Thursday, December 15, 2011

Review – Night Market Hero

December 15, 2011

Night Market Hero – Taiwan, 2011

It’s hard to overstate just how much Taiwanese people love night markets. They are places where friends and co-workers congregate after a long day at work or school, and they are often the first choice of parents whose children need to be fed after a long day at both regular school and cram school. They are also a popular destination for international tourists whose guide books tell them how unique and various the selection of food is there. In fact, news reports often include interviews with visitors to Taiwan in which they cannot seem to praise night market food enough. Some of them even have glowing things to say about Taiwan’s most oddly-named dish, stinky tofu, which is what its name suggests – tofu that stinks (but tastes delicious, so they say). Now I have been to a number of night markets in Taiwan, and each of them has its own unique feel. However, none of them has been as fun or lively as the one depicted in Tien-Lun Yeh’s recent film Night Market Hero. However, I have it on good authority that some of them are.

The characters in Night Market Hero are the kind that society is not always aware of – the vendor who serves over one hundred pieces of fried chicken a day, the young woman who stands for long hours selling T-shirts to passersby, the occasional vendor who sells CDs, DVDs, or LV handbags at prices that are way too low for them to be authentic. Society often has a way of looking past people like this, as if what they are doing could be done by anyone and therefore they are somehow not as worthy of attention as the man who makes a living trading stocks or manufacturing computers. I suspect that Night Market Hero will change this somewhat.

For most of the first half of the film, viewers see the fun and joy of the 888 Night Market and get to know the various personalities that work there, many of whom are referred to by either the number on their food stall or the dish that they sell. Here are just a few of the interesting characters that the film introduces to us: There’s Madame Steak and Madame Chicken Fillet, who compete against each other for bragging rights in a number of categories, including trash talking; Seven, a young boy kept away from gang life by the stand that he and his sister run together; and Bingo King, who plays the lottery every day and dreams of being able to open a real restaurant one day. In the film’s opening scene, the merchants of the night market are voting on a new leader, and by the slimmest of margins, they make the right choice: a charismatic young man named A-hwa (Zheng-Long Lan). A-hwa is a born leader, and he can be trusted to be impartial and practical when settling disputes and brave and unifying when confronting outsiders or gangsters who try to stir up trouble. He is also tasked with solving problems so that the police don’t have to.

Into this world steps a lost young journalist named Ee-Nang (Chia-yen Ko). Ee-nang works as a photographer for a tabloid known as Happy Weekly, which couldn’t be more ironic seeing as how neither Ee-Nang nor her boss seems all that happy. In a flashback, we see Ee-Nang taking out her unhappiness on an unsuspecting female celebrity, an event that garners Ee-Nang a front-page picture but which doesn’t do much to put her in her boss’s good grace. One evening, Ee-Nang accidently runs into Seven with her scooter and couldn’t be less polite about it. Later, she is assigned to take pictures of the 888 Night Market and ends up coming across as an unappreciative, completely spoiled brat. She even causes damage to the night market and is ultimately ordered to perform community service there.

The conventional formula calls for people like A-hwa to bet against Ee-Nang and for her to eventually prove him wrong, and Night Market Hero does not break with tradition. Yet it handles this formula in a way that is both humorous and admirable. If you’re going to stick with a formula, this is the way to do it. The formula also calls for sparks to eventually fly between Ee-Nang and A-hwa, and while the film upholds tradition here as well, the way their relationship develops is both sweet and realistic. In fact, I would venture that some viewers will be so caught up in the story that they’ll completely miss how traditional certain parts of it are. This is what happens when a formula is done well.

The primary conflict in Night Market Hero has to do with the age-old struggle between tradition and modernity. In the film, a local councilor named Chang is presented with an opportunity to pocket a cool $30 million dollars (Taiwanese dollars, likely) if he backs a controversial proposal to develop on the site of the 888 Night Market. Of course, he eagerly throws his support behind it, yet as the film progresses, we get a glimpse of the kind of person Chang was in the past, and it becomes clear that his willingness to forsake the night market stands in sharp contrast to the values he used to espouse. Chang is played by the enormously popular Taiwanese comedian Yu-Chen Hsieh, and the role may be an example of art imitating life. Hsieh is so convincing at key points in the film that one could easily make the argument that he is drawing upon his own experiences with gambling and its terrible consequences.

As can be expected, the vendors at the night market are asked to leave, but refuse to do so without a fight. They get more of one that they bargained for, and a scene in which they are terrorized by a ground of masked men shooting firecrackers at them and their businesses is particularly powerful. The film also shows viewers the two faces of the local media – some try to do their job to the best of their ability and some allows themselves to be used to further a particular agenda or goal. The film also shows us examples of how quickly some people believe whatever the media reports, regardless of its veracity, and the heavy price that some people pay as a result of such damaging reports. There is a scene in which one of the vendor’s children is forcibly removed from her custody that is particularly heartbreaking.

Despite its rather clichéd final act, Night Market Hero remains a rather moving film. As we learn more about the back stories of each of the night market vendors, I found myself extremely affected, and I began wishing them and people like them in the real world both luck and prosperity. It can’t be easy to do what they do every day. The film has a terrific protagonist in A-hwa, and it has a nice coming-of-age storyline involving Ee-Nang. In fact, it is through her eyes that many viewers will come to appreciate all that is special about the night market. She is, in a way, the viewer’s window into a new world, and Ko plays her superbly. Lan, here making his film debut, comes off like a pro. He is at ease in front of the camera and displays a range of emotions that always seem completely appropriate. Both he and Ko are ones to watch for in Taiwanese cinema. The same can be said for Night Market Hero as a whole. (on DVD in Region 3 and Blu-ray in Region A)

3 and a half stars

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