Often a cinematic space for depicting low-level criminality or financial desperation, the pawn shop becomes a place to ruminate on fate in Hsiao Ya-chuan’s amiable debut feature. Produced under the auspices of Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien but evidencing its own jazzy sensibility, Mirror Image provides a deceptively casual take on the life of young people in Taipei with the main location serving as a microcosm for the fluctuating economy which informs their choices about the future.
The life path of urbanite Lin Tung-ching (Lee Jiunn-jye) has been disrupted by unforeseen circumstances. Three months earlier, he had a road accident that caused the lifeline on his right hand to be scraped off. Informed by the attendant nurse that his life would now be unpredictable since it could no longer be controlled by fate, Tung-ching has since put his career as a web designer indefinitely on hold due to family illness. With his father in hospital following a stroke, Tung-ching is running the family pawn shop which not only affords him plenty of quality time with his charming girlfriend Eiko (Fan Hsiao-fan), but also leads to flirtation with an alluring female customer, who he names “Know All” (Era Wang).
As a portrait of Taipei at the turn of the millennium, the pawn shop’s sporadic clientele constitutes a social-economic cross-section that shares a need for quick cash but is hardly destitute. Stepping into his father’s shoes Tung-ching is respectful enough to spend almost all of his time in the shop (which doubles as a living space) but is not above having some fun with his temporary position. On a slow day, Tung-ching and Eiko go through all the luxury items that have long since passed the redemption period and play dress up. Later, he slyly suggests that one customer leave his friend as collateral against a loan, then has the unfortunate man part with his upmarket winter jacket when the customer fails to return. All of these scenes are shot in a sharply observational manner by cinematographer Lin Tse-chung who uses low angels to accentuate youthful behavior and attitudes in a space that is more characteristic of an older generation.
A few brief street scenes aside, this highly engaging film is almost entirely interior with interactions occurring either in the pawn shop or on the subway system. In voice-over, Tung-ching details how his relationship with Eiko blossomed online and the pawn shop serves as an intermediate space between the Internet and the wider world for them to become better acquainted. There is certainly a sense of intimacy between the young couple while Tung-ching is happy to indulge Eiko’s enthusiasm for palm reading by taking palm prints of his customers for her to study. However, it’s still a tentative relationship and Tung-chin doesn’t seem to be fully committed. One of his online names was “No Limit” because he felt the erasure of his lifeline had relieved him of constraints. He believes this justifies his dalliance off with “Know All”, which plays out in the confines of the subway where she defies transit rules to making a living peddling goods to commuters. As much as these tight environs give Tung-ching ample opportunities to observe the traits of the two women in his life, they are likewise able to read him with Hsiao occasionally shifting perspective and voice-over narration to create a low-stakes, deftly performed love triangle with echoes of Wong Kar-wai.
Mirror Image proved to be a template of sorts for Hsiao’s belated sophomore feature Taipei Exchanges (2010) which swapped the pawn shop for the comfortable environment of a trendy café for a touristic tale of fledgling entrepreneurship. With its altogether darker hue, Mirror Image is more reflective of tempered aspirations regardless of its fanciful fixation on palmistry. This subtle sense of entrapment is enhanced by the rhythmic tensions of Hou Chih-chieh’s distinctive score which suggests freewheeling impulses being cramped by inherited responsibilities, even if the playful repartee shows that city life is rarely without its incidental pleasures.
John Berra is lecturer in Film and Language Studies at Renmin University of China. He is the editor of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan (Intellect, 2010/12/15), co-editor of World Film Locations: Beijing (Intellect, 2012) and World Film Locations: Shanghai (Intellect, 2014). He has also contributed to Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema (BFI, 2014), Ozu International: Essays on the Global Influences of a Japanese Auteur (Bloomsbury, 2014) and Killers, Clients and Kindred Spirits: The Taboo Cinema of Shohei Imamura (EUP, 2019).