City of Lost Things (Taiwan, 2020) [NYAFF 2021]

Six years after his politically subversive Salute! Sun Yat-Sen (2014), acclaimed Taiwanese writer-director Yee Chih-yen returns to feature filmmaking with City of Lost Things. Surprisingly, for the first time, he has taken to the medium of animation, yet retains his astute grasp on the political thematic.

Leaf (voiced by River Huang) is sixteen, has an alcoholic mother, an indifferent father, and a very messy, unclean home. Bullied at school, fighting with pals he draws street art with, he runs away one night only to be nearly sucked into a turbine of a garbage truck. It is a dreary neighborhood and as he clings to a rusty pole for his dear life, some plastic bags cling to him for the same. The suction suddenly stops and the truck disappears into the dark. All that remains are a stunned Leaf and red striped plastic bag, Baggy (Joseph Chang), grateful to Leaf for saving its and its pals’ lives.

Confused and with no inclination to return home, Leaf readily goes along with Baggy to its abode. A neglected part of the urban landscape, Baggy and his friends live in a kind of ghost city. Dilapidated, empty buildings are surrounded by heaps of discarded items thrown away by humans. Leaf easily drifts off to sleep, his spray paint can, Arty (voiced hilariously by veteran actress Lee Lieh), by his side and is awakened to assist in Baggy’s great plot to escape the place forever for a better, promising future. Baggy has guided his friends and concocted an elaborate plan to get away from a dead city that does not recognize that they are of much value and cannot be cruelly burnt permanently by garbage disposals.

Although what this means becomes clear as the story comes to its close, it is in the characters’ struggle to move beyond their deprived circumstances where City of Lost Things becomes a Yee classic. He writes Leaf as one who has to rise above his difficulties, both self-made and through external forces beyond his control, on his own, like the teen protagonists of Salute! Sun Yat-Sen and the young high schooler discovering her sexuality in his sophomore film, the absolute treasure, Blue Gate Crossing (2002). As Baggy enthusiastically carries on with his plan, a sudden betrayal paves way for Yee to design a political uprising of sorts. He pulls back and visually frames the entire fight back sequence in long shots as the ghost city’s inhabitants rise up against the apparent autocratic head Mr. G, a junk Chinese Emperor toy (Jack Gao). A genuinely tense episode, but just as soon as it veers toward becoming the expected political reading, Yee upends this easy implication and draws complete focus to Leaf. Leaf has to contend with his own ethics and self-centredness. Arty, Baggy and GPS, an old, working electronic navigator (a delightful cameo from Yee regular Gwei Lun-mei) lead the fight for what they deem are their right and freedom, together as a team irrespective of the overly oppressive system they live under. Where does Leaf stand and what moral compass he lives by, become his eventual struggle toward creating a responsible, sustaining life, not just for himself but for those he is close to as well.

The animation renders this journey towards personal liberty and maturity for all the characters, specifically Baggy and Leaf, perfectly. The burning furnaces are gaping, open depths of hell. Menacingly surrounded by huge garbage disposal machines that violently push the thingamajigs into the massive fire pits, Leaf has to think on his feet if he and his friends have to survive and escape to their ‘dreamland’. Yee vividly evokes the student revolt of Tiananmen Square and subverts the historical tragedy with dramatic action and surprising terse doses of comedic action courtesy Arty.

Animation directors typically go to extremes to ‘humanize’ inanimate object characters in their narratives so as to emotionally connect with the viewer, but Yee simply does away with this. His objects are just as they are seen in this world, and move about just as they as do. It is within their natural physical movements and still presence that Yee crafts and tones his dialogues and action. Every object comes to life within the narrative with no manipulation to what they are. The background score soothingly complements the emotional depth created. Yee welcomingly uses animation to construct his own distinct, authentic, cinematic language.

Ultimately, City of Lost Things is a film that is likely to stand the test of time, like Yee’s Blue Gate Crossing. Here’s hoping he doesn’t take as long as he usually does to make his next feature in any artistic medium of his choosing.

City of Lost Things is showing at the New York Asian Film Festival on August 19.