Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s alter ego Borat famously undertook “cultural learnings of America for make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan”. Now, it seems, Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture might have shared similar ambitions when bequeathing a government grant to Netflix series A Taiwanese Tale of Two Cities. Presumably not while wearing mankinis.
In fact, China Airlines must be busy laying on extra planes off the back of the show, because it’s hard to imagine how the tourist board could have done a better job of promoting the self-ruled island, and in particular Taipei.
Dickens descendant A Taiwanese Tale is the story of Li Nien-Nien (Tammy Chen), a highly photogenic young woman and trainee Chinese medicine practitioner from the capital. She is obsessed with one day living in San Francisco, home of her fiancé and her biological mother. Whacking the point home with a sledgehammer, she keeps a San Francisco city map on her bedroom wall; two clocks, one displaying Californian time; and a plethora of American tchotchkes, so nostalgic is she for a place she has never even seen.
In San Francisco lives Josephine Huang (Peggy Tseng), a highly photogenic young woman and tech-industry programmer who dreams of visiting the homeland that, in true, third-culture style, haunts her Taiwanese-American community.
Both are disgruntled, disappointed and disillusioned. Amid all that dissing, Nien-Nien is grounded by a protective family, and Josephine stultified in her job – which she quits, before having noisy sex with her boyfriend, who she also quits.
Josephine strikes out for Taipei and meets new best friend Nien-Nien at a sham beauty pageant. Cue home-swap and the beginning of their (mis)adventures in love and life, against a revolving backdrop of teahouses, shophouses, lion dances, temples, festivals of the gods, obscure herbal preparations and Taipei 101. Five episodes in and San Francisco has become little more than the Golden Gate Bridge, but cityscapes will surely follow in the remaining 15 instalments.
A Taiwanese Tale is cheesy, predictable and utterly without an axe to grind. It’s also subtly humorous, while never striving for the belly laughs of Eddie Huang’s Fresh off the Boat. There’s something charmingly innocent about the whole enterprise, as though Taiwan were presenting its best side to the world with the help of some healthy looking, wholesome twentysomethings.
By such means do viewers come to care about these appealing characters and wish them well on their journeys to enlightenment. By such means do they continue to tune in … cheese-o-meter to hand.
Cary Fukunaga delves into mysteries of the mind in Maniac
Even without the recent announcement that he will direct the upcoming Bond film, Cary Fukunaga’s stock would be rising thanks to dystopian science-fiction series Maniac, which completes this week’s Netflix double feature.
The premise is that any psychological problem can be fixed – because whatever it is, it’s all in the mind. This is to be achieved by a course of wonder pills invented by Justin Theroux’s creepy psychiatric hospital doctor, James Mantleray, who introduces his drug trial by claiming, “pain can be destroyed” and “the mind can be solved”.
Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, as Annie Landsberg and Owen Milgrim, are his two most prominent laboratory animals, she looking for a way out of addiction, he trying to face down schizophrenia, neither expecting any sort of relationship. Dream sequences are the apparent conduit of cure, but forget Walter Mitty – the promise of no side effects to the treatment means that, naturally, everything goes completely insane.
The 10 hour-long episodes are available now for bingeing, and the farther down the rabbit hole you go, the more Inception (2010) it becomes. After all, Maniac is based on a Scandinavian show of the same name, so what did you expect?