SPECIAL FEATURE: Film Review: Taipei Exchange

Film: Taipei Exchange
Running time: 82 mins
Director: Hsiao Ya-chuan
Starring: Kwan Lun-mei, Zaizai Lin, Chang Han, Ma Yu-li, Lin Chen Xi
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Country: Taiwan

This film will be screened at the Pan-Asia Film Festival, which begins today in London (7th March 2011). Find out more about this event by clicking here.

A simple, unpretentious story about two sisters running an unconventional café. As an offering from this year’s Pan-Asia Film Festival, is Taipei Exchanges a profound statement on the nature of true personal ‘treasure’, or an exercise in glossy style over substance?

Doris (Kwan) and Josie (Lin) are two sisters who jointly run Doris’s café in a suburb of Taipei - a café filled with the useless junk and clutter brought by Doris’ friends on its day of opening. Unsure of what to do with the random ‘gifts’, which robs their establishment of any clear identity, Josie hits upon the novel idea of offering everything up not for sale, but exchange.

Encouraging customers to bring unwanted items of their own to the café, which they can trade for anything that takes their fancy, Doris and Josie attract a random selection of souls, whose new gifts carry stories and emotional baggage…

Opening with a series of close-ups, in varying degrees of focus, of a slender pair of female hands making coffee and preparing food - the camera lens lingering over every shot, accompanied by a jaunty, jazzy piano score - one could be forgiven for expecting Wong Kar-wai’s name to pop up on the credits (if not as director, then maybe as an executive producer). Director Hsiao sets up a leisurely, unhurried pace that is maintained throughout the remainder of the film. Like the characters that wander in and out of Doris’s café, Taipei Exchanges will amble and drift in any direction it pleases, confident that its audience will come along for the stroll.

It’s not just the cinematic fetish for food and meandering narrative that recalls Wong Kar-wai, but also the pseudo-philosophical dialogue ponderings of the central characters, as well as the film’s premise - the coffee shop as cinematic precinct make it almost a descendant of Chungking Express. Unlike Wong, however, Hsiao’s film refuses (or perhaps lacks the confidence) to use its intriguing theme (bartering, and the curious things humans ‘treasure’) to offer anything in the way of profundity. A first act digression into a series of talking heads (presumably real people on the streets of Taipei), giving differing opinions on a choice between cash and countless calla lilies (repeated in the second act, on the subject of Study vs. Travel, and then again in the third, which summarises the film’s lightweight ‘message’), suggests an attempt at commentary on capitalism, or perhaps materialism. But the effect is disorientating rather than stimulating, Hsiao’s exact intentions oblique and distant.

In truth, Hsiao’s attempts to lend meaning and weight to proceedings do little more than get in the way of what is, otherwise, an enjoyable slice of cinematic fluff. The film’s principle strengths lie in its breezy energy, and a knack for conjuring bizarrely funny visual gags (Doris’ friends bringing their succession of tacky ‘café-warming’ gifts hits a high point with the arrival of a big red barbell). But what lingers after the end credits are its genuine and moving human moments - the customer who seeks to exchange thirty-five scented soaps in exchange for thirty-five love letters, for example, or the trading of a (possibly fabricated) story for a mobile phone accessory that, again, recall Wong Kar-wai, without explicitly feeling like homage or imitation. Taipei Exchanges is light without being pointless, positive without recourse to pat optimism. Though it takes place in the kind of heightened reality that can only really exist on celluloid, it never feels calculated, manipulative or disingenuous. Because of this, it is impossible to dislike.

Hsiao is also aided by a delightful performance from leading lady Kwan Lun-mei, whose eager smile and child-like eyes are undoubtedly heart-melting. As Doris, Kwan fleshes a real character out of one that a lesser performer might have rendered as little more than incessantly quirky. It is a charming, mature performance that anchors the film. She is well matched by Zaizai Lin as Josie, perhaps the slightly more ‘oddball’ of the two. Tempering her youthful energy, and letting her charisma work a magic on the audience, Lin makes Josie the heart of the film, pulling the audience in and making them invest, even though - by traditional narrative standards - there is almost nothing at stake.

The cinematography is as easy on the eye as the film’s photogenic leads, even if its long-lensed master shots and wilful obstruction of the actors with inanimate objects in the foreground smacks of filmmakers reaching for Christopher Doyle-style imagery without the great man’s flair and innate genius. Though not a great deal of Taipei is actually shown (which is surprising, considering that the film was part funded by the city’s tourist bureau), the film brings out the character of the city, making it feel like a story that could take place only there.

Taipei Exchanges is, perhaps, not for everyone, and certainly not the uninitiated. Its central relationships lack traditional tension and conflict, while its narrative happily meanders from sequence to sequence - content to drift, rather than motor - and there is never anything significant at stake from minute one to minute eighty-two. However, for the initiated, and even those who have grown weary of smug and cynical cinema, the film’s simple pleasures and genuine heart make it an absolute delight.

Taipei Exchanges is inoffensive and thoroughly charming, even if it is about as substantial as one of the éclairs Doris sells (on Wednesday’s only). Delightful. JN

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