A high school heist comedy with a sly political undercurrent, Salute! Sun Yet-Sen is a playful piece of entertainment from writer-director Yee Chih-yen, who made an impression on the arthouse circuit with his tender youth romance Blue Gate Crossing back in 2002. Since then, Yee has been busy working in television drama and collaborating with a Japanese production company on a large-scale animation project, but Salute! Sun Yat-Sen (also known as Meeting Dr. Sun) marks a welcome return to features with its deft blend of coming-of-age drama and cheeky genre homage, not to mention the socially critical appropriation of national iconography at the center of its absurdist caper plot.
As the end of term approaches in Taipei, four impoverished high school students find themselves unable to pay their class fees (protection money), causing them to be mercilessly taunted by their classmates. However, an opportunity to take care of the situation presents itself in the form of a bronze statue of Sun Yat-sen, the father of Republican China, which is gathering dust in the school’s storeroom. When the enterprising Lefty (Chan Huai-yun) sets eyes on the statue, he hatches a plan to steal it and sell it for scrap, as the estimated proceeds will be sufficient to cover four class fee payments, with a little left over. Lefty and his friends rehearse the heist – which involves getting the statue past the security guard (Joseph Chang) and on to a truck – but a spanner is thrown into the works when they discover that a similarly unfortunate student, Sky (Matthew Wei), has also put together a crew to carry out the same theft. A battle of wits involving manga masks, double-crosses and tales of financial woe ensue as the two teams try to outsmart one another to get their hands on the anticipated spoils.
Yee’s evident affection for the heist film genre is signalled by the opening credits, which feature some snazzy noir-style animations accompanied by Chris Hou’s jaunty jazz score: the caper plot is introduced right away with the narrative following the classic formula of planning, unanticipated complication, and execution. Personalities are revealed through group dynamics which position Lefty as the head of the operation, a leader who, as is typical of the genre, can turn a setback into an advantage. The aforementioned manga masks, with their generically cute look, are initially used to extenuate the innocence of the fledgling thieves and also their budgetary restraints (they are purchased because they are the cheapest option) but later enable Yee to pull off an amusing horror film homage when the security guard becomes aware of the crime because the heist has taken more time than expected. Salute! Sun Yat-Sen is particularly charming for being arguably the most low-tech caper film in recent years as its characters are too cash-strapped to utilize nifty gadgets and must instead rely on an old-fashioned combination of cunning and physical exertion.
As much as Yee delights in genre conventions, the film also extends his exploration of Taiwanese youth with events being seen from an adolescent perspective and adults largely kept to the periphery: this isn’t the kind of stylised teen flick where the characters talk like grown-ups and trade quips that are heavy in pop culture irony, nor does Yee use Lefty’s band of junior thieves to evoke the worldly rogues of caper movie lore. Instead, he sees them as naïve teenagers whose solution to their shared predicament is infused with an old-fashioned innocence, despite the fact that they are committing an act of calculated larceny. Recalling the dialogue patterns of Blue Gate Crossing, Yee often has his characters repeat the same statements as a sign of boredom with high school routine or their limited modes of expression at this point in their lives. In a dig at Taiwan’s education system, planning and executing the heist actually gives them more of a physical and mental workout than their daily studies, with the classroom scenes often showing several students asleep at their desks while the teacher delivers the lesson in a rote manner.
Yee directs with a light touch that would be his signature if he was more prolific, but the serious issue of social inequality is always just below its deceptively gentle surface, as is the suggestion that the current problems facing these high school students are just a micro-level primer for the myriad of difficulties that await them after graduation. This commentary is often laced with dark humor, particularly when Lefty and Sky play a game of “I’m poorer than you” by visiting one another’s residences. Lefty’s family may be short on money, but he at least has a loving environment to go home to, while Sky is stuck with a physically abusive father, a domestic situation that has fueled his volatile nature and made it hard for him to trust others. The heist and its aftermath finds the statue of Sun Yat-sen – a monument that respectfully portrays the revolutionary hero as a wise teacher with book in-hand – being driven around Taipei encourage consideration of how the great leader would respond to today’s discontent. Some of the film’s political subtext– various reviewers have commented that Lefty and Sky have much in common with “Sunflower Student Movement” leaders Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-ting – may be lost on viewers who are not familiar with Taiwan’s struggles.
Nonetheless, the crafty use of heist film tropes, natural performances from a fresh-faced cast, and the universal theme of camaraderie being used to combat class divisions ensure that Salute! Sun Yat-Sen is one of this year’s most pleasurable releases.