When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep is the latest feature from Taiwan’s government-sponsored commercial production sector to take an aspect of Taipei’s urban culture and utilise it as the basis for a piece of crowd-pleasing escapism: Taipei Exchanges (2010) promoted the city’s emerging café scene, while Night Market Hero (2011) took place in one of its many bustling after-hours areas. The setting for When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep is Nanyang Street where the city’s cram schools (private education institutions) are located adjacent to other businesses that thrive due to the sheer volume of students who frequent the district following regular school hours as a means of boosting their academic scores through extra learning. Although there is some stigma associated with ‘cram culture’, as students sacrifice individuality and the personal development that comes from extra-curricular pursuits in order to gain entrance to a top class university, When a Wolf Falls in Love With a Sheep frames Nanyang Street as a place where dreams come true through concentrated effort, even if its central protagonist – photocopy shop employee Tung (Ko Chen-Tung) – is more of a slacker than a potential careerist. After being dumped by his girlfriend (Peggy Tseng), who leaves a post-it note stating that she has gone to cram school, Tung is evicted from his box apartment and ends up wandering around Nanyang Street in the hope of a romantic reunion. Instead, he stumbles into a job at the Big Bad Wolf Copy Shop.
Working at the shop entails that Tung often delivers copies of test papers to Sure Win, a nearby cram school where Yang (Jian Man-Shu) is employed as a teaching assistant. She is also an aspiring illustrator, and sketches cartoons of sheep on the test papers before they are sent to print. Students at the school ignore her drawings, but Tung is sufficiently intrigued to add a response, sketching a wolf while passing time at the copy shop. Due to accidental duplication, his reply starts a correspondence of sorts, which the students of Sure Win follow while taking their practice tests. This also leads to the film’s stop-motion animation sections, as Tung and Yang’s correspondence is conveyed in cartoon form, while the characters form a friendship and start spending time together, mostly through advertising their respective services via street promotion, although they must resolve their respective issues before they can embark on a real relationship. Tung is determined to find his ex-girlfriend, while Yang is dealing with the premature passing of her mother, which has resulted in various obsessive-compulsive rituals. However, their lack of academic goals makes both unusual in the context of Nanyang Street, where most young people are pursuing qualifications that will facilitate a stable social position in the future. The career drive that is characteristic of the street is more embodied by Yang’s co-worker Pao Pao (Guo Shuyao), who not only sells courses but generates extra revenue for Sure Win by offering school advertising space to local food vendors.
When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep is as bright and cheerful as one would expect from a production that received support from the Taipei Film Commission and the Taipei City Department of Cultural Affairs, who arranged the large-scale closing of Nanyang Street in order to realise some of the film’s set-pieces. While its life lessons are not particularly deep, the whimsical tone is largely infectious, with engaging subplots involving a missing dog, a priest who moonlights as a wisdom-dispensing noodle seller (Lin Cheng Tai), and Tung’s self-appointed mission to return items that former cram school students have left in their lockers. The upbeat mood and brisk pace mark a departure from the meditative approach of Hou Chi-jan’s previous feature One Day (2010), which dealt with lost love through magical-realism rather than the pop art aesthetics that are on display here, although the director proves to be capable of catering to mainstream taste while still putting an idiosyncratic stamp on the material. Amid bursts of stylisation, he elicits charming performances from his leads, with Ko trading on the appeal that he demonstrated in You Are the Apple of My Eye (2011) and newcomer Jian making the most of her character’s unusual behaviour to emerge as a delightful dream girl. The underlying sweetness of When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep more than compensates for its lack of substance, and this is a rare romantic-comedy that strikes an ideal balance between both elements to ensure audience satisfaction.
When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep screens Friday, June 7 at 4:50pm at the Prince Charles Cinema in London as part of the 5th Terracotta Far East Film Festival. Tickets can be purchased from the festival website: