Night Market Hero (Taiwan, 2011)

The night markets of Taipei are as famous for their xiaochi (snack food) as they are for their easy-going atmosphere: most evenings will find the biggest night markets packed with people wandering the backstreets where vendors offer carnival games, cosmetics, electronics and the latest fashions in addition to the local cuisine. Although these night markets have often appeared in Taiwanese cinema, Yeh Tien-Lun’s first feature Night Market Hero revolves entirely around such an area, following Arvin Chen’s Au Revoir Taipei (2010) and Hsiao Ya-chuan’s Taipei Exchanges (2010) as a film that seeks to work as both lightweight mainstream comedy and to promote the touristic appeal of Taipei. Indeed, this is the first Taiwanese film to receive a release in China without having to be included in the annual ‘foreign quota’, albeit in a revised version that substitutes local dialect and slang for official Mandarin. The presence of tourists from the mainland in the early scenes indicates that Night Market Hero wants to emphasise warm Taiwanese hospitality as these travelers sample the fast food delights of fried chicken and pepper steak. Unfortunately, the film tries too hard to please; Au Revoir Taipei and Taipei Exchanges have slight narratives, but share a relaxed charm that effectively summarises the Taiwanese capital, while Night Market Hero clocks in at an over-stretched two hours due to an attempt to infuse a routine underdog story with riotous sketch comedy. It’s a disappointing collection of skits, styles and sub-plots, which is a shame considering its vibrant setting.

Events take place around the fictional 888 Market where Ah Hua (Blue Lan) is the young union leader who settles disputes and talks the police into turning a blind eye when bootleg DVDs are spotted at some of the stalls. His love interest arrives in Yi-nan (Alice Ko), a struggling photojournalist who has relocated to Taipei after losing her previous job due to a very public argument with a celebrity. Trying to make a new start at tabloid publication ‘Happy Weekly’ while dealing with boyfriend issues, Yi-nan tries to capture shots of local life at the night market, attracting the attention of Ah Hua; he leads her into a set-up that causes electrical damage, resulting in Yi-nan undertaking community service at 888. Night Market Hero settles into romantic-comedy mode as Ah Hua and Yi-nan get to know each other, but the main plot is introduced at the half-way point when an ‘urban regeneration’ project is planned that will shut-down the night market in order to build a modern shopping complex. Councillor Chang (Chu Ko-Liang) is involved, with flashbacks revealing him not only to be a former member of the market community, but also an ‘uncle’ to Ah Hua. 30-days of notice are provided before the wrecking ball arrives, while local gangsters are recruited to ensure that everyone moves on in time, even though leases have been renewed for the next five years. With their livelihoods threatened, the stallholders put aside their differences and rally their resources to save the 888.

Night Market Hero certainly has its heart in the right place as a celebration of Taiwanese culture, but its initial burst of energy soon wears off as the hustle and bustle of the 888 succumbs to painfully conventional plotting. Considering that he is meant to be the eponymous night market hero, Ah Hua is a blank centre, which leaves the supporting players to provide the laughs. This enthusiastic ensemble, populated by youthful pin-ups and veteran comedy performers, conveys the camaraderie of the night market community, emphasising lifelong ties despite occasional quarreling. Some back stories are provided, but most of the characters are broadly sketched, with names assigned in accordance with their respective stalls: Aunty Facial, Bingo King, Chicken Fillet, Madam Steak and Miss Hotdog get a fair amount of screen time, while regular events such as the ‘888 Beauty Contest’ and the ‘888 Bike Race’ bring them out from behind the counter for some competitive activity. There is some relevant commentary here as, while Taipei still has numerous night markets, the internationalisation of the Taiwanese capital has resulted in anonymous high-rise shopping plazas, such as Taipei 101. These malls are the antithesis of the local culture represented by the Shida Night Market or the Raohe Night Market, which probably served as the models for the 888. This reviewer found that he could wander around such areas for hours on a recent visit to Taipei, but the shortcomings of Night Market Hero make this slice of cinematic tourism an unsatisfying substitute.