FILM REVIEW: ‘10 Years Taiwan’ Peers Pessimistically Into an Unsettling Future

FILM REVIEW: ‘10 Years Taiwan’ Peers Pessimistically Into an Unsettling Future
Credit: Ten Years Taiwan
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Taiwan’s foray into the future-gazing '10-year' franchise is poignant, ponderous and overwhelmingly bleak.

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The Democratic Progressive Party would have done well to watch “Ten Years Taiwan” (十年台灣) ahead of November’s local elections. The experience might have prepped their candidates for the simmering resentment and frustration that met them at the ballot box as they lost in a crushing landslide.

Buoyed by the success of the Hong Kong film “Ten Years”, which won the Hong Kong Academy Award for Best Film in 2016 for its anti-establishment take on the territory’s future, the franchise takes a more humanist turn as it moves to Taiwan.

Five rookie directors foreshadow a fraying national social fabric, with “A Making-of” (蝦餃) offering a sole comedic note to lighten the somber tones.

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Credit: Ten Years Taiwan
'Ten Years Taiwan' takes a long gaze into a bleak future.

The omnibus eschews tracking its Hong Kong progenitor’s overtly political focus, instead opting to portray the human impacts of nuclear power, poverty and inequality, as well as abuses of migrant labor and the consequences of political apathy. Much like in the November polls, the issue of China’s potential influence is pushed so far into the background as to be invisible.

Ami director Lekal Sumi Cilangasan (勒嘎舒米) provides a meditation on the psychological impact of a failure to address nuclear waste storage issues in “The Can of Anido” (惡靈罐頭). A dreamy opening has our indigenous Yami protagonist going about his life as a taro farmer in the beautiful surroundings of Orchid Island, though a warning that a storm is coming and a haunting lament that sings of a “sinister force descending on the island – hazardous and poisonous – soon we’ll be deprived of our lives,” warns of the shocks to come.

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Credit: Ten Years Taiwan
Lekal Sumi Cilangasan's haunting 'The Can of Anido' takes viewers to a future Orchid Island.

Rina B. Tsou (鄒隆娜)’s film “942” is the most disjointed and jarring – intentionally so as it seeks to batter the viewer into empathizing with the plight of an abused Indonesian migrant worker by having us first identify with a Taiwanese nurse put in a similar situation. Our assumptions are constantly challenged in this time-warping allegory, which creaks under the weight of the issues it seeks to address: toxic masculinity, air pollution – a joyless PA system constantly reminds characters to wear face masks – same-sex tenderness, abuse of power, and the coldness of the media.

Yet for all its obesity, “942” succeeds in its main line – illustrating the horror of abuse, sexual and contractual, of migrant workers at the hands of their employers – a problem that is endemic in Taiwan’s society and rarely given the spotlight it deserves.

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Credit: Ten Years Taiwan
'942' is a bleak and poignant tale of worker abuse in Taiwan.

“Way Home” (路半) is the most touching of all the films, and the least futuristic. Yunlin-native Lu Po-shun (呂柏勳), who won the Taipei Film Award for Best Director Award in 2017, vividly lands us in rural Taiwan, and the shoes of 20-year-old Dong Yang, who is being pressured by his parents into getting a job in Taipei. He does not want to leave everything he knows behind, and we feel for him as he realizes the halcyon days of his youth are dwindling, but there is scant opportunity on the horizon.

The dialogue – particularly among Dong Yang’s odd-ball crew – is natural and endearing, piling on the pathos. “You could work at 7-11 … or as a male host,” one kid jibes, before the tearaways set off to look for a job at a local factory. This soon emerges to be more “haunted house” than going concern, with an old guy barking that the company has departed for Vietnam. The scene is likely to resonate with voters enraptured by newly elected Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜)’s promises of economic rejuvenation in the south.

All the while, Dong Yang’s younger brother-in-law tags along, the camera whisking us around and below the characters as the gangly kid gambols around, spinning us in circles of hopelessness. Through the brother-in-law, director Lu subtly prompts us to feel the weight of responsibility on Dong Yang’s shoulders. Ultimately, we share the young man's rage and frustration as he chooses to abandon his brother and ride off into the night.

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Credit: Ten Years Taiwan
'Way Home' is a touching look at life in rural Taiwan.

Hsieh Pei-ju (謝沛如)’s slickly composed “A Making-of” casts a comic look forward at the consequences of Taiwan’s anemic birthrate, catapulting us into a commercial for the eponymous product that soon stalls because the crew fail to find a real baby to lead a Chinese New Year family reunion scene.

A promised child is held back at the eleventh hour by anxious parents worried that the air is too toxic to risk taking the baby outside. Later, a call to the local hospital hilariously reveals that its department of obstetrics and gynecology was closed down a year ago – the inference being for lack of business.

“I can’t even support myself, why would I want a kid to suffer with me?” the producer asks us, breaking the fourth wall. Eventually a baby is produced, the flashy young couple co-opted into giving up their newborn boasting about how much cash it has earned them, while the guy reveals that his mom has promised him a car if his partner has another child. Old man Chen, the boss of the shrimp dumplings company, provides a narrative voice, excoriating the “youth of today” – ridiculed in the form of a chubby kid in VR goggles – for their lack of spirit. “Where is our future?!” Chen demands – where indeed, we wonder.

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Credit: Ten Years Taiwan
'A Making-of' takes a sharp, comedic look at Taiwan's falling birthrate.

Director Lau Kek Huat (廖克發)’s “The Sleep” (睏眠) offers a dystopian sci-fi vision of a future where a version of Robert Nozick’s experience machine is preferable to the riotous violence gripping society. “Mama, give me a sweet dream,” our protagonist Irene asks, slipping in and out of consciousness until what’s real and what’s a dream become unclear. Perhaps due to its final placement, or perhaps because she apparently cares so little for herself, I found it hard to empathize with Irene, even as the film progresses to hint at a more sinister treatment behind her blissful reveries.

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Credit: Ten Years Taiwan
The protagonist of Lau Kek Huat's 'The Sleep.'

“Ten Years Taiwan” showed at the Taipei Film Festival, the Golden Horse Awards, and the Busan Film Festival, but has been met with limited enthusiasm from distributors here. As such, the studio is seeking crowdfunding support to help bring the film to various screens around Taiwan in January. You can chip in by visiting the crowdfunding page here.

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Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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