'Alifu, the Prince/ss': Film Review | Tokyo 2017
Director Wang Yu-lin explores Taiwan’s diversified LGBTQ world in his new film.
It is surprising how many different faces the LGBT world counts in Taiwan, all exemplified with pride and feeling in Wang Yu-lin’s third feature Alifu, the Prince/ss. This potpourri of sexual diversity is likely to bring the film to the attention of festivals like Tokyo’s forward-looking Asian Future sidebar. What a pity the storytelling is so sloppy and disjointed that it interferes with understanding the plot. The characters are in place and the acting fine, but their interwoven stories are told in bits and pieces that only come together with a major effort on the viewer’s part.
The coy title refers to young Alifu (newcomer Utjon Tjakivalid), the son of a tribal chief from the indigenous people of Taiwan. Incongruously enough, we meet him made up as a girl with hoop earrings and a trendy haircut, working as a hairdresser in the Taipei salon of the equally cool Li Peizhen (Chao Yi-lan of Drifting Flowers), a lesbian who has just broken up with her girlfriend. Peizhen and Alifu room together, and she gives him encouragement while he saves up to have sex-change surgery. The complication is that his ailing father back in rural Taitung is ignorant of all this and plans to pass on the reins of tribal chiefdom to his only son. (The film’s poster, by the way, shows Alifu dressed as a knock-out tribal princess.)
The other complication is that Peizhen discovers she’s falling for him, despite their different sexual orientations. This becomes the film’s basic theme: Love conquers all, no matter who the object of one’s affections may be.
Another love-is-blind story is that of the transgender Sherry, who owns a drag bar. The role is played with soft poetry by Chen Zhu-sheng (a.k.a. Bamboo Chen, who has a leading role in another Tokyo Film Festival entry called The Great Buddha+). Sherry has a long-standing fondness for a rough-speaking plumber (veteran Wu Peng-feng). He has no sexual interest in her, but in the final scenes he delivers an oration extolling her fine character that is truly moving.
Among the stage performers in Sherry’s bar is Chris (Jen Shuo-cheng from Thanatos, Drunk), a muscular hetero guy who just likes dressing up in feathers and makeup and lip-syncing disco songs to an adoring crowd. A frustrated civil servant by day, he hides his night job from his live-in girlfriend, who eventually finds out thanks to a thoughtless poke on Alifu’s part. The film’s one and only sex scene involves her testing his masculinity in bed.
The material for a film is there but Wang, who co-directed the well-received 7 Days in Heaven with Essay Liu, seems to lose his way narratively among multiple screenwriters and editors. Barely a scene is developed fully enough to make a dramatic point, and the jumpy cutting quickly gets on the nerves. The exhilarating ending, on the other hand, feels like total fantasy as Alifu succeeds in obtaining both cultural sanction for his gender reassignment and a loving family in the bargain.
A notable tech contribution is Blaire Ko’s music track, which incorporates plaintive local ballads.
Production company: Magnifique Creative Media Production (Taiwan)
Cast: Utjon Tjakivalid, Zhao Yi-lan, Wu Peng-feng, Chen Zhu-sheng (Bamboo Chen), Zheng Ren-shuo
Director: Wang Yu-lin
Screenwriters: Wang Yu-lin, Hsu Hua-chien, Hua Bo-rong, Chen Hui-ling
Producers: Gene Yao, Liu Ji-gang
Director of photography: Wang Pan-yun
Production designer: Koo Bao-yi
Costume designer: Lee Ming-chuan
Editors: Hong Dong-ren, Chang Yi-nian
Music: Blaire Ko
Venue: Tokyo Film Festival (Asian Future)
World sales: Reel Suspects