The two main contenders for “Best Film” at Taiwan’s prestigious Golden Horse Awards in 2017 were The Great Buddha+ (大佛普拉斯) and The Bold, The Beautiful, and the Corrupt (血觀音), both of which made use of religious metaphors to address the subject of political corruption.
To this list of classics on the topic of corruption we may add Story in Taipei (台北物語), one of 2017’s most hotly talked-about films. In sharp contrast with Edward Yang’s Taiwanese New Wave classic, Taipei Story, Story in Taipei became a hit in the “So bad, it’s good” genre. This improbably thought-provoking film has been described by viewers as “divine,” “historic,” “sublime,” “a film you should watch while on drugs,” and even “transcending the medium of film itself.”.
An independent production with a small budget, Story in Taipei opened in just three theaters—one in Taipei and two in Kaohsiung—during the Dragon Boat holiday of 2017. But news about the film spread through the internet via forums and social media, fans urged more screenings, and the gradual expansion of the film’s screening locations, with up to 250 viewers crowding into theaters that could only accommodate 100. Fans began renting out theaters in order be able to watch the film outside its limited screenings. Eventually, Story in Taipei took more than 5,000,000 NT at the box office and played for 38 days, outperforming, in Taiwan, even the Hollywood-Chinese co-production The Great Wall, then the most expensive Chinese film ever made.
One year after the film’s original release, fans are organizing screenings to commemorate the anniversary of the film. A Wikia has been made to catalog it scene by scene, and there are numerous Facebook fan communities. Fans frequently describe the experience of watching the film in a group as a unique experience; some can even quote lines from the film by memory, recalling the fan devotion of American cult classics such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
In recent memory, there has been no film phenomenon like this in Taiwan, leading moviegoers and film critics to wonder whether it fits the “cult film” phenomenon as described in Western film criticism, or whether Story in Taipei could be compared to the cult-like followings of other “so bad it’s great” films such The Room. Some have called Story in Taipei Taiwan’s first cult film.
And, yes, almost everything about the film is bad. Almost no shot lasts longer than a minute, the longest being one minute and ten seconds.
Rumor has it that the cinematographer was young, inexperienced, and would call for an end to shooting for the day whenever he was tired. The camera endlessly returns to the image of a ceiling fan, which has inspired a great many video spin-offs. Background noises abound, particularly the sound of Taipei traffic. The script is incomprehensible, with unrealistic dialogue and constantly repetitive phrases. Whole scenes play out for no evident reason, thematically or plot-wise; characters make random phone calls, order soft drinks, toss and turn in bed, and have casual discussions with no apparent relevance to the plot.
Few members of the cast expected to hear of the film again after it wrapped in 2014, it is said, and they were surprised to see it appear in theaters some years later. Director Huang Yin-xiong (黃英雄), a native of Taiwan’s major southern city of Kaohsiung and a playwright, served as a judge for the Golden Horses in the past. Huang insists that his film is art, even if not everyone can understand it; he claims it to be his depiction of Taipei. The planned sequel, he has said, will require 100,000 extras. (If so, the film would probably have the second most extras of any movie in history, mobilize such large numbers of people as to cause massive gridlock in Taipei or any other Taiwanese city, and would almost certainly be the most Taiwanese film ever made).
Despite its convoluted and nonsensical plot, Story in Taipei is an attempt at a cinematic epic depicting all strata of Taiwanese society. The film is framed as as a film about Taipei people from the perspective of non-Taipei natives—specifically a farmer and his grandson, discussing the foibles of elite Taipei people who care only about money. Characters from Taipei are depicted in this film as social elites to the point of parody, and those from outside Taipei are depicted as working-class also to the point of parody.
In a strange sort of way, then, the film almost seems the perfect counterpoint to the Taiwanese New Wave—masterful, complex depictions of Taipei life from Taipei residents themselves, versus the garbled, incomprehensible, and fantastical depiction of Taipei life from outside the capital, as seen in Story in Taipei.
Full spoilers ahead, then. Lin Xiao-qing, a thief, steals a taxi and nearly crashes into Lin Qiu-hong, no relation. Lin Qiu-hong boards his taxi anyway, thinking that he is a regular taxi driver. The two Lins subsequently crash into the car driven by Taipei city council member Ke Xi-en, who is driving back his family villa after a romantic tryst with his assistant, Guo Xin-chun, with whom he’d just enjoyed a bottle of fancy wine; he was driving drunk.
Fearing scandal, Ke offers the two Lins 500,000 NT (about $16,000) if they keep quiet about the incident—and if they sell him the taxi. The two Lins agree, but after they leave, Lin Qiu-hong, recognizing Ke as a city councillor up for re-election, comes to the conclusion that they can blackmail Ke for an additional 5,000,000 NT, ten times the original sum. This leads to one of the film’s most famous lines, “This no longer a matter of 500,000 NT, this is now a matter of 5,000,000 NT!” (我們要談的不是50萬，而是500萬！). This line subsequently became so iconic that variants of it are now occasionally seen in newspapers as a idiomatic expression. Lin Qiu-hong also reveals that she (somehow) knew all along that Lin Xiao-qing had stolen the taxi, but had chosen to get in anyway.
