Sunday, June 27, 2010
Review – A Place of One’s Own
June 27, 2010
A Place of One’s Own – Taiwan, 2009
In December 2009, a reader noted on Roger Ebert’s list of the top foreign films of the year that his list did not include any films from Taiwan and rather directly suggested that Mr. Ebert see more films. To aid Mr. Ebert further, the writer recommended a few films, one of which was called A Place of One’s Own, the insinuation being that if he had seen it, he would surely have included it on his list. As I read this comment, I couldn’t help but read a tinge of haughtiness in it, which may have been the reason the comment did not elicit a response from Mr. Ebert. Having been in Taiwan now for five years, I’m sure the remark wasn’t intended to sound that way. It’s more likely that the writer’s tone was the result of a translation problem, of the writer not adding a few polite-sounding English words to what would have been a perfectly acceptable sentence in either Chinese or Taiwanese. If the author of the comment had been in my writing clas, I would probably have suggested that she write something like “I noticed that your list doesn’t include any films from (insert name of country). If you haven’t seen it already, you might like (insert name of film). It was one of my favorite films of the year.” That’s probably a bit closer to what the writer had in mind.
In truth, though, it may not have been possible for Mr. Ebert to see A Place of One’s Own. Like many other films from Taiwan, the film does not appear to have had a theatrical release in the United States, and while it was shown at a number of film festivals throughout 2009, it has yet to receive a DVD release in the States. This is unfortunately not surprising either, as few films from Taiwan that don’t have either well known art house directors such as Hou-Hsiao Hsien or Tsai Ming Liang or lesbian themes, such as Zero Chou’s Spider Lilies, ever make it on DVD in the US. This may be changing, as Taiwanese film festivals have become a bit more common recently. However, for right now, someone wanting to watch a film from Taiwan has to either order them from an overseas company or look in DVD stores that sell DVDs from Hong Kong, and from what I saw during my last trip to San Francisco, those may be in danger of disappearing.
A Place of One’s Own is essentially the story of five people: two being pulled apart and three trying to stay together. We first meet Mozi (Mo Tzu-yi) and Kasey (Lu, Chia-Hsin), two singers at very different stages in their careers. Mozi has to promote himself and doesn’t seem to be having much success at it; Kasey is backed by a major studio and is being prominently displayed in music stores all over Taipei. In one scene, we see a crowd at a local night club have no reaction when Mozi’s set concludes; later, we see Kasey’s fans enthusiastically cheer her when she takes the stage. Mozi and Kasey have recently broken up, but they are still living together, and their conversations seem strained, as if neither one of them is comfortable talking to the other. In addition, they have to move out, and in this matter too, Kasey has an advantage. Her record label is helping her find her own apartment. In contrast, Mozi is on his own, and he appears to be falling apart at the seams.
The second group is the Lin family. The Lin family is led by Mr. Lin (Jack Kao), who eeks out a living by building paper houses. These houses are set on fire during funerals. Mrs. Lin (Lu Yi-ching) earns money by taking care of many of the gravesites near her family’s home. She provides fresh flowers for them and makes sure that they are neat and clean. She also appears to be able to speak to spirits who have not yet been reincarnated. The final member of the family is Gang (Tang Zhen-gang), a young man who spends too much time playing video games and cannot understand his parents’ superstitious ways. Early on in the film, we learn that Mr. Lin is sick and requires surgery. The operation would be costly, and because his family does not enough money to pay for it, he decides to begin building his own paper house, apparently signaling an acceptance of death. His family is less willing to let him go however, and they set out to get the NT $400,000 he needs to have the operation. Eventually, one of them turns to loan sharks for help.
What connects these two groups is the apartment. Mozi and Kasey must move out of it, and the Lin family must move in. Neither move is done as a result of free will.
It’s helpful for viewers to be aware of the importance of paper houses in Taiwanese culture. Paper houses are burned at funerals, and it is believed that the house will go with the deceased individual into the afterlife. Because of this belief, paper houses can be quite extravagant. Some of them even have mahjong rooms, swimming pools, and family members in them. In the film, a gangster wants each room in a paper house to have a paper gun in it, just in case there are thieves or people out for revenge. Lin goes one step further. He adds a security system, a miniature safe, and security guards. These additions are looked on so approvingly that it masks how surreal the moment is. It’s as if you can take everything with you when you die. However, paper houses go one step further. They allow someone to upgrade in the afterlife. The paper house Lin is making for himself is something Egyptian kings would envy.
The film also confronts the issue of evictions in Taiwan. In the film, the Lin family is living in an illegal house, which makes them vulnerable to both the police and the mob, despite the fact that they have been there for a very long time. The film also takes us to an aboriginal settlement that is facing eviction. These are people with very little money and few places to go. Without a home, they have no security.
A Place of One’s One is a good film that is unnecessarily complicated by its subplot involving the mob. There are too many mob characters in the film, and I found it difficult to remember just how much was owed and what agreement was reached with whom. I also did not completely buy Mrs. Lin’s conversations with the dead. As a personality quirk, it was interesting, but when it became a major part of the story, I had my reservations. You may say, “But this is a Taiwanese film, and many Taiwanese people believe in ghosts.” This is true. However, I have always believed that it is realistic for a film of this kind to show someone believing in ghosts; it is a stretch though to portray ghosts as being real beyond the shadow of a doubt.
A Place of One’s Own is the debut film of Lou Yi-An, and it is well directed. The performances in the film are very strong. I like the way the beginning of the film leads viewers to believe that Mozi and Kasey have fallen out of love. This misconception is then corrected piece by piece until we’re fully aware of the tragedy in front of us. Outside of Taiwan, events may not play out this way; inside Taiwan, it is highly likely they would. A Place of One’s Own asks viewers to reflect upon just how much having a home means to a person and how shattered one would be without one. It’s a film worth seeking out. (on DVD in Region 3)
*A Place of One’s Own is in Mandarin and Taiwanese with English subtitles.