It is an awkward milestone. Young adults start to take on legal responsibilities at the age of eighteen, but they are still just kids. Usually, the eighteenth birthday is a cause for celebration, but there will be much more frustration than joy in the lives of two Native Taiwanese girls. Ho Chao-ti follows the teenagers as they navigate their late teen years in Turning 18 (trailer here), which screens during this year’s First Look at MoMI.
Chen and Pei are not really close. They just happened to meet during a summer vocational training program, but they both have been dealt a tough hand by life. This is especially true for Chen, who has been sexually abused by her father and other male family members. She struggles to maintain a close relationship with her mother, but the older woman’s alcoholism and health problems make matters difficult.
In contrast, Pei has arguably contributed to her difficult situation by making some questionable decisions, most definitely including shacking up with her deadbeat boyfriend Wei. Of course, there must be reasons she would so passively accept her bad situation, but we do not learn very much about her backstory.
Regardless, viewers will quickly come to ache for poor, struggling Chen. In addition to having the more compelling life-drama, she is also a hugely charismatic figure on-screen. Plus, her narrative arc covers considerably more territory, especially when she comes out of the closet and begins to openly experience romance and heartache.
In many ways, Turning 18 is a perfect example of how documentaries often serve as the snobby cineaste’s version of reality TV. Ho definitely incorporates issues of discrimination against Native Taiwanese, but there are scenes of Chen pining for an unfaithful lover and Pei arguing with Wei that would not be out of place on MTV’s old Real World voyeurism festival.
Regardless, Ho’s commitment is impressive. She clearly earned her subjects trust, even becoming a confident over the years that she filmed Chen and Pei. There are plenty of social issue justifications to be made for the doc, but it still often feels intrusive and even exploitative (for the record, the same is true of Grey Gardens, for the same reasons). Recommended for patrons of up-close-and-personal documentaries, Turning 18 screens this Sunday (1/20), as part of First Look at MoMI.