No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti
Starring: Chen Wen-pin, Chao Yu-hsuan, Lin Chih-ju
Director: Leon Dai Li-jen
Category: IIA (Taiwanese, Hakka and Mandarin)
The Kafkaesque nightmare created by the intrusion of Taiwanese bureaucrats into family affairs is seared into this no-frills, black and white drama. The big winner at the 2009 Golden Horse Awards (for Best Director, Original Screenplay and Outstanding Taiwanese Film of the Year), Leon Dai Li-jen exercises restraint in relating the based-on-fact saga of a single father whose ordeal in retaining custody of his seven-year-old daughter pushes him to the brink.
While pretentious flourishes are kept to a minimum (the most flagrant being the title, a Spanish approximation of the Chinese term literally meaning 'I cannot live without you'), the narrative nonetheless has a feeling of unnecessarily stacking the deck to the extent that the dad at the film's centre takes on a saintly aura not quite in keeping with what little we learn of his personal history.
Co-producer/co-scriptwriter Chen Wen-pin makes an impressive acting debut as Li Wu-hsiung, who leads a threadbare existence in the gritty milieu of the Kaohsiung waterfront. He and daughter Mei (Chao Yu-hsuan, above with Chen) are devoted to one another, residing as squatters in an abandoned warehouse where Li ekes out a living.
Their placid if seedy universe is shattered when Li attempts to enrol Mei in school only to discover that in the eyes of Taiwanese law he has no claim to guardianship. Rather, Mei 'belongs' to two strangers: a mother who abandoned her as a toddler and the husband her mother separated from but never divorced years before the girl's birth.
It's not a matter of one side fighting the other for custody, for we never see or hear from Mei's mother and stepfather. As a result, the narrative appears to cherry-pick to make its point. Li travels to Taipei in search of help from a classmate-turned-legislator, for example, but he doesn't try hard enough to find the ex-partner who could legally assign him permanent custody. There's probably a good reason for this, but the film never adequately explains it.
The picture has a realistic edge, from the Hakka and Taiwanese dialogue with occasional Mandarin spoken mostly by bureaucrats, to a refreshingly sporadic use of background music. Only occasionally does the director go for symbolic touches, such as when the motorcycling dad and daughter zoom by a windmill-filled landscape, a rare light-hearted sequence that reflects Li's optimism after seeing the legislator.
More heavy-handed is the father at a particularly dolorous moment treading along a Taipei gutter and sprayed by a street cleaning truck. Fortunately, there are few such obviously manipulative grabs at the heartstrings in this grim look at the fragility of family ties.
No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti opens today