Apolitical Romance (Dui Mian De Nu Hai Sha Guo Lai): Film Review
The relationship between mainland China and Taiwan is given a light-hearted spin with first-time director Hsieh Chun-yi’s rom-com about a Taipei civil servant and his feisty guest from Beijing.
Apolitical Romance is book-ended by the same piece of conversation: with their scooter stuck at a red-light, the film’s odd couple – meek Taiwanese cultural apparatchik A-Cheng (Taiwanese star Bryan Chang Shu-hao) and the feisty tourist-from-Beijing Qin Lang (mainland China’s indie stalwart and film festival regular Huang Lu) – bickers about the complications of marital union and what separation might entail.
“You’re talking about alimony payments when the knot isn’t even tied yet?” he says.
Neither alluding to their own future, nor the predicaments of any of their acquaintances, the pair’s acerbic and seemingly out-of-place exchange can also easily be seen as having underlying meaning. In spite of the film’s (perhaps ironic) title, the lines could well be seen as a veiled reference to the ebbing and flowing of the relationship between mainland China and Taiwan – a bond built on a messy mix of poignant feelings, political posturing and, last but not least, pragmatism.
Describing himself in his biographical blurb as a director trying to incorporate social issues, the film’s New York-educated Taiwanese helmer Hsieh Chun-yi has cleverly chosen the romantic comedy genre to tackle the thorny topic of mainland-Taiwan antagonism – which now surfaces less as straightforward political or military stand-offs, but more in the shape of the culture shock in ordinary, everyday exchanges in meetings between people from both sides of the Taiwan Straits.
With its jaunty pace (courtesy of the screenplay and also Young Wei-hsin’s editing), witty one-liners and sparkling performances from the two leads, Apolitical Romance – which premiered at Taiwan's Golden Horses festival in November, screened at Udine in April and will open at home late September – will score points with Chinese audiences seeking a fun-fuelled take on the much-discussed schisms between mainland Chinese visitors and their Taiwanese (and Hong Kong) hosts.
Indeed, Hsieh has relegated political polemic either into the background – A-Cheng and Qin Lang are hardly seen debating history or ideology – or transformed them into punchlines or gags. For example, mistaking the couple for lovers, a man in the street congratulates A-Cheng for being able to “re-invade the mainland,” a phrase much used in the past by the Taipei-based government to describe attempts to defeat the communists and regain the standing as China’s only political authority.
Also, as the duo visits Taipei’s Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Qin Lang launches loudly into a revolutionary anthem praising Mao Zedong – Chiang’s nemesis – and the Chinese Communist Party. (It will be interesting to see what the mainland Chinese censors think of this, if Hsieh and Huang – who is also executive producer of the film – is to bring the rom-com to the much-politicized universe on the mainland.)
Stripped bare of these political connotations, however, Apolitical Romance is essentially about two quirky, lonely characters seeking emotional solace. A-Cheng is a lowly civil servant struggling to complete, in a week’s time, a manual about the different social etiquettes in Taiwan and on mainland China, a task made difficult by the fact that he doesn’t know anyone from across the Taiwan Straits. Qin Lang, meanwhile, is in Taipei to look for her grandmother’s childhood sweetheart – someone she has never seen for decades after he was conscripted into Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang troops in the 1940s.
After scenes that seem to be in line with the de rigueur screwball rom-com style - Qin Lang stirs up a fight in front of A-Cheng, then forces him to pay for things – the pair sets off to find that elusive lost lover. And as they seemingly edge closer, they also get closer to each other – their growing feelings for each other boosted by the string of tragic romantic tales they hear from the elderly couples they have to visit in their quest, nearly all of them involving marriages and families cast asunder by the Chinese civil war between Mao’s communists and Chiang’s Kuomintang in the late 1940s.
These stories provide an interesting context for the plot. The sensitive, controversial issues, which led to pain and anguish decades ago, are now readily deployed to propel a romantic comedy, with once-inflammatory political jargon becoming raw material for humor.
Apolitical Romance is partially successful in steering clear of dogmatic cultural stereotypes, while developing the clash-of-civilizations relationship between the pair. But the film moves gradually into sentimentalist territory, with a lot of doe-eyed gazing and lovelorn silences – and a sideshow about Qin’s own search for a lover from the past. All this undermines the momentum of the film with the Chinese title “The Girl Opposite Comes Charging Over.”
Reviewed at the Summer International Film Festival in Hong Kong
Production Companies: Sanxi Pictures, Chengdu Seven-Ten Media Entertainment, iFilm Company
Cast: Bryan Chang Shu-hao, Huang Lu, Qian De-men, Lu Xue-feng
Director: Hsieh Chun-yi
Screenwriters: Lyra Fu and Hsieh Chun-yi
Producers: Yi Chih-yen, Gu Qiao, Wesley Kao
Executive Producers: Hsieh Chun-yi, Huang Lu
Director of photography: Jordan Schiele
Music: Hsu Wei-san
Editors: Young Wei-hsin
Art Director: Lin Pei-chen
International Sales: iFilm Company
In Mandarin/Putonghua and Taiwanese
Running time 90 minutes