2.5 stars out of 5
In local parlance, this is a film that can be categorised as “the idea is there”. Unfortunately, the execution and end-result didn’t quite live up to the promise of the idea, which isn’t a bad one.
The film doesn’t seem to ask for heavy emotional investment from the audience. It seems to exist and glide through its sub-90-minute running time with a blithe insouciance. It never challenges, or seems to strive for deep engagement.
As such, director Hsiao Ya-Chuan’s debut film, executive produced by Taiwan film giant Hou Hsiao-Hsien, is a dreamy, frothy, not-unpleasant, aesthetically pleasing film, with moments of cutesy light comedy. If only all that were enough.
Towards the end, in particular, it gets trying when one realises that it is not going to introduce genuine conflict or offer any illuminating insight. It’s like going on a blind date with a somewhat attractive person, whom you want to like and think may be interesting, and failing to make any connection at all.
The film features two attractive young leads, a pair of twenty-something sisters who have come together to run a cafe after very different life journeys so far. Doris (Kwai Lun-Mei) is the elder; Josie (Lin Zai Zai) is the younger.
Years before, after their father’s passing, the girls’ mother devised a life-altering game of chance: they drew lots to determine which sister would travel the world and which way stay back and study hard – to be funded by their inheritance. Doris studied and felt isolated; Josie travelled and felt isolated.
After the cafe opening results in friends leaving assorted bric-a-brac as gifts, the struggling cafe becomes junk-barter central, with an increasing stream of visitors arriving to embrace the concept, including a pair of couch surfers, a man with 35 bars of soap, and tour groups from mainland China.
The central ‘idea’ of this film, which as I said earlier isn’t bad, is how personal experiences and stories are tied up with each piece of material possession that passes through the cafe, and each retains a different ‘inner value’, as Josie realises, for the beholder.
Many critics have thus far noted the film’s stand against capitalism, for Josie fiercely guards the barter policy, in hopes of – ironically – trading up for a set of bone china and a car. One can also note the concept of exchanges being central to the protagonists – they each wish to have the other’s formative experiences. (In fact, metaphysically, Josie and Doris could easily be two sides of the same coin.)
Director Hsiao relies on a repetitive structure to drape his story upon. As we observe the cafe’s increasing popularity and the sisters’ interactions with guests and realisation of their objectives, he inserts interludes of their mother’s stern chidings – always misinterpreted by a third-party – and montages of man-on-the-street ‘interviews’ on key issues and philosophical appraisals.
With a breezy, jaunty instrumental soundtrack, the film’s airy tone leaves on detached from proceedings, as if viewing someone else’s dream with little stake in matters. It contains characters with romantic visions, but this is not a romantic comedy, per se.
It is a pity the film doesn’t achieve more, for Kwai is an appealing actress, remembered fondly for her star-turn in the notable 2002 indie Blue Gate Crossing, and seen more recently in Jay Chou’s Secret. (She will be seen again this year in Ocean Heaven and Stool Pigeon.)
By comparison, Au Revoir Taipei, coming into cinemas weeks after this, has a richer inner value and personality that this film, with more varied pacing. With that, you could say that “the idea is there ... and then some.” Meanwhile, Taipei Exchanges just leaves you hanging ... after the ellipsis.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
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