In the meantime, Guo Zai-xing, Ke’s assistant and Guo Xin-chun’s younger brother, has gotten involved in an apparent blackmail case involving the kidnapping of Boss Lin, the owner of a construction company. Coincidentally, Boss Lin’s unconscious body is in the trunk of Lin Xiao-qing’s stolen taxi. Guo and his accomplices are panicked that Boss Lin may die if left in the car overnight.
Ke Xi-en’s wife, Sun Ying, a doctor, is also having an affair, with her hospital colleague Tony. After Ke Xi-en orders Guo Zai-xing to withdraw 500,000 NT from the company accounts, Sun becomes suspicious and decides to follow her husband.
Guo Zai-xing meets with the two Lins at Ke’s villa the next day to try and get them to hand over the taxi registration information in return for the money, but Boss Lin unexpectedly wakes up and gets out of the car trunk, still alive. Guo makes the best of the situation, claiming that Boss Lin is safe now, and accusing Lin Xiao-qing of kidnapping him. Under pressure and accused of kidnapping, Lin admits to stealing the taxi, a lesser charge. Guo becomes inexplicably enraged about the taxi theft and gets into a fistfight with Lin.
The rest of the plot is similarly incoherent. Should Boss Lin consider the taxi thief Lin as his rescuer, or as his kidnapper? But wait!! The taxi thief Lin has just remembered something! Boss Lin is the owner of the development firm that forcibly evicted his family (this is a nod to general concerns regarding urban gentrification and evictions in Taiwan). Boss Lin denies responsibility.
But now Guo Xin-chun she suddenly recognizes Lin Xiao-qing’s watch! It is her parents’ watch, stolen from their family home in a catastrophic robbery that left the family destitute, resulting in her father’s death.
These events are succeeded by incomprehensible fights, discoveries, meetings and accusations, including an epic misdiagnosis of leukemia that led Lin Qiu-hong to travel around the world six times, using money inherited from her deceased husband, in the anticipation that she would soon die. But she did not die. Now broke, she longs to die, for which she blames Sun.
Sun Ying comments that this was not a misdiagnosis but a miracle that cannot be explained by science. Such things happen in the world, after all. There is a long rant about that which cannot be explained by science, which is quite clearly just the director speaking through Sun. Besides, Liu has already tried to sue Sun for malpractice and Sun was found not guilty. The other characters agree that Lin should just be happy to be alive. The matter is dropped for the rest of the film.
The characters continue to argue. Tony, who has no connection to any character except for Sun Ying and largely only served as someone for Sun to talk to through the film, offers completely irrelevant commentary in the course of this, making comments like, “I want to travel around the world too! But, as a doctor, I am too busy.”
But then Boss Lin speaks up, saying that he thinks that they should just stop here and all go home for the day. Fate works in mysterious ways, after all, and it has brought them all together. When the point is raised that these are strange comments from a man who was just kidnapped and nearly killed, Boss Lin replies that the kidnapping was unrelated to the case at hand, but intimates that he knew Guo Zai-xing was involved. We never find out what these city councilors—seen scheming in scenes interspersed throughout the movie—were up to.
Surprisingly, the others decide to take Boss Lin at his word and everyone heads home. However, Lin Qiu-hing vows continued revenge, and Guo Xin-chun admits to having made up the story about the stolen watch. And here the film ends—apart from some incoherent scenes involving Ke and Sun’s daughter.
The Taipei of Story in Taipei is a mythical place full of intrigues of politics, business, and crime—a phantasmagoria of Taiwanese modernity, and a melodramatic allegory of the political and economic dramas affecting Taiwan as a whole. The film suggests that contingent, coincidental events in Taipei may appear like predestined fate for those outside of it, hence Huang’s strange assumption that a plot founded on so many random coincidences can pass muster. Though it must be said that this notion of the city as a site of unending coincidences in which all sorts of unthinkable events can take place is hardly particular to Story in Taipei in Sinophone films—one is reminded of the depiction of Hong Kong in the films of Wong Kar-Wai, particularly Chungking Express and Fallen Angels.
With the director apparently unable to resolve the plot at the end of Story in Taipei, the character conflicts are instead ultimately suspended by Boss Lin’s suggestion that everyone call it a day and go home. Conveniently, this occurs around the two-hour mark of the movie, when audience attention may be wearing down. Boss Lin is something like a living MacGuffin in the film, emerging from the stolen taxi like a literal deus ex machina to resolve the film’s conflicts.
Long as it is, this analysis only scratches the surface of the complexities of Story in Taipei—complexities which the film, despite its auteur’s protestations, achieves entirely by accident.
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Brian Hioe, Taipei, Taiwan, Chinese film