Taiwanese city backs actors in quiet film


POSTED: Friday, December 11, 2009

We're in kind of weird cultural time warp here. “;No Puedo Vivir sin Ti”; is Spanish for “;I Can't Live Without You,”; and that's about all that's Latin in this modern film set in the busy port city of Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

It's a time-slip because, in style and imagery, this film resembles mostly French avant-garde films of the early '60s, you know, all these critics' faves like “;The 400 Blows”; or “;Shoot the Piano Player”; or “;Breathless.”; Those were observant little movies shot in intense black-and-white, so contrast-y that shadows looked like holes in the film stock and highlights sizzled like a klieg light.

I have no idea what's up with the Spanish title. But the subject of the film is heartfelt and troubling, all the more so because it's so underplayed. A father and his little girl live in a hovel on the port docks, and she tags along on his fairly dangerous jobs. Their devotion to each other is apparent. But—there would be no movie without a but—it seems that in Taiwanese law even the natural father of a child must register as a legal parent. The government is allowed to seize your kid and give her away to a foster home, even if it's not in the best interests of the child.

        Not Rated
        Opens today at Consolidated Kahala

And that's what happens. The father spends most of the film getting doors shut in his face by smiling bureaucrats. We're pretty sure it works out in the end, and it's to the film's credit that the question is open-ended.

What's left is film style, and director Leon Dai uses a carefully framed palette to suggest the events closing in on the father. The father is played by Wen-pin Chen, who also produced the film and co-wrote the script with Dai, and it's supposedly based on a true story, although the perimeters of it are common enough to suggest many similar dilemmas facing those running afoul of governmental idiocy.

Chen is quietly astonishing in the role as a sad-sack Everyman pushed to the limits of his patience.

The other star is the port of Kaohsiung, a dirty, vibrant, bustling place that is the second-largest city in Taiwan. One of the things that Asian films do well is show people at work, and the workers in “;No Puedo Vivir”; have a kind of weary nobility as they scrape by. By contrast, the characters in American films seem to be on vacation most of the time.

Editor's note: Late last month the film won several accolades at the Chinese-language equivalent of the Academy Awards: best picture, best director, best original screenplay and outstanding Taiwanese film of the year at the Golden Horse Awards.