‘Ten Years Taiwan’: Film Review

Five young filmmakers tackle the fallout of nuclear power, the abuse of migrant labor and the suffering of the rural poor in the pormanteau ‘Ten Years Taiwan.’

Following two highly anti-establishment installments set in Hong Kong and Thailand, the “Ten Years” omnibus-feature franchise takes a more subtle turn in Taiwan, with five rookie directors bypassing partisan politics and China’s ominous presence next door to highlight socioeconomic issues tearing at the everyday existence of people stuck on the island’s social and geographic margins.

Deploying a mix of low-key docudrama, middlebrow satire and high-concept sci-fi, Ten Years Taiwan offers stylistically varied but invariably gloomy predictions of how things will be in a decade’s time. If their forecasts come true, Taiwan 2028 will be a nation confronting the fallout of its reliance on nuclear power, its indifference toward the plight of its migrant workers and rural poor, and its failure to alleviate the cynicism prevalent in the young.

The Bottom Line

Grim glimpses into the future.

If all this sounds like deja vu, it’s probably very much intentional. Just like in the original Hong Kong-set Ten Years and Ten Years Thailand, the most powerful and affecting onscreen prophecies are the ones that most closely resemble the lives and predicaments of the here and now.

Similar to its predecessors, Ten Years Taiwan is inconsistent as it combines the poetic with the contrived, and sharp commentary with shapeless fantasy. As a whole, however, the portmanteau remains thoughtful and effective enough to merit a sustained run on the festival circuit after its world premiere on home turf at the Taipei Film Festival. It’s not difficult to envision the movie being programmed as part of a series alongside Ten Years Thailand, which premiered at Cannes in May, and the Hirokazu Kore-eda-produced Ten Years Japan, which is expected to unspool at one of the A-list festivals in the fall.

Ten Years Taiwan kicks off on Lanyu, a small, windswept and underpopulated island off the eastern coast of Taiwan. At the center of The Can of Anido is Maran (Xie Jia-hui), an old aboriginal farmer who spends his days silently cultivating his ailing crops and feeding himself with pintsized yams in his barren, rickety hut. His taciturn demeanor belies his past as a young, vigorous activist fighting against the nuclear waste facilities the Taiwanese government imposed on his ancestral lands in 1982: for years, the Lanyu islanders have organized high-profile demonstrations against the waste disposal plants.

In 2028, however, what’s left of all this dynamism are yellowing photographs on the wall and old protest banners dangling from the ceiling. The film concludes with Maran at the seaside, staring at the horizon in anticipation of a brewing storm; it’s an end shot very much emblematic of the message of aboriginal director Lekal Sumi (Panay/Wawa No Cidal), and also Garvin Chen’s subtle but masterful camerawork.

Lu Po-shun’s Way Home echoes Sumi’s rural realism by tracking a day in the life of Dong-yang (Lu Dong-yang), a young man living alone in the provinces. Trying to stall his urban-dwelling parents’ requests to move and work in the city, he and his kid brother (Li Wen-he) set off to meet his friends in hope of landing a job locally. Dong-yang’s tortuous search leads him to travel through barren fields, shuttered factories and an eerily quiet village square, melancholic landmarks making up a rustic landscape drained of humanity.

Sandwiched in between these two understated entries is Rina B. Tsou’s 942. As the film begins in 2028, a young Taiwanese nurse (Alina Tsai), known only by her employee number, is shown struggling with her repulsive routines and cramped living quarters in an Indonesian hospital. Raped and made pregnant by her boss, she tries to flee the hospital — only to find herself peeking through a wormhole and observing an Indonesian going through the same ordeal in a Taiwanese household in 2018. With this tale about future payback for past crimes, the Filipino-Taiwanese filmmaker has made a significant and sure-handed stylistic leap on an issue she already broached in 2016 with Arnie, a short docudrama about a Filipino fisherman living and working abroad.

With A Making-Of, Columbia-educated Hsieh Pei-ju has moved beyond her previous shorts (Knighthood, 2013; Holothurian, 2014) about the growing pains of young girls. In the shape of a behind-the-scenes featurette documenting the production of a TV commercial — with the pivotal element being the search for a real baby at a time when nobody can afford to have children anymore — A Making-Of offers an occasionally funny but mostly lightweight satire of moral guardians trying to define happiness and family values for the masses.

Anchoring Ten Years Taiwan is perhaps the most ambitious and ambiguous entry in the anthology. Two years on from probing Malaysia’s checkered history and its homegrown communists in the critically acclaimed documentary Absent Without Leave, Taiwan-based Chinese-Malaysian director Lau Kek Huat jumps into the future with a stab at slow-moving sci-fi.

A tale of a young Taiwanese woman (Hsu Nai-han) seemingly detaching herself from the world by living in multiple dreams, The Sleep offers plenty of visual flourishes. However, it lacks the characterization needed to back up the well-trodden allegory of people opting to numb themselves by living as avatars in a matrix of finely calibrated dreams. The short has a lot of potential to be developed into something bigger — and the same could probably be said of all the entries in Ten Years Taiwan, and also of the young filmmakers themselves, who have proven their mettle with a mix of technical know-how and intense sensitivity to what’s wrong with their country and the world.

Cast: Xie Jia-hui (“The Can of Anido”), Alina Tsai, Karolyn Kieke (“942”), Lu Dong-yang, Li Wen-he (“Way Home”), Du Yi-fan, Mike Wang (“A Making-Of”), Hsu Nai-han (“The Sleep”)
Directors: Lekal Sumi (“The Can of Anido”); Rina B. Tsou (“942”); Lu Po-shun (“Way Home”); Hsieh Pei-ju (“A Making-Of”); Lau Kek Huat (“The Sleep”)
Screenwriters: Lekal Sumi; Chen Chia-ping, Lu Po-shun; Rina B. Tsou; Hsieh Pei-ju; Lau Kek Huat
Producers: Alan Chen; Yu Ko-chin; Tsai Hsin-yun; Kuo Bo-tsun; Stefano Centini
Executive producers: Andrew Choi, James C. Liu, Ng Ka-leung
Directors of photography: Garvin Chen, Aw See-wee, Feng Yi-wei, Chan Chen-chih, Yeh Ming-kuang
Production designers: Bonnie Chen, Peri Liu, Chen Yen-ting, Chen Ying-kuan, Weng Ding-yang
Music: Huang Tao-yun, Elizabeth Lim, Lin Hung-tao
Editing: Lee Chun-hong, Kao Ming-cheng, Lu Po-shun, Jessica Lin
Sales: Golden Scene
In Taiwanese, Mandarin, Yami and English
108 minutes