Fri, May 30, 2003 - Page 20 News List

`Southbound Swallow' fails to rise to the occasion

It may be full of good intentions and sensitivity, but Lien Ching-hua's second movie hasn't the narrative oomph that its subject deserves

By Ian Bartholomew  /  STAFF REPORTER

Tuan Jun-hao and Chen Hsiang-chi.


With Southbound Swallow, director Lien Jin-hua (連錦華) continues to delve into the differences, similarities, tensions and fears that exist on an individual level between people from China and those from Taiwan.

In So-called Friends (哥兒們), released in 2000, Lien created a cross-strait road movie in which two young men, one from Taiwan and the other China, ponder the many ironies of Taiwan's situation in relation to China.

In Southbound Swallow, the mood is more somber, telling the story of two Chinese women who have come to Taiwan under the guise of marriage. Despite having found relative prosperity, they struggle on the edge of economic survival, sinking by slow but inevitable steps into the seamy underworld of pimps and sexual favors.

The protagonist of Southbound Swallow is a young woman called Swallow, played by Chen Hsiang-chi (陳湘琪), best-known for her leading role in Tsai Ming-liang's (蔡明亮) What Time is it There. She also played a minor role in Lin Cheng-sheng's (林正盛) self-indulgent Robinson's Crusoe (魯賓遜漂流記), which was at Cannes this year.

Her role in Southbound Swallow harks back to the rather forlorn and inarticulate characterization of What Time is it There? It is the sort of role favored by Taiwanese directors, who have a fatal attraction to long, lingering shots of their female stars pondering the imponderables.

She is coupled in Southbound Swallow with Kuan Yin (關穎), a more vivacious companion, who quickly gives into the lure of nightclubs and the spurious luxury that they represent.

The relationship between these two characters is somewhat neglected in favor of a not very edifying connection between Swallow and a policeman Xiao Kao, played by Tuan Jun-hao (段鈞豪), and a stray dog which he takes care of. Xiao Kao becomes a refuge from the sordid marriage with a much older man that was Swallow's passport to Taiwan. Unlike her friend Hsiao Lan, she cannot just dump her husband in a bid for freedom, but continues to look after him even as he degenerates physically and mentally, leaving Swallow with an almost unbearable burden of emotional responsibility.

Film notes

Southbound Swallow

Directed by: Lien Jin-hua

Starring: Chen Hsiang-chi (Swallow), terry Kuan (hsiao lan), Tuan Jun-hao (hsiao-Kao)

Running time: 85 minutes

Taiwan Release: Today

In Chinese with selected screenings in English

While the themes of Southbound Swallow are both pertinent and powerful, the lack of a strong story line weakens the overall impact of the film, with narrative convention sacrificed to the kind of structural tampering that serves more to confuse than enrich the film.

Lien, who studied film in Beijing, has been somewhat hampered by his lack of access to acting talent from China. While Chen does a perfectly adequate job, her character lacks definition as a mainlander, which the occasional use of Beijing slang cannot fully make up for.

Lien is already working on a third film about a Taiwanese and a Beijing man living on the fringes of society as China's capital races forward with preparations for the 2008 Olympic games.

"For this I will be using non-professional actors," he said. "So the people will be real." Never having had the chance to work with Chinese actors, Lien said he had no idea whether this would help or hinder the presentation.

Although it has many flaws, the film seeks to face problems with an admirable honesty that steers clear of romanticizing his topic and provides an interesting glimpse of what life might be like for Chinese immigrants staying in Taiwan, in a legal and emotional limbo.

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