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This article was written By Karen Ma on 05 Jun 2018, and is filed under Reviews.

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About Karen Ma

Karen Ma is a film critic and independent film scholar specializing in Chinese cinema. Formerly a lecturer of Chinese Culture and Film at The Beijing Center of Chinese Studies, Ma is also the author of Excess Baggage (China Books, 2013), a novel about a Chinese family’s struggle in Tokyo. Ma is currently based in Ann Arbor, Michigan and studying screenwriting at the University of Michigan.

Taxi Stories (China/Hong Kong/Indonesia/Netherlands, 2017)

What happens when two people from different countries or social backgrounds share an intimate space such as a taxi, knowing that their paths may never cross again? Can they truly connect as human beings by temporarily putting aside their facades? These are the questions newcomer writer-director Doris Yeung asks in her second dramatic feature, Taxi Stories. This ambitious, cross-cultural film, while intriguing, ultimately falls a bit short of its promise.

Shot on location in Jakarta, Hong Kong and Beijing, Taxi Stories weaves together tales of three contemporary Asians separated by fate but connected by their chance encounters, with dialogue in Bahasa, Cantonese and Mandarin. The main characters include a 13-year-old Indonesian slum kid cum taxi driver who falls for a beautiful Australian tourist when she hires him for the day; the pregnant, lonely trophy wife of a wealthy Hong Kong businessman and her unlikely friendship with an Indonesian maid; and a closet-case Beijing taxi driver who hits on his rich, young gay customer while driving him home one night.

In the storylines, class, sexuality and cross-cultural relations are intertwined, with unequal power plays a focal point of these chance relationships. Of the three narratives, the Beijing taxi driver tale feels the most complete, and the transformations that the two men undergo toward the end come across are convincing and believable. Less developed is the story about the young Indonesian driver Adi, although the lead up to the surprising end works as he realizes that one of his customers is connected to his long-deceased mother who used to work in Hong Kong.

The least successful of the three despite a star-studded cast is the story of Monica, the Mainland Chinese wife kept like a golden finch in her husband’s penthouse. One problem is that Yeung, a Hong Kong Chinese-American filmmaker who trained at UCLA, tries to pack too much into this short tale. This includes not only a commentary on the unequal power balance between Hong Kong employers and their exploited Indonesian maids, but also a more nuanced critique about the political dynamic between Hong Kong residents and their Mainland counterparts. Hong Kong people, proud of their first-world backgrounds, have always regarded their latecomer Mainland cousins as backward and country bumpkin-like. This is seen in the interaction between the proud and know-it-all mother-in-law (Hong Kong acting legend Petrina Fung Bobo) and the alienated, not-so-confident Chinese bride (rising Mainland star Cora Cao). This subplot, however, is underutilized in a narrative that’s barely 30 minutes long – a classic case of having too much to say and not ending up saying anything well.

Pacing is another issue. At times, the three narratives feel scattered and in need of being better woven together. They also move at a very slow pace, with little clue about what’s to come. It’s only toward the end that we begin to see the point of these stories, suggesting that the script could have been much more tightly written at the drawing-board stage.

Yeung, however, does a decent job showing how economics has impacted personal relationships in modern Asia. Lives are so much more interconnected than they used to be given globalization, even though Asian cities are often at very different stages of development. China, for example, faces a huge divide between the haves and have-nots even though it’s still nominally a Socialist country. Yet as human beings, individuals are increasingly isolated by the constraints of social class as the rich-poor gap further widens.

Ironically, taxis may be among the last “equalizing spaces” between two strangers, as Yeung suggests in an interview with Hong Kong’s Apple Daily.[1] Driver and customer, driven by a basic human need for connection, often will momentarily throw away their masks and reveal their true, honest selves during a brief ride in the small, contained compartment.

References

[1] Chen Zhihao (2017) ‘Asian Film Director Makes Film Based on Her Own Experience of Sexual Harassment: Healing the Trauma’, Apple Daily, April 29, https://tw.appledaily.com/new/realtime/20170429/1107963/. Accessed May 31, 2018.