Taiwan's motion picture industry was in rapid decline three decades ago when a sad clown heralded a new phase in the island's cinematic history. The title character of The Sandwich Man
Films produced in Taipei in the late 1970s had fallen into a rut, dominated by insipid romances with similar plots, and stars in sagas lacking a local flavour. The Sandwich Man
Eschewing screen idols and tinseled gloss, three fledgling directors adapted a trio of tales narratively unconnected but thematically cut from the same cloth and unmistakably Taiwanese in nature.
The title refers to the first episode, the most famous of the film's vignettes due to the guiding hand of Hou Hsiao-hsien, soon to be recognised as a leading auteur of modern Taiwanese cinema. Though not his feature debut, Hou's delineation of the young illiterate father (portrayed by Chen Po-cheng) desperately trying to support his wife and infant son is generally considered his first true demonstration of a distinctive directorial voice.
The work's slice-of-life quality and use of Taiwanese dialect rather than Mandarin represent a radical break from the then prevailing mainstream trends. It is also The Sandwich Man's only segment to make direct reference to the region's past celluloid glories with the protagonist's sporting billboards for 1960s classics Oyster Girl (1963), Fire Bulls (1966), and Orchids and My Love (1966). The homage to an earlier golden age is almost gratifying enough to overlook the fact that all three opuses post-date the yarn's timeframe.
The second chapter, Hsiao Chi's Hat, serves as a suitable transition between the movie's first and third sections. Director Wan Jen deftly mixes vernaculars and social backgrounds as the scenario's two white collar protagonists take up temporary residence in a seaside village in an attempt to sell Japanese pressure cookers to a populace unfamiliar with such newfangled contraptions.
Like The Sandwich Man, the leads are victims of unemployment, one of them recently married with a baby on the way. The style is realistic in tone, in stark contrast to the final sketch, The Taste of Apples.
Director Tseng Chuang-hsiang takes a light-hearted, satirical approach to this surreal look at what happens when a peasant migrant labourer living in Taipei has the "good fortune" to be knocked down by a vehicle that belongs to a United States army officer.
The amalgam of Chinese dialects and English, the clash not only of Western and Eastern cultures but also rural and urban, humorously reflect the almost mythical status America and all things American, including the titular apples, enjoyed a half-century ago.
Times and attitudes may have changed in the interim, but The Sandwich Man so skilfully combines entertainment with underlying truths that it has lost none of its lustre in the intervening years.
The Sandwich Man , August 24, 9.45pm, The Grand Cinema. Part of the HK Cine Fan programme