Movie review: Turning 18

An essential coming-of-age tale

By Davina Tham  /  Staff reporter

Thu, Sep 05, 2019 - Page 13

The magic of Turning 18 (未來無恙) is that it touches on every form of hardship imaginable — poverty above all, but also alcoholism, child sexual abuse, teenage pregnancy, domestic violence and terminal illness — yet never once feels exploitative.

There is no dwelling on victimhood or pointless suffering. Instead, the precocity and grit of children who have grown up in difficult circumstances are carved into every frame of the film.

Hui-chen (輝珍) and Pei-ying (沛穎), aged 15 and 16 respectively at the start of the documentary, are two girls growing up in Aboriginal communities about 18km apart in Hualien County.

Born into urban poverty and to effectively single mothers, the film finds both girls at a crucial age when they are maturing into young adults while contending with the fallout of troubled childhoods. (The film uses pseudonyms for both girls for privacy.)

For Hui-chen, that means being brought up by an alcoholic mother, who has also given birth to eight other siblings whom she drops out of school to help support. She moves in and out of child protection, with only taekwondo as a constant.

Pei-ying has also dropped out for lack of school fees, and moves out to live with her boyfriend. Life plays out on a worn mattress in a bedroom in his parents’ home. Job prospects include car-washing and running errands for an illegal gambling den.

In the wrong hands, rough material like this can easily become the stuff of poverty porn, where the poor are traded in for tears and sympathy.

So it is a relief and a blessing that the hands responsible for Turning 18 belong to director Ho Chao-ti (賀照緹), who has a keen sense of the girls’ agency as masters of their own fate.

Ho has already made an art of finding stories of resilience in the most ordinary places. Subjects of her documentaries over the past decade have ranged from workers in Taiwan’s backbreaking garment industry in Sock’n’Roll (台灣黑狗兄) and My Fancy High Heels (我愛高跟鞋), to the children of new immigrants in 303.

In Turning 18, the seven years that Ho spends with Hui-chen and Pei-ying, getting to know their families and friends while filming in their homes, schools and neighborhoods, pay off in a lush portrait of the girls’ inner lives.

A key element of that portrait is the girls’ relationships with their mothers — complicated figures who represent bottomless maternal love, but also cycles of poverty, violence and questionable life decisions that their daughters know they cannot make the mistake of repeating.

After all, in late adolescence, Hui-chien and Pei-ying both are approaching the ages their own mothers were when they first had children and threw in their lot with good-for-nothing men.

“I wanted to move away from my mom. She may have given up on herself. But I don’t want to give up on myself,” Hui-chen says late in the film as she rationalizes moving to Taipei. “I hate her for not loving herself.”

Opening in local theaters last week after a run on the international festival circuit, Turning 18 has already received awards at the Taipei Film Festival and CinemAsia Film Festival in Amsterdam.

But on the Internet, the most resounding accolades for the documentary have actually come from social workers, activists and advocates. I see this in a Facebook post by an acquaintance who works at a women’s rights foundation, urging her followers to watch the film especially if they have “many complaints and dissatisfactions with life.” This constituency of support is the surest sign of Ho’s ability to capture the precise texture of inequality.

The documentary also touches the tip of the iceberg of indigenous rights by interspersing archival footage of the development of Hualien under Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) rule. Juxtaposed against the daily realities of Hui-chien and Pei-ying, the propaganda footage does just enough to make viewers wonder about the failed promises of development and the prejudice and condescension toward “naive” Aboriginal communities.

Turning 18 plucks universal heartstrings even as it illuminates the specific ways in which inequality rears its head in the lives of two young Aboriginal women. My only hope is that Ho continues to train her lens on all layers of society, armed with that unflinching empathy for her subjects and a clear-eyed view of the light and shadows at work in their world.