…Especially if you are interested in Taiwan or Taiwanese culture.

Like I suspect most westerners do, I mostly watch Hollywood movies. Since moving here however, my wife has introduced me to several Taiwanese films that area really worth seeing, some simply because they are good movies and some because they give you some insight into Taiwanese culture that would be difficult for the average visitor to gain otherwise. For simplicity’s sake I will do this as a series of mini reviews where I tell you why I think a film is worth seeing. Now remember, I’m not a film critic, I never studied film theory or anything like that, so take this for what it is: the opinions of some guy who just happens to care a lot about his adopted home country.

Well… that’s enough introduction, here we go:

1. Lucy
The first part of Luc Besson’s Sci-Fi action Lucy is ostensibly set in Taiwan but there is nothing particularly Taiwanese about it expect a short scene involving two taxi drivers who don’t speak English. As a movie it is a thoroughly ‘meh’ experience and you will definitely not learn anything about Taiwanese culture from seeing it.

Ok, enough with the jokes, on to the real list:

1. Kano

Kano poster, image taken from IMDB.com

When I was young there seemed to be a nearly endless stream of sports movies that all followed the same basic plot line: a team (or individual) who keeps loosing every game/race gets a really passionate coach who trains them hard and teaches them to utilize their individual talents. Eventually they join some big tournament or competition as the underdogs that no one believes in at first, but to everyone’s big surprise they start racking up wins. Eventually the square off against the reigning champion and while they lose the game, the moral victory is theirs, the end.

Kano more or less follows the typical sports movie recipe beat for beat but that are two things that I think make it stand out. First, I think it’s really well made, it seems obvious to me that the filmmakers were passionate about telling the story. Second, it is set in 1930’s Taiwan rather than modern-day America and that setting makes those sports movie tropes seem a little less tired, a little less overused. What makes it extra interesting to me is that it paints a picture of what it was like to live in Taiwan under Japanese colonial rule – at least the positive sides of that era. So if you like sports movies and are interested in Taiwan’s history this a film for you. My score: 6.6/10

2. Seediq Bale: Warriors of The Rainbow

Seediq Bale poster, image taken from IMDB.com

When I first came to Taiwan in 2008, the film Cape No.7 had just been released in theaters. I saw it on DVD a few months later and I thought it was OK but not much more than that. Among the local Taiwanese however, it was wildly popular and it is still the highest grossing domestic film in Taiwan. Thanks to the fame and money that Cape No.7 brought him, director Wei Te-Sheng was able to create his passion project: Seediq Bale: Warriors of The Rainbow.

The film is a depiction of the so-called Wushe Incident where members of the indigenous Seediq tribe rebelled against their Japanese oppressors by raiding a police station to get hold of weapons, then attacking the nearby village, killing 130 Japanese people. The colonial authorities retaliated with overwhelming force, killing over 600 of the Seediq. The story is well told, the acting is good, and the cinematography manages to show off both the gorgeous Taiwanese landscape and the well choreographed action sequences, making the movie simultaneously beautiful and brutally violent. In my estimation this film is comparable to any other big budget war movie like Braveheart or Saving Private Ryan.

What I’m trying to say is that Seediq Bale is really solid action movie, so if you can stomach the rather graphical violence (sensitive viewers better stay away), and like war movies, then you should definitely add it to your list of films to watch. What makes it extra interesting in my opinion is that Wei Te-Sheng was the writer for both this and Kano; while both films are set in the same period, the depiction of the Japanese colonists is very different. In Seediq Bale they are portrayed as a powerful enemy who brutally oppress the indigenous people, while in Kano they are seen as benevolent leaders who care for the people by constructing important infrastructure. I think the two films are really worth seeing just for that contrast.

A quick note before I move on: Seediq Bale was first released in Taiwan as two films with a combined running time of over 4 hours. When they released it internationally however , they cut it down to a single 2.5 hour movie. I saw the international version, which is probably the one you can find if you buy/rent it. I don’t know what they cut out but I never felt like there was anything missing, so I wouldn’t worry too much about those two extra hours. My score: a solid 7/10

3. Seven Days in Heaven

Seven Days in Heaven poster, image taken from IMDB.com

This is one of the first Taiwanese films I saw when coming here, actually the very first I saw in a theater. Admittedly I was a bit skeptical when my girlfriend (now wife) suggested we see it, but I kept an open mind and agreed to go, something I was really glad I did.

The plot of the movie is quite simple, a woman returns to her family’s hometown in central Taiwan after her father passed away. We follow her through the mourning process and the many rituals surrounding her father’s death. It sounds like the premise for some rather stale documentary, or at best a docudrama, about Taiwanese customs related to death and burials. However, that is far from the truth, this is a dark comedy in the true sense of the word. We see the main characters’ sorrow at the loss of their father and can empathize with them, while at the same realizing – and laughing at – the absurdity of the many rituals they have to go through as part of the mourning process.

Something like this could easily have been made to feel exploitative or mean-spirited, and yes, the depiction of the rituals and customs is somewhat irreverent, but the fact that the story is told from a Taiwanese perspective, by Taiwanese filmmakers makes it feel genuine. The audience isn’t mocking some foreign culture for its outlandish traditions. Instead we are made to feel like we are there, on the inside, laughing at our own strange customs.

