is occurring. It is the dissolution not only of his nuclear family, but also the complete collapse of the toxic patriarchy represented by Guo-ching. That Coo-Coo 043 won not only the FIPRESCI Prize but also the 2022 Golden Horse Best Film Award indicates that this dark, stylized family melodrama has struck a chord in contemporary Taiwanese society. Is this perhaps the result of the damage caused by living in the past?
Edited by Lesley Chow
© FIPRESCI 2022