Thursday, August 4, 2011

My Beautiful Island: Snoozefest Edition

Some thoughts on this film, which is making a bit of a splash across the Intertubes (it's appeared a few times in my Facebook and Google+ feeds accompanied by discussion of the promotional video's merits).

I have to say, overall I don't care for it. As one person said, it's got smashing production values and is visually stunning, but as a video to promote tourism it fails (not my words, but I agree wholly). I am not sure what the viewer is supposed to take away from this about Taiwan. I liked the idea of four different journeys, which represent four different kinds of tourists (the Japanese tourists who shop and sightsee, the backpacker on some sort of 'see the world, change myself' journey, the Asian-American family that seemed to be on a 'show the kids their roots' trip, the old folks), but I felt that those journeys could have happened anywhere in Asia. The tea fields, the lake with the lantern-bedecked pier, the bus going down the country road. All 'stereotypical Asia', not Taiwan.

I'm not saying they should have just shown touristy places, although they should have added a few (just 101, Taroko Gorge and maybe Chihkan Towers or another historic building would have sufficed), but they should have shown scenes that felt more like...Taiwan. I felt the more arty, cloudy, overcast feeling of the film lacked spirit, verve and love for the country. I felt it sacrificed spirit in the name of, I dunno, art?

I feel that...well, first of all, what's up with the first five minutes of the film being nothing but Taoyuan Airport, a bus station, the HSR, a hotel, an escalator? Other than possibly the HSR (which would have been better depicted as it was actually racing across the countryside with the happy pensioners riding inside), none of that is even remotely interesting. Five minutes of Taoyuan Airport and Ubus is four and a half minutes too many. A good filmmaker could have gotten some dialogue in there while showing more scenes of actual, you know, Taiwan.

The music when they're getting their passports stamped was also a poor choice - it was horror movie "something terrible will happen to them in Taiwan" music, not music that makes you want to actually go to Taiwan. The scene where the Japanese girls go shopping - really, why close up only on their faces and one pair of ugly shoes? Why not show the Xinyi district at night, all lit up, a more sweeping view of where they were, and then close up? Or move out? Why not show Taipei 101 (a cheesy addition for this too-arty film, but I think an important one for tourism)? Why not show them out at a club or bar after shopping, seeing as they spent another valuable chunk of film time putting on makeup, which we really didn't need to see? When they were at the night market, why not show more than very close-up shots of the one food stall? Night markets are so full of visual stimulation and are so very Taiwanese in feel that I can't fathom why they didn't show more of it.

The tea fields were visually engrossing, but the dialogue was so stilted. Seriously, "your hand in mine, as we were in our younger days?" Excuse me, but what the hell is that? What hack wrote that? Couldn't they get someone to write some actual, realistic dialogue?

For the backpacker, I thought the idea was cool, but one could have shown him venturing into more interesting places (the part in the mountains at the end was cool, and the aboriginal-music party was cool too, I'll say that). Why not have him be totally blown away by a colorful temple fair, as I was the first time I saw one pass by, all banging and crackling? That was a formative Taiwan experience for me - cultural things like that really deserve more screen time. They got none.

Instead of showing the older folks drinking tea in a restaurant, why not have them on Maokong, learning how to brew 老人 茶, or invited into a local's home for tea in the traditional style?


I can nitpick all night (and would love to - I'm in a truly foul mood these days for completely unrelated reasons that I won't divulge here) but really, at the end, it's this.

The movie had no soul. No heart, no verve, no spirit. It was like a European art film on sleeping pills. It was like Terrence Malick doing a parody of a Terrence Malick film (if you couldn't tell, I didn't care for The Tree of Life one bit, and my husband assures me that The Thin Red Line is as bad or worse in that style). Nothing - not one thing - about it screams yes! This is the Taiwan we know and love! YES! This is the Taiwan I want my family and friends to see!

It screams generic arty film about Asia that lacks a pulse.

And for that, despite all its visual beauty, I give it a FAIL.

Some suggestions, in bullet form:

- pick up the pace
- intersperse the tight camerawork with some more sweeping views
- lose the depressing, at times horror-movie like music, or use it more sparingly
- show more of Taiwan - not necessarily focusing on typical tourist stuff but interview some tourists and expats and ask them to visualize a scene that for them would be "Taiwan". For me it would be either driving the Central Cross Island Highway (seriously, Hehuan Mountain has to have some of the most gorgeous views in the country and nobody uses it in films or commercials? WHY?) or a temple fair, or brewing old man's tea on a mountain or in a picturesque teahouse, or hanging out in a lane in an urban area with old ladies fanning themselves and gossiping. Other people would have different ideas. Incorporate these visions, because that's where you'll find the things about Taiwan that really grab travelers and give them a unique experience.
- rewrite the awkward dialogue. None of this "I think it was fate that brought me here" business. Gag.
- show more interaction with locals - other than that A-do character and a night market vendor the travelers seemed to be off in their own worlds
- infuse the whole thing with more, I dunno, vibrancy. Pick a director with boundless love for Taiwan who can really show that through his or her work.

Also, it would have been better if they'd called it "My Beautiful Country" (I realize Ilha Formosa means "beautiful island" and that there are political issues involved), but of course that would have never happened. That would be too good to be true. Goodness forbid that foreigners actually realize that Taiwan is a country.