I don’t think this is some kind of masterpiece of film making, there are many dramas that are more touching and comedies that are funnier. However, it does give a lot of insight into a particular area of Taiwanese culture in a warm and funny way, and for that I think it’s well worth seeing. I give it 6.8/10

4. Xue GuanYin: The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful

Xue GuanYin poster, image taken from IMDB.com

I must admit I wasn’t super interested when I saw the trailer for this film. When I saw it in the theater I liked it but I thought that was it. However, the movie stuck with me much more than I thought it would, I kept thinking about certain scenes, which is why it ended up on this list.

The movie tells the story of three generations of the powerful, all female, Tang family (logically husbands and fathers must exist somewhere but they are never in the movie) who collude with both politicians and private businesses to gain money and power. What’s interesting about it is that, unlike other movies about mafia families, the main players are all female, and they use more feminine ways of getting what they want than characters in male centric movies.

As for Taiwanese culture, it is set in such high society that you don’t really get much sense of it. That being said, there are elements that would definitely have been done differently in a western setting. I simple put it on this list because it is a well told story with strong female characters in the lead, a solid 7/10.

5. The Tenants Downstairs

The Tenants Downstairs poster, image taken from IMDB.com

When I saw the trailer for this I was immediately interested, however I didn’t get a chance to see it until it came out on DVD. The movie is about a man who inherits an apartment building where the previous owner has installed hidden cameras in all the apartments. The man then spends his days spying on his tenants and eventually also manipulating them into doing ever more strange things.

Though the concept isn’t wholly unique, it is very well executed which makes for a simultaneously creepy and bizarre movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat for nearly the entire running time. The ending is a bit of a let down, almost like they didn’t have a good way to resolve all the plot threads, but other than that I think it’s a very watchable thriller.

Just like Xue Guanyin, this one is on the list simply because it’s a good movie, not because it showcases Taiwanese culture. Yes, there is a bit of culture inside but the main focus is on the concept. I would rate it higher but the lackluster ending drags it down to 6.8/10

6. Han Dan

Han Dan poster, image taken from IMDB.com

Both Xue GuanYin and The Tenants Downstairs ended up on this list simply because they are good films made in Taiwan, but they don’t really showcase much of Taiwanese culture. Han Dan ends up on the list mostly for the cultural aspects; not that it’s a bad movie, just that its qualities as a movie are of secondary importance when it comes to adding it to the list.

In Taidong City there is a folk tradition called The Firecracker Bombing of Lord Handan where (mostly young) men will volunteer to be the incarnation of Lord Handan – the Military God of Wealth according to Taoist tradition. These men, dressed in nothing but red shorts and a yellow headscarf, will be carried around on palanquins as people bombard them with firecrackers in order to bring them blessings from Lord Handan himself.

The film Han Dan tells the story of a man whose act of jealousy causes a tragedy that profoundly affects not only his own life, but also those of his rival and the girl they both love. He then sets out on a quest to redeem himself. Several important plot points are centered around the Bombing of Lord Han Dan festival, giving viewers some visually stunning scenes of the main characters being bombarded with firecrackers at these key moments. Moreover the movie is set in rural Taiwan which really gives you a sense of what life can be like once you leave Taipei.

All in all, the redemption story is well told, but were it not for the incorporation of the Han Dan festival, which adds some very unique elements, it would have been pretty generic. As a film I rate it at 6.8/10 but as a cultural showcase I give it 8/10.

7. Ren Mian Yu

Ren Mian Yu poster, image taken from IMDB.com

About two years ago my wife found out that her friend’s son was an actor in a movie called The Tag Along 2 (in my opinion, the original Chinese name, Little Girl in Red 2, would be a far better title, but I digress). It’s a horror movie, and although my wife is generally too scared to watch horror movies, we decided to see it to show our support for her friend. We both really liked it but thought the ending was a bit weak and the special effects somewhat lacking.

Tag Along 2 could very well have ended up on this list but at the end of last year, we saw the trailer for its prequel Ren Mian Yu (or The Devil Fish as it is known in English) and immediately knew we had to check it out. The Devil Fish is pretty similar to Tag Along 2 in many ways, as might be expected from an entry in a franchise, but there are a lot of little improvements throughout, most notably the special effects. Unlike most American horror movies that I’ve seen, Devil Fish doesn’t rely overly much on jump scares. Instead there’s a creepiness to the atmosphere that builds and builds towards the climax, keeping you at the edge of your seat through much of the running time. The ghosts and demons are rather different from the ones you might find in a typical American horror movie, and there are plenty of elements from Taiwanese folklore woven in to the story. I’m not a big horror fan myself but I thoroughly enjoyed this one, 7.2/10.

A quick side note: we did see the original Tag Along out of curiosity, but that was honestly kind of crap. If you like Ren Mian Yu and want to see something in the same style, skip that one and go directly for Tag Along 2

8. The Great Buddha+

Great Buddha+ poster, image taken from IMDB.com

I didn’t know much about this film when going in to see it. I really only agreed to see it because my wife was convinced I would like it. It turned out (of course) that she was 100% correct; I absolutely loved it.

I don’t want to go into too much detail because I really think people should see this without knowing too much. I think the best way I can describe it is: a slice of life drama/dark comedy, depicting the lives of two working class Taiwanese men whose lives are changed one day when their TV is broken. In many ways The Great Buddha+ is very reminiscent of the cult classic movie Clerks, and just like that one, the director takes a very mundane premise and turns it into a compelling story. The film’s real greatness however, lies in the way the story is told. The director uses a variety of creative techniques, like splicing in color footage in an otherwise black and white film, to give the movie a very unique character.

This is easily one of the best movies I’ve seen in the last ten years. Even if you don’t like artsy indie films I still encourage you to see it. My rating: 9/10