Nobody (Taiwan, 2020) [SDAFF 2020]

A growing appetite for material exploring LGBTIQ issues appears to be settling into Chinese language film industries, with recent years providing a string of pictures focused on gay, lesbian, transgender and other issues. While Taiwan has long established a tradition for queer cinema through both popular hits like Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet (1993) and festival favourites (pick a film by Tsai Ming-Liang), a recent bloom in relevant films seems to come hand-in-hand with a general opening-up of Taiwanese culture. Marriage equality came to Taiwan in 2019, and seems surrounded by a string of independent films including Mag Hsu and Hsu Chih-yen’s Dear Ex (2018), Liu Kuang-hui’s Your Name Engraved Herein (2020), and Teddy Chin’s Miss Andy (2020) – not to mention recent television dramas including History (2019-19), Handsome Stewardess (2019), and Craving You (2020).

Into this busy new wave comes Nobody, a bleak but effective debut feature from writer/director Lin Chun-hua. It made its debut at this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival and has since been developing its international profile at other festivals around the world. How it will fare with a global queer audience is questionable – as a market it tends to prefer a good time to serious drama – but its effectiveness for a broader festival audience of Chinese-language enthusiasts seems more assured.

A nameless old man (An Yi Chiao) rides a city bus every day from his cramped apartment to the hospital and back. While sitting on the bus he deliberately spits phlegm onto the floor, with such appalling regularity that he is ultimately thrown off to walk. He is apparently widely disliked since he is referred to only as “Weirdo” by his neighbours and appears to live a miserable, solitary life.

This state of affairs is punctured by the unwanted arrival of Zhenzhen (Wu Ya-ruo), a teenage girl who invades the old man’s apartment to spy on her father’s affairs across the road. Her urgent desire to use the apartment for her own purposes leads her to engage with the old man, and this in turn forces the secretive and taciturn pensioner to open up to what is clearly the first person he has spent time with in some years.

While Wu Ya-ruo presents a solid interpretation of Zhenzhen’s frustration and inner conflict, it is An Yi Chiao that makes the strongest impression. The old man is almost entirely silent throughout the film, pent up so badly with guilt, rage, and sorrow that it overflows out of him. An’s work is subtle, gestural, and very powerful.

Nobody (its original title tellingly translates as Ghost) is a relatively short and quiet drama, in which more significance lies in what characters do not say than what they do. It is packed with unspoked tensions and undercurrents of conflict. Zhenzhen battles her irritatingly upbeat mother (Huang Jie-fe), who blindly lavishes attention on Zhenzhen’s brother and father – blissfully unaware of the latter’s infidelity. The old man warns Zhenzhen of the risks of breaking somebody else’s secret; it is clear there is a lot more meaning hidden behind his words, as he is living an entire life governed by a secret of his own.

While Nobody treats the old man’s secret like an unexpected plot twist, it is impossible to ignore from the outset that he is visibly played by a woman. The character is transgender, and is actively hiding the fact from those around him. During the film’s second half, the circumstance behind his odd behaviour, and daily regime of spitting on buses, is explored. It is a mature and sensitive portrayal of a transgender protagonist, albeit a rather downbeat one, and feels very truthful in action.

To Lin’s credit, much of the film’s back story goes unexplained and by the film’s conclusion multiple plot threads are unresolved. It is a deliberately open and ambiguous picture. While this may frustrate some viewers, it is quite refreshing to experience a story largely left open to audience interpretation. This is a most promising debut for a new artist, and another sign of Taiwanese cinema’s growing movement of LGBTIQ film.

Nobody was shown as part of the San Diego Asian Film Festival which ran from October 23-31.