Herman said...

I agree on all of your comments. However, I wonder if the intent of the film was to show that Taiwan IS Asia. From where I am in the States, nobody gives any thought of Taiwan, and if they do, they think it's China Jr. Ask anybody about visiting Asia, and they're going to mention wanting to explore China or Japan, or maybe Thailand. Taiwan is a complete afterthought, and maybe the producers wanted to convey the fact that, hey, Taiwan is very much a part of Asia, that rice fields and tea plantations are not the exclusive domain of China and Japan. Sort of a riff off of Malaysia's "Simply Asia" campaign. I dunno, that's the only plausible explanation I can think of. In general, I've found Taiwan's tourism campaigns to be really uninspired and off the mark. "Touch Your Heart"??? Really? "Taiwan: the Heart of Asia"?? Really?

At any rate, I enjoy the blog!

Jenna said...

Yeah, but why not show some of those scenes (I was particularly taken with the tea fields and the hiking guy) interspersed with more unique stuff that really screams "Taiwan"? You can find Generic Asia, well, anywhere in Asia. That's not going to get people to come here.

You're right that many people think of Taiwan as China Jr. - I've actually met travelers while outside Taiwan who thought that Taiwan was a territory of China. They were studying in Hong Kong and that's what they learned. Sad.

Show them cultural facets that they won't find in China - this is why I bring up temple fairs, because they just don't really exist in China anymore. Show them streetside opera and puppetry (they did have some puppetry). Show them all the lights and chaos of a night market, not just one close-up shot.

In short, show them not just that Taiwan, too, is in Asia and it's no longer just the place where your microwave comes from, but that Taiwan is unique. Because it is.

And speed it up. I shouldn't be fidgeting in my seat after five minutes, I should be riveted.

And get rid of all that extra time in the airport and on escalators.

Little Dog said...

i attach an article that writes about taiwan by a chinese. this is probably the best i have read to talk about what we are, and why people should come here. a real proud island that preserves the best of chinese cultures yet moving forward in its own way. what matters is the people, which is the hardest message to convey.
大陸人看台灣》台灣人這麼說 這麼做.
2011/08/03 | 肖鋒/廣州.《新周刊》總主筆
他們會熱心為陌生人指路,新一代甚至會拿出手機,耐心為你goo gle,將地圖解釋給你看。中華民族以助人為樂,美德有傳。

John Scott said...

I think they gave the screen writer a list of messages to convey:

1. Even genuine, western tourists come to Taiwan, not only silly Japanese girls!

2. Don't worry--Taipei is a clean and modern place with escalators and a decent airport with signage in English, and everyone can speak English.

3. Yes, Taiwan is a legitimate tourist destination-- it isn't just business-travelers that come here.

4. Mixed-blood kids are soooo cuuuute!

5. We have LOTS of snacks.

6. Despite what you've heard, we do have wide open spaces, and Sun Moon Lake is a tranquil, contemplative paradise.

Why couldn't they find REAL elderly western people, instead of putting lots of make-up on 30-somethings to try and make them look old??

Jenna said...

Little Dog - my only objection is that I wouldn't quite say it "preserves the best of Chinese culture". Yes, there are some Chinese cultural roots and influence, but Taiwan is unique. It shares many cultural points with China and has preserved some of them, but that should not detract from all the uniqueness of Taiwan.

John - I agree, but couldn't they have done it a better way? We didn't need five minutes in the airport, we needed about 30 seconds. That could also be accomplished with an action shot of the HSR and maybe a shot of 101 (which, you know, while modern, they'd probably not include the cabbage farm across the street in that shot)! We needed more wide shots of things like night markets and shopping areas and less close-ups of ugly shoes. Sun Moon Lake is great but they could have shown Taroko Gorge or even Hehuan Mountain (my personal favorite) and they would have had time to do that if they'd cut out the interminable bits that didn't go anywhere.

It wasn't so much the message they were asked to convey, which I wholeheartedly support. I love this country and feel it has a lot to offer to travelers. It's how they did they were trying to be Sophia Coppola or Terrence Malick, which really has no place in a tourism film.

John Scott said...

I agree. What you see in videos like this is basically what Taiwanese managers of PR firms think that western people want to see in a travel video about Taiwan. So, of course the result is a bit lame.

Yes, the dialog is kind of dopey. Some of the music is nice.

But to make the video more realistic, they could show a glimpse of something real... such as what it feels like to be completely lost, where NOBODY speaks your language... where there is nothing modern (.. or even where there is)... BUT where you STILL meet people who are kind, patient and helpful. That happened so many times to me, and that's one of the many reasons I love Taiwan.

If they are going to have voice-over narration in English, it should really be spoken by someone who at least sounds like they could actually have a normal conversation in English, not someone who is apparently reading it straight off of a paper, but who does not actually have conversations in English very often in real life. Sorry if that sounds arrogant, but I don't want to hear unnatural dialog in any language...

And seriously, if they wanted to evoke the REAL feeling of watching sun come up at Alishan (just as one example) they would have had a tour director with a bullhorn chattering away, non-stop at 120 decibels rght there before the first rays of sunlight come over the peaks (just they way Taiwanese like tour directors to do).

Same for Sun Moon Lake, except add a dozen busloads of Chinese tourists.