Sunday, October 12, 2008

Review – Pongso No Tao

October 12, 2008

Pongso No Tao – Taiwan, 2008

I suppose living on an island is a little like living in a small town. Life can be a bit repetitive, as everyday people do the same job, see the same people, take the same route to and from work. It is not surprising then that some people view life on an island as restrictive, as not offering them the same variety of opportunities as big cities do. And so some choose to leave, to sail to a world of perceived economic advantage, away from a culture that in their eyes has anchored them to a life of routine, familiar surroundings, and extreme boredom. On the island of Lanyu, an older woman has been affected by sentiment such as these twice. First, her husband abandoned Lanyu’s vast green shores for the crowded streets of Mainland China, where he remarried and started a new family. Then her son Meibana (Chihkong Dou) left for Taiwan to get an education and begin a promising career. Director Wang Jin Kue’s Pongso No Tao is about what happens when Meibana returns.

Externally, much about Lanyu is the same. Meibana’s mother still works in the fields, his friend Ose still fishes, and his uncle still takes care of a flock of sheep and scours the seaside looking for rocks. Why he’s doing this is just one of the movie’s convenient mysteries. Internally, people are aware and perhaps even a little resentful of the changes that have taken place in some of the island’s inhabitants. Perhaps that is why Meibana is both a member of the family and a visitor upon returning home. He doesn’t even have a room to sleep in. That has been given to his relative’s teacher, Anan (well-played by Jiayu Lin), a young woman from Taiwan whom his mother worried would be lonely living in the school dorms alone.

It probably doesn’t help matters that Meibana’s return to Lanyu has another purpose. He and a man named A-Fei, whom he refers to as “Master,” have come to the island to collect natural sounds, such as waves crashing, crickets chirping, and wind blowing through trees. (This is the second film I’ve seen with this subplot, and I’m still not sure why this is a popular idea.) It’s not hard to predict that Meibana will soon come face-to-face with Anan or that they will eventually fall for each other. However, to the film’s credit, this is not easily accomplished. Meibana has had a girlfriend for quite a while, and even though he confesses to having grown apart from her – through no fault of her own, for she seems to be a very nice woman – he seems to have difficulty letting go of someone that so many people have expected him to marry. Adding to his difficulty is the fact that he is starting to feel pulled back to the island, while at the same time, his girlfriend Shichei Anrou (Yiwen Yang in an effective supporting role) has experiences that to her reinforce her initial decision to leave. Even she can sense that something has pulled her and Meibana apart. After all, most men who are perfectly content do not begin having feeling for someone else.

Much of Pongso No Tao has to do with Meibana trying to reach decisions. Will he stay on Lanyu or not? Will he stay with Shichei Anrou or not? Will he tell Anan that he has feeling for her or not? The answers to those questions are unfortunately fairly obvious; furthermore, watching Meibana reach them can sometimes be a tedious experience. I found myself much more interested in the supporting characters than in Meibana himself. I felt for his mother and was intrigued by both the oddness and humanity of his uncle. I found myself watching Anan and marveling at the personal transformation she had undergone, her rapport with everyone she came in contact with, and her artistic skills. In addition, I was completely taken aback by the beauty of Lanyu itself. The problem is that the film’s central story is not as engaging as it should be. While there are some interesting moments in the film that clearly show the growing connection between the two central characters, too often there appears to be a degree of emotional distance between them, so much so that I was surprised when Anan hinted that it was up to Meibana as to whether she had a boyfriend or not. That shouldn’t happen in a romance, and the fact that it did speaks volumes. (on DVD in Region 3)

2 and a half stars

*Pongso No Tao is in Taiwanese and Chinese with white English subtitles. The English in the subtitles is occasionally incorrect.

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