Sunday, April 17, 2011


Performance Friday 15th April 2011, 7.30pm

My teacher gave me some tickets to see this performance, by the Tainaner Theatre Troupe. I'd been to the theatre in the Xinyi branch of Eslite before to see a play inspired by the songs of Chen Qizhen, a Taiwanese singer (膚色の時光 Once, upon hearing the skin tone). I remembered so clearly having been there before because the stage is slightly unusual in that it is a round stage that divides the audience into two sections at either side of the stage, which means they enter through two separate doors. The last play I'd seen staged here had been interesting technically but weak in terms of plot. This play was similarly weak plot-wise - think a school production of Back to the Future fused with the cheese factor of popular Taiwanese TV dramas (Meteor Garden, The Devil Beside You). The story is about several connected love stories gone wrong. The death of the female protagonist's mother halts her wedding to a closeted gay man, and her mother comes back through time via a magic doorknob acquired in Tibet from an antique seller (who was portrayed with possibly the weakest piece of acting in the whole play). This sets off a series of events which changes the lives of the protagonists (in Sliding Doors fashion), so that they get the chance to "Re/turn" to the scene of their unresolved regrets and "amend" them. The female protagonist is reunited with her lost love, and the gay man is accepted by his best friend as a teenager (again thanks to the magic doorknob) so gets the confidence to come out early in life and so avoids the pitfalls of soliciting rent boys and using (God help us all) marijuana (there is an amusing scene where a major police bust over one joint).

The major problems with the play was not the acting, which was convincing, but rather the whole concept of the play, certain elements of which seemed to be lifted right out of Taiwanese popular culture and films. The obsession with making the play "international" without incorporating any international actors was also a problem for the play. It pandered to the Taiwanese obsession with European and Japanese culture, in that a lot of the play was set in London - where the male lead Charles had apparently grown up with an American accent; there was also a Taiwanese actress playing a Japanese dancer, two very Taiwanese sounding Americans as well as a Taiwanese playing a British postman. Only the latter was vaguely funny, with deliberate use of British English terms designed specifically to make the audience laugh, and none of them sounded natural in english. The director and writer Cai Bozhang (蔡柏璋), though a good singer, was a little self-indulgent as he sang in Taiwanese inflected English through most of the play. My companion for the evening, one of my classmates pointed out something that I think speaks true of my experience of the contemporary Taiwanese Theatre: that because the writers of a lot of the plays produced nowadays also act as director and actors, the scripts that they write are not really the focus of their work, and do not stand alone as literary works. Rather, the event and the production takes first place. The result is the rather paltry, soap-operaesque dialogue seen in this production.
It was a pity that the talented acting of the actors wasn't put to a better use, more worthy of the stage, otherwise the only role of theatre in Taiwan would seem to be to give a live experience of soap operas.

If we are to take the piece seriously as a piece of theatre, the other thing I have a problem with is the moralistic pedagogy of the production, and its assertion that there is "right" path in life that we are diverted from, which seems a rather simplistic and egotistical exercise in self-affirmation by the director (people who don't follow my liberal ideology are following the wrong path). Any deeper exploration of the idea of regret and "fixing the past" is absent, sexuality too, receives quite a superficial treatment in the play. There are two major gay stereotypes in action within the play. The director plays the role of the "gay best friend" of the protagonist, described as her "妺妺" (little sister) that we "might think is a little unusual". There is, however nothing unusual to a Western viewer about this kind of character: the emasculated, non-predatory inocuous gay male referred to by terms usually reserved for females (think of a slightly updated version of Are You Being Served's Mr Humphries, or a character lightly based on Taiwanese celebrity Cai Kangyong (蔡康永). His "one true love", Peter, (pause - wipe off the vomit - continue) is dead, so his sexuality is essentially safely removed from the present for the audience. The closeted gay fiance reversion to type after coming out also suggests that his previous masculinity was but a ruse, and at the end of the play he is shoe-horned into the "gay best friend" role as evidence of his acceptance of his sexuality. The other two representations of gay men, are also stereotypes, the predatory older man who chases the closeted gay man when he is a high school student, and the rent boy, whose brazen sexuality and drug-use lead him to arrest, which can be seen as divine justice within the play. As opposed to representing sexuality in a more diverse way, the production instead homogenises sexual and gender roles.

To sum up, the play is easy watching, its ending is predictable and safe. This is the territory of liberal morality and its pedagogical unfolding is suitably bland. None of which is what motivates me to go to the theatre, why pay 600NT or more to see a low-budget, albeit live, rehash of a feel-good movie. The night I went the production overran by about 40 minutes, so expect to be impatiently looking at your watch while you watch the happy-ending play out at length to the crooning wails of the directors singing.

Don't expect much and you'll have a long but vaguely entertaining night. 2/5

For more information go to the blog here.

Below are some interviews with cast members in and out of character:

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Shortbus (2006) John Cameron Mitchell

I liked this film because of the way it dealt with emotion and sex, and the labyrinthine sexual and emotional struggles that people have to deal with. Its graphic nature lends itself to an argument that the so-called "pop philosopher" Slavoj Žižek made in The Pervert's Guide to Cinema:

Pornography is, and it is, a deeply conservative genre. It's not a genre where everything is permitted. It's a genre base don a fundamental prohibition. We cross one threshold, you can see everything, close ups and so on, but the price you pay for it is that the narrative with justifies sexual activity should not be taken seriously. The screenwriters for pornography cannot be so stupid. You know, these vulgar narratives of a housewife alone at home, a plumber comes, fixes the hole, then the housewife turns to him, 'Sorry, but I have another hold to be fixed. Can you do it?' or whatever. Obviously there is some kind of a censorship here. You have either an emotionally engaging film, but then you should stop bust before showing it all, sexual act, or you can see it all but you are now allowed then to be emotionally seriously engaged. So that's the tragedy of pornography.

This film's graphic sexual portrayals are more akin to the reality of sex in the strong attachment with emotion that they have - and the aspirations, deeply held unease that is held in our sexuality surfaces in the characters - pressure to perform, the pressure to enjoy sex with someone you love, pressure to convince yourself that you are happy and fulfilled.

There were definite moments of recognition for me in the film, whether it be the struggle to deal with and embrace the physiological reality of your body, the emotional payload of sex or just learning to interact in a relationship that is both sexual and emotional. I found a lot of the dialogue was funny and rang truer than either the aforesaid pornographic vulgarity or the archetypal demands of romance films or rom-coms.

I can see where the film might receive some flak - the self-conscious reference to 9 11, and a hipsterish romantic notion of "New Yorkers" and sex clubs, but on a whole I never felt the film lurched into pretentiousness, and the situations and characters were believeable to me within the context of the fim.

I liked the idea that the structure in one's life being portrayed as such a fragile thing, and that the surface actions of your behaviour can go on from one day to the next while underneath everything has already changed.

Here's the trailer:

And a rant from Slavoj Žižek: