Our Neighbors (1963)


In celebration of the Centennial of the Republic of China, the Walter Reade Theater hosts a rare panorama of the ever-surprising Taiwanese Cinema – from the intimate looks at daily life in the early 1960s, to the breathtaking new wave of filmmakers that arose in the 1980s (such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang), and on to the fresh turning point marked by recent Taiwanese hits.

According to film scholar Wen Tien-Hsiang, during the Conference on Taiwanese Cinema held at the Walter Reade Theatre on May 7th, the Taiwanese film industry during the 1950″s was a decade defined by propaganda pictures and sad melodramatic love stories. With the arrival of Chiang Kai-shek”s Kuomintang army came a flood of equipment and trained personnel who wasted no time in creating resistance pictures which extolled two things: the cruelty of Mao”s regime and the eventual collapse of the communist government which would finally allow the thousands of Chinese refugees in Taiwan to finally return to the Mainland.

By the start of the 1960s though these overt propaganda pictures gave way to more subtle works. The new generation of filmmakers were fueled less by patriotic fervor and were more interested in showcasing the daily lives of everyday people. Taking a cue from Italian Postwar cinema, this new genre became known as “healthy realism.” Although this new type of film was willing to address serious social issues it handled them with kid gloves; approaching issues like poverty and crime in a naive and simplistic manner. This blind optimism towards many of the crippling ills of Taiwanese society was thought by many to be the best way to “fix” the problem. Basically, since film was a popular medium, especially during the pre-TV and internet era, then it was the best teaching tool for the masses. Obviously, the era of the propaganda picture had not fully died out yet in Taiwanese film but merely evolved into a far more sophisticated medium.

Li Xing”s Our Neighbors (Jietou Xangwei, 1963) is a prime example of this new brand of healthy unrealism. Made at the start of the 1960s Li”s film is a serious attempt to address the relationship between Mainlanders and Native Taiwanese but is completely undone by heavy moralizing and a reliance on cliches like “money corrupts” and the nobility of the poor, not to mention the fact that all the dialogue is in Mandarin and there isn”t one substantial character of Native Taiwanese descent in the film. The only thing that Li”s film has going for it is the technical virtuoso”s working behind the camera. Chin-Ying Lai”s chiaroscuro lighting and  free moving camera, especially when Li takes his crew out into the streets to do some on-location filming, or Lin Li”s hyperactive score which shifts from jaunty jazz score to brassy rhumba and then a hard left into a weepy ballad  makes one wish that a better script could have been written for such talented artists.

Set in a studio-constructed slum, Li positons the main players of the drama living separately nbso online casino reviews from Taipei itself. In fact, the film”s opening narration goes out of its way to state that “The people who work here are without hatred. There is only love”, giving the film a distinct fairy tale flavor. And, of course by the time we meet the ensemble players this “uplifting tale” quickly becomes so saccharine that only those with the most resilient of sweet tooths can manage to digest it all without wretching from all the sentimentalism.  There is the sick mother (Yu Hua Ho) and her daughter Pearl (Wan-Lin Lo), the pimp/gangster Wu Gen-Tsai (Ming Lei) and his hooker wife Miss Chu, a Mainland grandmother and her obedient grandson, and of course there is roly-poly garbage collector Shih San-Tai (Kuan-Chang Li) who, like all movie fat men, has a heart as big as his stomach.

No surprise to anyone whose seen more than one melodrama but Pearl”s mother soon dies and San-Tai becomes surrogate father to little Pearl. And, for a timem all is well in the slum as Pearl and San-Tai become a family. The bliss is short-lived, though, when Pearl”s teacher starts asking about her whereabouts.  It seems that while the filial Pearl was busy helping San-Tai collect garbage and maintain the household she completely neglected school. Poor San-Tai, not wanting to deprive sweet Pearl of an education, begins to work even harder to provide for her education.  The rest of Li”s film is just a series of melodramatic catastrophe”s as Pearl and San-Tai try to stay together as a family even as social, financial, and medical woes seem relentlessly bent on tearing them apart.

In between the De Sica-esque story of Pearl and San-Tai we get a peek into the lives of the other slum occupants as their stories intersect with Pearl and San-tai”s. Though the only two which merit any substantial discussion, in my opinion, is the slum”s head matriarch, the Mainland grandmother, and Miss Chu (Chuen Yu), the prostitute. Both women are ostensibly orphans; the grandmother having been forcefully separated from her son and beloved homeland due to the communist takeover and Miss Chu sold by her poor parents to a rich childless couple. Throughout the film, both women wax nostalgic of an idealized time and cling onto antiquated dreams; the grandmother believing that those left behing in her hometown will rebel and bring back Kai-Shek”s old regime and Miss Chu who desires money and wealth so she can stop working the streets to support her gangster pimp husband. Neither woman achieves what they really want, but they do learn to live with what little they have left.  Although their stories suffer from cheap sentimentalism, Li ultimately does grant each woman a modicum of dignity through their quiet suffering, thus not just making their struggles melodramatic fodder to wring tears out from the audience”s eyes.

Even though Our Neighbors gets high marks for the level of technical skill involved in its production, ultimately one leaves the theater feeling quite hollow after watching it. As Bernardo Bertolucci once said, “I don”t film messages. I let the post office take care of those” and this should have been the sentiment that Li stood behind while making his film. As Taiwan”s film artists embraced new movements and took greater risks the films themselves became more complicated and challenged well established social cliches, but as for Our Neighbors, its importance lies less on the artistic and more as a nostalgic look back to a constructed unreal past. By the time the eighties came about healthy realism was finally pushed aside for the social realist dramas of Taiwan”s young turks, exemplified by Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang, and that is the legacy which should represent Taiwan”s hallowed cinematic history.