Shalom Taiwan (2020) is the debut narrative feature of Argentinian writer-director Walter Tejblum. The story, co-written with Sergio Dubcovsky, follows Rabbi Aarón (Fabián Rosenthal) of Buenos Aires as his search for funding brings him all the way to Taiwan. The film itself doesn’t amount to much, despite a narrative structure and locations that are of some interest. But it is, amid its unrelenting mediocrity, thought-provoking.

Aarón has secretly borrowed money to build a soup kitchen at his temple, and in the midst of an economic crisis, his creditor (Carlos Portaluppi) comes calling, with an auction house valuation team in tow. Aarón has ten days to pay up, but nobody in Buenos Aires will donate enough. A trip to New York yields just US$500.

His last hope is the rumor that some rich donors to a temple in Taipei may be willing to help. After arriving at Taipei International Airport (the real-life Taipei Songshan Airport), he stays at a capsule hotel whose clerk, Huang (Sebastián Hsu), speaks some Spanish. Following the leads provided by a rabbi in Taipei, he visits three people reputed to have money, one of whom (John Kuo) lives among the tea groves of Pinglin.


Photo Credit: Outsider Pictures

The film is structured as a sightseeing jaunt through Taiwan (mostly Taipei), but the effect is dampened by the attempt to be nonchalant about it all, avoiding some of the most beautiful and obvious spots. In montages by editor Javier Favot, Aarón (and we) visit the Children’s Amusement Park, Ximending, and a KTV (or karaoke joint), as well as the day trip to the tea groves; but aside from that, Aarón never seems to leave the alleys and open-air markets to encounter a road wider than two lanes. The trains and Taipei’s famous MRT (metro) are mere functional settings (at one point, Kaohsiung’s KMRT is used as a stand-in), and the only tourist trap is Taipei 101, kept tastefully in the background of exactly one shot (cinematography by Roman Kasseroller and Max Ruggieri).

This naturally returns our interest to the plot, but there we find unconvincing setups and overdetermined developments. Aarón’s temple is exactly US$148 short after the New York donation, yet auctioning off all its valuables doesn’t yield even a third of that? And he can still afford the round trip airfare to Taipei? He’s in Taiwan for a fortnight or so, but we never see him keeping the Sabbath. And there’s simply no reason for fireworks to appear when they do.

It may seem like I’m nitpicking, but with a more convincing premise and more compelling stakes, I would never notice this stuff. Don’t even get me started on that cloying and sentimental ending, straight out of a TV film for tweens.

As you might expect by this point, the supporting characters are all cardboard cutouts. Some of this is due to the language barrier — the Taiwanese actors speak either English or, in Hsu’s case, Spanish. But as Rosenthal himself shows in playing the empathetic and bilingual Aarón, good acting transcends language. After all, people in real life speak foreign languages awkwardly, too, but that doesn’t make them feel fake.


Photo Credit: Outsider Pictures

The real standout in this film is Aarón’s wife, Laila (Mercedes Funes): wife of a quasi-absentee father, mother with three kids (including an infant), and harried daughter-in-law to a needy mother-in-law. Funes nails the role of “deeply loving woman who just can’t keep doing this anymore.” Laila is echoed by another wife halfway round the world, Huang’s (Cathy Wu), who also has a moment of being fed up with her husband’s nonsense.

Huang’s wife’s brief outburst is made funnier by the subtitles. I was once on a tour bus that played a copy of National Treasure (2004) pirated from China; the subtitles all made sense, but they were telling an entirely different story from the actual film. A few lines of Mandarin dialogue in Shalom Taiwan are treated like this, sometimes for better, as for Huang’s wife, but sometimes for worse.

Nor does the film’s depiction of Taiwan feel authentic, despite mostly being filmed here. That got me thinking. I live in Taipei, so I know what it feels like to live here. But how do you capture that feeling in a fortnight-long trip? How do you convey it through a film?

Sightseeing is an act of fantasy. You see the highlights while letting other people (tour guide, hotel staff) take care of the business of staying alive. But it’s those mundane tasks that make up what it feels like not just to pass through a place but to live in it, as Tsai Ming-liang’s Days (2020) shows. Sightseers are thus fated to always be on the outside looking in.

After watching this film and ruminating a bit, I now think that a sightseeing film can either treat its settings as functional plot elements that aid or hinder the protagonist, as in Lost in Translation (2003); or dive headfirst into the fantastical whimsy, as does Au Revoir Taipei (2010). Shalom Taiwan tries to do both, and succeeds at neither.

Shalom Taiwan premieres on DVD, Amazon Prime, iTunes, and Apple TV on August 2.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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