Alifu, the Prince/ss (Taiwan, 2017) [CVF 2018]

As diversity and representation continues flourish as a growing issue on the global stage, cinema has taken a front seat in sharing stories of those who rarely get heard. In recent years, we have seen a slew of filmmakers create stories about marginalized and underrepresented populations, and this seems to be a trend that is growing roots around the world. Specifically for the LGBTQ community, cinema continues to be a strong source of narration for complex stories set within worlds not usually depicted in commercial films. With Alifu, the Prince/ss, Wang Yu-Lin takes viewers on a journey about being transgender in the context of tribal traditions and wavering self-identification.

It starts off by introducing Alifu (newcomer Utjung Tjakivalid), an urban dwelling man who is in the midst of transitioning into a woman. Alifu identifies as a female, and pending reconstructive surgery, lives life as a female hairdresser in Taipei. Life gets complicated as Alifu’s father Dakanao (Parangalan), who serves as the chief of a Paiwan tribe in the outskirts of Taiwan, plans for retirement and assumes that his only living son will be taking over his post. While Dakanao seems to be aware of Alifu’s gender indifferences, and has an unwavering love for his son, he struggles with his rooted responsibilities as the sole protector of his tribe’s traditional values.

The film is rounded out by a number of complex characters who help explore issues of identity and acceptance in the modern world. Alifu’s roommate Li Pei-Zhen (Chao Yi-Lan) is a lesbian hairdresser who works at the same salon, and serves as a strong moral support system for Alifu both in and outside of work. Although Alifu surrounds himself with an inclusive social circle, including transgender woman Sherry (Bamboo Chu-Sheng Chen), the owner of a drag bar (Pong Fong Wu) and a reporter (Cheng Jen-Shuo) who secretly performs at said bar, he struggles to break free from the tribal traditions of his heritage.

It’s hard to believe that this is Tjakivalid’s first starring role in a film. As the titular character, he carries the film with a natural grace and perfection that is fitting for someone who certainly has wings as a rising actor in the industry. As the film begins, Alifu is going through both a physical and mental transformation, and Tjakivalid brings a transformative performance to the table from beginning to end. Equally as impressive is Chen’s performance as a transgender woman, which never feels over the top. It’s hard to make too many comparative statements regarding Chen’s performance as transgender people are rarely represented on screen in a serious manner, but hopefully that will change with films like Alifu on the horizon.

But where Alifu truly succeeds is its ability to depict a clear story about transgender identification, without being overtly identified as a ‘transgender film’. As the film begins, the introduction of Alifu is actually quite understated, and it becomes a natural assumption to viewers that he identifies with the female gender. The reveal happens early in the film, but it’s not a big moment and is just simply part of the overall narrative. By doing this, Wang is able to craft a story about identity and acceptance that feels universal, and rightfully so, as these are things that should indeed be universal to anyone regardless of sexual identity. This sense of natural and universal storytelling is also reflected in the screenplay, where conversations are never overly dramatic. Even when Alifu is confronted by his father about his sexual identity and inherited responsibilities to the tribe, the film doesn’t descend into melodrama. Instead, we witness mature conversations between adults and the emotional implications that these conversations have on all parties involved.

In the end, we have a film that explores both the social and interpersonal aspects of becoming a transgender individual in modern times. The added complexity of having to come to terms with traditional roots from another time makes Alifu, the Prince/ss a unique piece of cinema that is explorative for those who are unfamiliar with the subject matter. For most general viewers, there will certainly be a sense of unfamiliarity, which punctuates the importance of films like this.

Alifu, the Prince/ss receives its UK premiere at the Chinese Visual Festival on May 6