Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Taiwan Film Days ’13: Apolitical Romance

She takes her cue from government propaganda, whereas he takes inspiration from Gundam.  Advantage: his.  They will bicker constantly as a mutual attraction slowly but steadily develops in Hsieh Chun-yi’s cross-border rom-com Apolitcal Romance (trailer here), which screens during the San Francisco Film Society’s annual Taiwan Film Days.

Like any self-respecting slacker, Chen Yu-zheng (a.k.a. A-Zheng) took a government job.  Normally, it is not terribly demanding, but his boss is on his case over a report on various differences of etiquette for the mainland and Taiwan.  He has a week to fix it, but he has no clue when it comes to the PRC.  As fate would dictate, Qin Lang is in Taipei for a week, hoping to track down Chen Guang, her grandmother Li Huan’s fondly remembered lover from sixty years back.  They will sort of come to an arrangement.

Loud and argumentative, Qin Lang will not get very far on her own, but Chen was born to navigate Taiwan’s bureaucracy.  Before you can say “red tape” he has a list of Nationalist veterans born in Li Huan’s home province.  As they follow-up each lead, the sparks start to fly, but never past a certain point.  Apolitical is all about possibilities rather than consummations.  By rom-com standards, Hsieh’s film is wildly ambiguous, but that is its real charm.  We cannot even say definitely whether they ever will be a proper couple, but they clearly are in each other’s heads.

Apolitical also offers a fascinating look into the perceived differences between the Republic and mainland China, presenting the Beijinger as reflexively jingoistic and the Taiwanese Chen as a meek geek.  However, Hsieh never really delves into specific ideological differences.  Instead, he aims for nostalgic romanticism with every story of separated love Chen and Qin Ling hear in their quest for Chen Guang.

Bryan Chang and Huang Lu are ridiculously attractive would-be maybe lovers, but they never get too cute or cloying.  They get some rather sensitive support from many of the Chen Guangs, particularly Chien Te-men as number four.  Not surprisingly, there is an episodic quality to the film that mostly works quite well, but Hsieh pushes his luck with a flawed subplot involving Qin Ling’s former lover.  In contrast, Chen’s visit to his disgraced father packs some quiet power precisely because it is not over written or over played.

Apolitical is never as achingly emotional as Hsieh’s exquisitely poignant short Braid, but its restraint is a virtue.  It is a rom-com, more or less, but it is also a wistful commentary on the absurdly arbitrary things that separate people, like borders, ideologies, and health exchanges.  Recommended for those who prefer curve ball movie romances rather than a happily-ever-after fastball over the plate, Apolitical Romance screens this Sunday (11/3) at the Vogue Theatre as part of this year’s installment of the SFFS’s Taiwan Film Days.