It seems like director Chang Tso-chi (張作驥) has a lot he wants to say in Synapses (那個我最親愛的陌生人), which opened for this year’s Golden Horse Film Festival. A lot has happened to him in the past few years — he was convicted of sexual assault and sent to prison in 2015 while his feature Thanatos, Drunk (醉生夢死) won big at that year’s Taipei Film Awards; soon after his release in 2017 his mother developed acute dementia and he cared for her until her death.
Synapses, which earned Chang a nomination for Best Director at Saturday’s Golden Horse Awards, is dark and muddled, and although the underlying theme is clearly dementia and the loss of memories, the plot meanders rather aimlessly. It seems like a lot is going on, but none of it exactly fits together, and there’s not much of a driving narrative as it feels like the film could have ended any time in the second half.
Perhaps this incoherence reflects the existence of Chun-hsiung (Zhang Xiao-xiong, 張曉雄), an elderly veteran suffering from dementia, living with his family in a dilapidated old house in Keelung. He is the film’s weightiest presence, but he’s also not really there due to his deteriorating mind. There is no cure for his condition, and there’s no way to sugarcoat such a story, which adds to the hopelessness of the tone. But the resulting product is rather hard to watch, feeling much longer than its 116-minute running time.
Photo courtesy of atmovies.com
The film is seen mostly through the eyes of Chun-hsiung’s 9-year-old grandson Chuan (Lee Ying-chuan, 李英銓), who tries to make sense of the events that unfold while trying to hatch a turkey egg for his school assignment. He plays the role of the observer that keeps a certain distance from the other characters, but he’s also just as involved because many of the conflicts arise because of him.
Most of the acting is superb, with a masterful performance by Lu Hsueh-feng (呂雪鳳), who plays Feng, Hsiung’s seemingly loving wife of 30 years who devotedly takes care of him. But when Chuan’s mother Xiao Meng (Li Meng, 李夢) comes home after spending six years in jail, things start to unravel and the secrets of this seemingly normal family are revealed.
There’s also Chuan’s good-for-nothing gangster father Wen (Su Chun-chung, 蘇俊忠), Chang’s former military comrade Cheng-en (Liu Cheng-en, 劉承恩) and Turkey Brother (李幼鸚鵡鵪鶉小白文鳥, Alphonse Perroquet/Parrot Caille/Quail Youth-Leigh), a strange homeless man that Chuan hangs out with. All these people’s lives are intertwined in some way and heavily weighed down by the past, but like Hsiung’s mind, they also appear disconnected to each other and to the audience as well. The editing style also reflects this, depicting the story in a patchwork of vignettes.
Photo courtesy of atmovies.com
Adding to this disconnect is the use of languages in the film — Feng mostly speaks in Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese), while Hsiung speaks Cantonese and Mandarin and Meng talks in a Beijing accent. Chuan only speaks Mandarin even though Feng talks to him only in Hoklo. It’s mentioned in one scene that she spent time in Hong Kong, Canada and China, but it’s jarring how differently she speaks from the rest of her family. This device further highlights how fractured this family is, as if they were strangers thrown under one roof.
It’s hard not to compare Synapses to A Sun (陽光普照) by Chung Mong-hong (鍾孟宏), who was chosen for the Golden Horse’s best director over Chang. Both films explore complicated and turbulent family relations, and both plots involve a member who returns home from prison. Dysfunction and despair permeate both films, but by comparison A Sun is much more coherent and focused with a clear message. It was easy to sit through A Sun, but Synapses takes the suffocating tension way further, to the point where the audience needs to frequently break their focus and gasp for air.
If A Sun is about repressed feelings and things unsaid, Synapses is about repressed lives, which is encapsulated in the opening quote, “Without those memories, would his life be better?” It’s bleak, bleak stuff, but sadly, it’s how many Taiwanese of that generation lived, hiding their real selves to live up to the expectations of others. By contrast, Turkey Brother is completely lucid, but he chooses to live the way he does simply for freedom.
It’s is a bold and ambitious attempt in telling a complex saga that spans decades, with great acting, production quality and a subtle yet penetrating jazzy score. But sometimes a movie can get too loaded to enjoy, especially when it’s dealing with such a heavy topic.
Directed by: Chang Tso-chi (張作驥)
Starring: Zhang Xiao-xiong (張曉雄) as Chun-hsiung, Lu Hsueh-feng (呂雪鳳) as Feng, Li Meng (李夢) as Xiao Meng and Lee Ying-chuan (李英銓) as Chuan
Languages: Mandarin, Taiwanese and Cantonese with English and Chinese subtitles
Running time: 116 minutes
Taiwan release: In theaters
Taiwan’s rapid economic development between the 1950s and the 1980s is often attributed to rational planning by highly-educated and impartial technocrats. Those who look at history through blue-tinted spectacles argue that, for much of the post-war period, the government was staffed by Chinese who fled China after the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) lost the civil war “who had no property interests in Taiwan and no connections with a landlord class,” leaving “the KMT party-state more autonomous from societal influences than governments [elsewhere in East Asia],” writes Gaye Christoffersen in Market Economics and Political Change: Comparing China and Mexico. At the same
It’s impossible to write a book entirely in the Taokas language. There are only about 500 recorded words in the Aboriginal tongue, whose speakers shifted to Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese) generations ago while preserving certain Taokas phrases in their speech. “When I first started recording the language around 1997, I really had to jog the memories of the elders to find anything,” says Liu Chiu-yun (劉秋雲) a member of the Taokas community and a language researcher. The Taokas last month unveiled a picture book, Osubalaki, Balalong Ramut the community’s first-ever commercial publication using the language. The lavishly illustrated book
In his 1958 book, A Nation of Immigrants, then US senator from Massachusetts John F Kennedy wrote the following words: “Little is more extraordinary than the decision to migrate, little more extraordinary than the accumulation of emotions and thoughts which finally lead a family to say farewell to a community where it has lived for centuries, to abandon old ties and familiar landmarks, and to sail across dark seas to a strange land.” As an epithet, the book’s title is commonly associated with America and, in the face of the xenophobic rhetoric that has marked US President Donald Trump’s tenure,
Every time Chen Ding-shinn (陳定信) saw a liver cancer patient in his ward, it reminded him of his father, who died from the disease at the age of 49. Historically, Taiwanese suffered from an unusually high prevalence of liver ailments as well as cancer, and Chen was troubled by the number of terminal patients. After decades of research, Chen and other experts found that Taiwan had the highest percentage of hepatitis B carriers in the world, which often developed into cirrhosis and cancer. In the early 1980s, he served as a key member of the Hepatitis Prevention Council (肝炎防治委員會), which