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.