|March of Happiness
Reviewed by Shelly Kraicer at the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival
None of Lin Cheng-sheng's previous three features prepared me for his new film March of Happiness. In the past, he has focused on individual lives, with a microscopic attention to detail and mood, with a sustained, patient, quiet kind of observation that seemed almost obsessive, but which offered consistently fine results. From Lee Kang-shang's gracefully maturing loner in A Drifting Life [Chun hua meng lu, 1996], through the poignantly detailed, perfectly poised relationship between Rene Liu and Tseng Tsing in Murmur of Youth [Mei li zai chang ge, 1998], to the flawed but exquisite mood piece of Sweet Degeneration [Fang lang, 1998], Lin has kept to small-scale domestic drama. This year, he has taken on a completely different kind of project, a historical (melo-)drama co-produced by Taiwanese television. But March of Happiness gives no evidence that he has a natural affinity for this different sort of material.
The film follows an ill-fated romance, between A Yu (Hsiao Hsu-shen, in her first feature film) a young actress in a Taiwanese drama troupe and actor and musician A Jin (Lim Giong, a prominent actor for Hou Hsiao-hsien, and important fixture of the Taiwanese folk/rock scene). The romance plays itself out mostly in Taipei, between a small theatre and the Tianma Cafe of the title, from the end of the Second World War to February 28th, 1947, the inauspicious date of their planned elopement.
It is certainly audacious of Lin Cheng-sheng to try to follow in the footsteps of City of Sadness, Hou Hsiao-hsien's account of the same period of Taiwanese history. But I am not sure why Lin took on such a daunting challenge. Instead of confronting history directly, as Hou did in his own film, Lin tries to mix it with allegory. A Yu is betrothed to a man she doesn't love. Her father tries to force the marriage, and picks February 28th for its realisation (the central date of modern Taiwanese history, when Kuomintang troops initiated a massacre that took the lives of approximately 20,000 native Taiwanese). Yu refuses the forced marriage, and tries to elope, but Taiwan's catastrophe conspires to prevent her from following her heart.
Unlike, say, the allegory of Wu Nien-jen's Buddha Bless America [Tian guo tai ping, 1996], whose nutty, fairy-tale-like flavour made it surprisingly easy to swallow, this film all too obviously juxtaposes the theme of resistance to forced marriage (and resistance to patriarchy) with the story of the struggles of the native Taiwanese against the mainlanders who fled there from the Communist revolution. It seems awfully nervy, if not downright heavy-handed, for Lin to include as a main character the famous woman cigarette vendor (played here by veteran actress Grace Chen) who was attacked by Kuomintang troops in the incident that set off the 2.28 massacre. But this strategem telegraphs, like the elopement date itself, exactly what is going to happen in the film long before it actually transpires.
This project only suits Lin Cheng-sheng's style of filmmaking awkwardly at best. There is a clear gap between what he has mastered (intimacy, finely crafted lighting, perfect detail, and an ability to ask for and receive extravagantly indulgent patience from his audience), and what he is called upon to do here (large statements, period recreation, a sense of awful, inevitable, forward narrative movement).
A final set of Chinese (and English) subtitles drives home the message, that the KMT "rule over Taiwan has lasted 50 years", although "the future will come, no matter what". One can have no qualms about Lin Cheng-sheng's politics, while still wishing that he had poured them into a different kind of film.
footnote: As a counterpoint to my dissatisfaction with the film, I'd like to point to Jacques Mandelbaum's glowing review in Le Monde. That paper has been a pioneering, acutely perceptive, and sustained supporter of Lin Cheng-sheng's work from the beginning. Mandelbaum believes that Lin is convincing at melodrama, and picks out an strand of political engagement in all of Lin's films (the problematic of a divided China, which he sees mapped out in a particular tension between the individual and the community in each film) that is directly confronted in the present work. Though I find it easier to read Lin's films, like those of his contemporary Tsai Ming-liang, as concerned primarily with the personal and the psychological, rather than the political, Mandelbaum's view bears consideration.
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all content © 1996-2002 Shelly Kraicer