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Sunday, 17 May 2009

The Taiwanese Film Festival was an intimate affair that showcased two films, 'The Shoe Fairy' by Robin Lee and 'Secret' by Jay Chou, that are indicators of a confident culture not so much in transition as pausing to reflect on past successes. Both are, as Sydney Talent Company director Jon-Claire Lee noted, chick flics. And although it's a slight stretch to contemplate just how "the lost samurai spirit of Japan" - a characteristic of Taiwan mentioned by Taiwan ambassador Dr Gary Lin - is evident in the films, they offer a more-than-cursory glimpse into what makes Taiwan such an interesting place.

I spoke with Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Australia director general Angela Lin about the irony of president Ma's rapprochement with mainland China (Ma is Kuomintang) and she said that "that was 60 years ago" and that it was not surprising. Taiwan is a liberal, tolerant society. In this formulation, what seems to go against logic may just be part of the routine dynamics of party politics (the KMT's predecessors, the DPP, had icy relations with China).

"Taiwanese people help each other," said Lee. In the first film, Dodo is a young woman with a dangerous shoe addiction. Married to handsome, forbearing dentist Dr Smiley, Dodo discovers that having one white sheep and one black sheep - her childhood mantra, garnered from the books her parents read to her when she was small - may not immediately seem a preposessing scenario. Working at Jack's Publishing, Dodo is often sent to pick up drawings from Big Cat, who turns out to be a mature woman who wears floaty dresses and lends a hand - she gives Dodo a kitten.

The kitten as a talisman of personal development has nothing, however, on the lady who runs the shoe shop. After Dodo's change of heart, she gives her shoes to the lady, who asks customers to give her children's books in exchange for them. The lady then donates the books to an orphanage.

But this is a mere schematic glance at 'The Shoe Fairy', which possesses a beauty and grace that is rare in films from any country. 'Secret' is a very different kind of film in that it is a kind of ghost story. Here, too, people help each other, most notably Jay (played by the director, an accomplished musician), who finds happiness in helping Rain, a schoolgirl who has discovered a way to travel in time.

The movie may not "reflect the cultural diversity of Taiwan", as Dr Lin suggested, but it does show a confident and mature culture able to look at itself with open eyes. As a school love story, it contains many elements we know from other films, including discipline, friendship, competitiveness, and bullying. Jay represents a kind of ideal: an accomplished piano player who not only befriends the oddball football players, but manages to navigate through the complex passages of schoolyard romance without losing his dignity or his equilibrium.

It is also an affecting tale, coaxing emotions in the audience - mixed but mostly ethnically Chinese - and causing not a few young women to shed an occasional tear.

In all it was a fun evening. The refreshments supplied by Din Tai Fung restaurant (based in World Square) made it possible to watch two longish movies without collapsing from exhaustion.

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