The Magician on the Skywalk: A Magical Realist Lens on Taiwan

The Magician on the Skywalk: A Magical Realist Lens on Taiwan
Photo Credit: Public Television Service

What you need to know

The Magician on the Skywalk, a television series based on Wu Ming-yi’s work with the same name, is scheduled to be aired in February.

By UndergroundFilm

Wu Ming-yi is one of the most prominent contemporary writers in Taiwan. His work, known for its magic realism, is popular both at home and with international audiences, with translations appearing in English, Japanese, French, Czech, and many other languages.

The Magician on the Skywalk (2011), one of his works of fiction, consists of ten stories of a magician connecting the lives of nine kids in ‘80s Taipei. With the upsurge of nostalgia for old Taipei in the face of the city's rapid, recent development, Taiwan’s young, series-watching audiences are a fertile ground for a screen adaptation of Wu’s work.

Taiwanese director Yang Ya-che has spent five years adapting The Magician on the Skywalk into a television series, inviting the audience to reflect on the magical moments in their childhood that have shaped who they are. It is scheduled to be aired in February, but a test screening of two of the ten episodes, Ninety-Nine Floors and Crystal Ball, has been held this week to rave critical reviews.

Local critics have praised Yang for his cinematic range in the show’s style and atmosphere. In Ninety-Nine Floors, the first episode of the series, Yang narrates the story from the perspective of three fourth-graders. In the Zhonghua Market, a motley gang of street sellers, local thugs, computer-playing youngsters, and gossiping women is seen in the eyes of these children. But most importantly, there is the magician on the skywalk of the Market.

The Zhonghua Market, sometimes called the China Plaza, consisted of eight mall-like buildings aligned in a row along Zhonghua road in Taipei. They were constructed after the government tore down illegal housing on the road during the martial law period. Close to Taipei Main Station, they formed one of the main commercial districts of the city before being demolished in 1992.

Zhonghua Market
Photo Credit: Youtube
The Zhonghua Market (buildings on the left) on the Zhonghua road. Photo taken in 1963.

Yang uses a dolly zoom to introduce to the audience the moment when the magician first appears. The scene enters the fantastical realm as the product of the kids’ imaginary world. Coins emerge out of nowhere, a toilet becomes the center of an urban myth, and the magician metamorphoses into a surrealist human-zebra hybrid.

At the end of Ninety-Nine Floors, the narrative moves from realism to the language of genre films. For Yang, it must have come as easy, with his experience of filming The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful (2017).

In Crystal Ball, the other episode previewed to critics, Yang pushes the story further. The episode focuses on three young men. Coming-of-age stories are something of a hobby horse for Yang, on display in his film Girlfriend Boyfriend (2012). Starting with the dancing of the young lads, it expands into a romantic story of multiangular relationships. The bespoke suits worn by the young males function as an anachronistic sign of their wish to become adults.

Running toward an unknown destination, the three young men are linked together by their friendship and amorous relationships that come and go like shooting stars. Most people, regardless of whether they have lived through the ‘80s, can relate to their feelings.

In contrast to the first episode, critics say what makes Crystal Ball stand out is its portrayal of oppression. Thuggish police officers are on the scene, and people meet underground to play the music of resistance.

The Zhonghua Market, like a lonely island, becomes a place where magic happens.

However, isolated from the real world, the market is still subject to external forces. Taiwan has been traumatized by the martial law, a specter of which still haunts its people, and the Market has come to symbolize such a painful history of the country. It is not difficult to understand what the director tries to convey after seeing a Kuomintang propaganda message — “Remember Chiang Ching-kuo” — displayed in the opening scene.

In the Zhonghua Market, there are Taiwanese, more recent arrivals from China, Hakka people, Indigenous peoples, and Hong Kongers. As a melting pot, the market, which disappeared in 1992, seems to have a lot more to offer. One might peak into Yang’s ambition in selecting such a space to set his story, but the full scope of it will only be clear after all ten episodes are aired.

One of the loveliest parts in Crystal Ball is Berant Zhu’s performance. While it is unclear if he has drawn inspiration from Tony Leung’s performance in Days of Being Wild (1990), Zhu exudes an unique aura — while combing the hair in a small room — that penetrates the big screen. He will be known for his part in the film.

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Photo Credit: The Magician on the Skywalk
Berant Zhu in The Magician on the Skywalk

In 2021, Yang turned Wu’s literary work into a film, taking the audience back to the old era of elegance, where there are people, zebras, and cat spirits. It was also the same director who shouted “No one is an outsider,” Indigenous Taiwanese protest slogan.

In a collection of stories, Yang visualizes how nobodies live their lives through the social and political environment of the ‘80s and witnesses the beauty and sadness of the Zhonghua Market during the martial law period.

After watching his latest work, one can see that Yang is a director who actively engages in politics through filmmaking and who pays careful attention to everything that happens on the land of Taiwan and the issue of justice.

READ NEXT: Unraveling Taiwan’s Stories of Pain and Tears: An Interview with Aephie Chen

TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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