July 7, 2016
The Sandwich Man – Taiwan, 1983
I’m convinced that films like The Sandwich Man are nearly impossible to do well. They require multiple directors to create works that both blend together and stand alone as solo films. They often have world-renowned directors, yet invariably one or two parts tend to stand out, while what remains either slow the film down, makes dramatic shifts in tone, or tells a story so distinct from the others that one may wonder why it was included in the first place (think Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Dangerous Thread of Things” from 2004’s Eros). Luckily, the three stories that make up 1983’s The Sandwich Man share enough in common that it seems logical that they are included together. Unfortunately, as the film progresses, both quality and tone decline, and what we’re left with resembles a three-course meal whose concluding dish doesn’t quite leave you wholly satisfied.
The stories that make up The Sandwich Man are all set in Taiwan in the 1960’s, a time when martial law was still in place and Taiwan was still recognized by the UN as China. Therefore, it seems entirely apropos that each one is in some way connected to the influence of the outside world on Taiwan. The first two showcase the influence of Japan on advertising and economics; the latter has to do with the presence of foreigners – mainly, the American military – on average Taiwanese citizens. The theme of family also runs through all of three stories, and most of the lead characters are deeply motivated by the need to provide better lives for them.
The film’s first chapter, set in 1962 and directed by Hsiao-hsien Hou, is “Son’s Big Doll” about a man who is inspired by a newspaper clipping of a Japanese man who dresses in a costume and walks around town as a living billboard. It reminded me of 1958’s masterful Giants and Toys, a film in which characters do things like this to push sales and promote products, often to surprising effect. Having lived in Taiwan now for over eleven years, I immediately thought that it would almost certainly be less effective here. However, our hero, Qun-Shu (Bor Jeng Chen) is undeterred, and in one scene, we watch as he rushes home and makes a costume out of a blanket that was probably being put to good use already.
Smartly, the film is less about his attempts at advertising than it is about his relationship with his wife (Li-Yin Yang) and very young son, and theirs is a tough relationship. We see the strain that economics is having on them, and many of their conversations contain words that are intentionally hurtful – mostly from him. Failing to bring home the bucks can do this to someone as proud and industrious as Qun-Shu, and being the object of scorn and snickers doesn’t help either. In one scene, we see a family member openly express his embarrassment at Qun-Shu’s choice of a profession. I was moved by this story, for in just a short time it created interesting characters, established realistic situations, and presented real emotions. In fact, it is only in its final moments that the film takes a turn from realism to symbolism, but even that is hard to fault completely.
The second film, set in 1964, is less successful, yet still weaves a tale of good people putting too much faith in both themselves and the decency of companies. Directed by Zhuang Xiang Zeng, this part is entitled “Vicki’s Hat,” and it tell the story of two men sent to a small area of southern Taiwan to sell Japanese cooking pots, which, as they frequently remind potential customers, will reduce the time in which it takes to cook from two hours to ten minutes. Again, the film presents us with a family man, here Zai-fa Lin (Ting-li Fang), trying to earn enough money so that his very pregnant wife will finally be able to quit her job, and like Qun-Shu, we hear anecdotally that Zai-fa has had pressure from in-laws.
The story drags somewhat, relying too heavily on attempts to sell the pots. This leaves precious little time to explore the film’s other, more interesting subplots, such as Zai’s fa’s colleague’s interest in a local school girl, the only girl in town, it seems, who wear a hat, and intriguing flashbacks that call into question Zai-fa’s abilities as a salesperson, as well as his constant depiction of himself as prepared and knowledgeable. As a result, I was less involved in this one, and not even its strong finale was enough to pull me back in completely.
At this point in the film, drama has been its consistent tone, and for the first few moments of the third piece, Jen Wan’s “The Taste of Apples,” it appears that the film will continue in this tenor. However, it quickly veers into unadvised and discomforting attempts at comedy, and at times, I could not tell whether the film wanted the audience to laugh with the characters or at them. This portion of the film takes place in Taipei in 1969, and it is about what happens after a southerner living in Taipei with his family is hit by a car driven by an American colonel (another foreign influence on average Taiwanese). Along with a local interpreter, the colonel goes to the man’s home, picks up the man’s family, and takes them in his shiny car to a hospital for Americans. Seeing the looks on the family’s faces, it is clear that they’ve never seen anything like it.
There are things that ring true about this tale, from the joy and playfulness of the two young boys to the mother’s worry over the family’s well-being if her husband dies or cannot work for a long stretch of time. The film also contains a reference to “selling” the family’s oldest daughter into marriage that will remind viewers just how different times were back then. However, all too often this part of the film veers into situation comedy, depicting the family’s interest in seeing the bathrooms or their abrupt switch from sad to happy at the mention of a financial settlement. It’s a film that doesn’t take its characters seriously and seems to see negative or real emotions as simply steps to the next comic moment. In other words, it establishes a character’s negative emotions only to show them smiling and acting silly a moment later. In fact, the message of this segment seems to be that everyone would be fortunate to be hit by a car driven by an American officer.
It reminded me of the last segment in In Our Times, also from 1983, and I wondered why there was such an interest in ending with laughter. Sure, movies have always tried to end with moments of big excitement, huge impressive spectacles, and sheer hilarity, yet usually those are the themes of the movie throughout. Here, it isn’t, and the effect is jarring. It’s as if the directors underestimated their audience, viewing them as capable of handling only so much “realism.” This is unfortunate, for with just a few tweaks, The Sandwich Man could have been that rarest of films – the combination of divergent stories that gelled well together and added up to something special. As it is, the film is watchable, yet much less memorable than it should have been. (on DVD and Blu-ray in Region 3/A as part of the Taiwan New Wave Cinema: 1982 – 1983 box set)
*The Sandwich Man is in Mandarin, Min Nan, and English.