Thursday, November 29, 2012

Review - Din Tao: Leader of the Parade

November 29, 2012

Din Tao: Leader of the Parade – Taiwan, 2012

I have seen enough Taiwanese movies to know that whenever characters state their intention of leaving Taiwan towards the beginning of a movie, they will most likely have changed their minds by the end of it. Oh, they might travel abroad and see the wonders that foreign countries have to offer, but they’ll always return to Taiwan. This is simply part of Taiwanese films and has been for some time. So in Kai Feng’s Din Tao: Leader of the Parade, when a young man named Tai (Alan Kuo) rather abruptly announces that he’s going to the United States soon, I had a hunch that he’d rediscover his passion for Taiwan within the next hour and a half.

Like 2008’s Cape No. 7, the beginning of the film finds Tai trying to make it as a musician in Taipei, and like the lead character in that film, Tai also doesn’t seem to be having much luck there. He has something called “naughty hands,” which throughout his short life has caused him nothing but grief. The poor guy can’t even seem to hold onto his drumsticks during a concert. One day, he gives up on Taipei and returns home to a mother who’s delighted to see him and a father who isn’t. Tai’s father (Po-cheng Chen), affectionately referred to as “Uncle” Do, runs a Din Tao troupe that is struggling. In fact, the troupe is so poorly regarded that they have been reduced to performing the roles of the dancing gods for more respected and well-known troupes. This is rather embarrassing because as the gods, no one can see them, and by performing with other troupes, they are robbed of the opportunity to make a name for themselves. This is a problem that Tai will no doubt be called upon to solve.

The film pits father against son over the soul and direction of Din Tao, which is a traditional drumming performance during which some performers wear masks or dress as gods in enormous puppets. Tai seems to be trying to modernize din tao, while his father insists that it be performed in the same way it has always been. Movies such as these (think Breakin’, Bring It On, and Drumline) have been done before, and it is not hard to see where Din Tao is heading.  However, there are a few surprises that separate it from similar films. The film is also another of those films in which someone with absolutely no experience in a discipline (ala The Karate Kid) has to learn something within a short time. In this film, Tai has six month to learn what it usually takes years to learn or else he and his troupe will have to leave Taichung forever. The formula for such films also calls for the troupe to resists Tai initially, which they do. However, we’re sure that they’ll form a cohesive unit in the end.

The film is based on the experience of the Choi-Tian Folk Drums & Art Troupe, and they apparently did run around Taiwan with their drums strapped onto their backs, a feat that is duplicated in the film. However, while the actual troupe did so to push themselves spiritually, Tai’s troupe appears to do so on a whim. In the film, Tai observes a group of small children on a field trip and suddenly declares the need for a road trip. He then commands his troupe to get their drums and leads them on a jog along the coast. The troupe constantly whines, and what they actually get out of their little jaunt, publicity and fame, is quite the opposite of spiritual enlightenment.

The beginning of the film will remind some of Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine. In that film, we also saw a troupe made up of children, most of them abandoned, being raised to be performers. Also in both film, we see a mother bring a child with “issues” to the school and attempt to convince the troupe leader to accept him. In this film, the boy’s name is Pear, and you guessed it, he just happens to have a gift for music. However, while the troupe in Chen’s film is run by a ruthless and abusive leader, Tai’s father comes across as a good man who’s just a bit too strict for these times. We are meant to respect him, even if we disagree with his methods. However, I’m not sure just how contemporary audiences will respond when his troupe is forced to knell down and accept a form of physical punishment for getting into a fight. The film later gives the audience someone to compare Tai’s father to, a drunk man who physically abuses his son over and over again. We’re meant to see one as keeping people on the straight and narrow and the other as acting cruelly and abusive. But is there really much difference?

If there is a major fault in Din Tao, it is that the film never convincingly establishes Tai as a good leader or explains how he can do all of the things that he is able to do. Tai seems to be improvising rather than acting based on some definition of professionalism or some secret knowledge of what it takes to be a great din tao performer. He continues to make mistakes for far too long, and it’s hard to understand why everyone would eventually follow him as dutifully as they do. As for the film’s big number, the one which is supposed to finally demonstrate Tai’s genius, let’s just say that there is no way for it to have ever been rehearsed.

Still, there is enough in Din Tao to marginally recommend the film. It has an infectious energy and characters that are rather appealing, despite being little more than stereotypes. I was particularly moved by the performance of Samantha Ko as Tai’s mother. Her motivation is the most understandable of all of the main characters, and most audience members will root for her to get her wish. I also admired the strong personality of the troupe’s lone female member, Min Min, for whom the troupe is an escape from a life of trouble. As for Pear, the part is played well enough that I was able to ignore how much of a cliché the role actually is. All in all, despite its holes and the weaknesses in its script, the film does just enough to make it worth watching. (on DVD and Blu-ray in Region A/3)

3 stars

*Din Tao: Leader of the Parade is in Taiwanese with English subtitles.   

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