Taiwanese cinema revisits serious issues in GF*BF

Wistful dramas have been the rage, but Yang Ya-che's new film harks back to New Taiwan Cinema with a serious look at recent history

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2012, 9:26am

The Taiwanese film GF*BF at first glance looks nothing more than a drama, but at its heart is a story with a revolutionary message.

The title stands for "girlfriend, boyfriend", which is what the film is known as in Chinese.

The plot centres on three friends entwined in a bizarre love triangle.

But from the get-go, Yang Ya-che's film strikes a political tone. Its opening sequence has girls converging in a co-educational school's playground after morning assembly, demanding the right to wear trousers by taking off their dress uniforms. They are wearing shorts underneath.

The director said the scene was based on a "very significant" protest in 2010, when students of Tainan First Girls' High School fought for their right to wear shorts instead of skirts.

"It's an incident which roused many Taiwanese people," said Yang during a recent visit to Hong Kong to promote the movie at the Summer International Film Festival. "We've been lazy about expressing our true feelings for a long time, thinking demonstrations are useless - and then we discovered the next generation doing the same thing we once did."

Screened in Taiwan in July, GF*BF is set for wider commercial release on Thursday.

While wistful dramas have been all the rage in Taiwan in the past two years, following the runaway success of the coming-of-age drama You Are the Apple of My Eye, Yang's film stands out in this genre because it weaves political messages into the romantic narrative.

It harks back to the style of the 1980s-90s New Taiwan Cinema movement pioneered by the likes of Hou Hsiao-hsien and the late Edward Yang De-chang.

GF*BF chronicles the struggle of Liam (Joseph Chang), Aaron (Rhydian Vaughan) and Mabel (Kwai Lun-mei) from the 1980s as the nature of their bonds change. Liam and Mabel begin as a couple, but the girl is driven into Aaron's arms by Liam's aloofness - which actually stems from his affections towards Aaron. As these feelings unfold, the three are forced to make difficult moral decisions.

In the film, teenage rebellion is a harbinger of more organised social movements to come. The trio start out defying their school's ideological officers and selling underground left-wing literature in the 1980s, then become keen participants in 1990s pro-democracy protests.

But in decades to come, they either become corrupt political aides or sink into indifference.

"I think Taiwan has moved forward a lot since they lifted martial law in the 1980s, and we are much freer," Yang said.

"But people have been pretty downcast, so I'd like to get that passion for change in the past and show it on screen in 2012."

Yang, famous for his novel turned film Blue Gate Crossing and his feature-length debut Orz Boyz, presents themes that are considered Taiwanese box-office poison: homosexuality, infidelity and the 1980s student movements. But the director says these topics are crucial in the search for personal and national identity - something Taiwanese society grapples with.

The issue is reflected in recent films such as Wei Te-sheng's Seediq Bale, which tackles the island-state's colonisation by Japan, and Doze Niu's Monga, set in the dark days of 1980s Taipei.

"I think you also have this problem here in Hong Kong," Yang said. "It's about trying to understand who you are, how to position yourself in history, and your views in society.

"You need to confirm your place and that's why [recent Taiwanese films] seek to use the past to look at the present."