“Why would anyone want to see this film?” A-long (阿龍), one of the subjects of The Good Daughter (阿紫), asks director Wu Yu-ying (吳郁瑩) after watching the documentary.
From a commercial standpoint, A-long is right. The documentary lacks drama, especially compared to the tales we read in the news about Vietnamese brides in Taiwan. The characters in the film gossip endlessly about the fate of these women, but for every one that makes the headlines, there are countless more like the titular Azhe (阿紫), who endures an uneventful, hardscrabble life with a disabled garlic farmer in Yunlin County, while sending as much money as she can to her destitute family back home.
But it’s this ordinary slice of life format that allows Wu to dig deep and explore the nuances and unspoken subtleties underneath the increasingly common transactional arrangement of Taiwanese men purchasing foreign brides.
Photo courtesy of atmovies.com
Six years and two children later, the relationship still seems largely utilitarian, but Azhe and her husband A-long are comfortable with each other to the point of joking about her being deported. While A-long is a kind and decent enough fellow, he only married her at his mother’s insistence. The two often bicker and his relatives are never shy to voice their dislike of Azhe in front of her and her children. A-long knows that Azhe is with him for the money, but he defends her against his mother and brother and refuses their demands that he divorce her.
Azhe is resentful that her siblings in Vietnam don’t do enough for their parents. Yet she still asks A-long for money to help her brother fix his house while her own children don’t have enough cash for school activities. However, she admits that her love for them is the only thing that keeps her from running away.
This brutal honesty and helpless resignation to fate — which Wu manages to draw out from almost all of the subjects — is what makes up for the lack of action and earned the film Best Documentary at last month’s Taipei Film Festival (台北電影節).
Wu must have spent a lot of time with the families to get the intimate footage she wanted, as no dialogue is wasted — even the innocent inquiries by the children carry significant emotional weight.
Both from the bottom rungs of their respective societies, Azhe and A-long acknowledge that this is the best they can do given their backgrounds and circumstances. They don’t long for happiness, but that doesn’t make their situation bearable as they wonder what they did in the past life that led them to this existence.
There are over 100,000 Vietnamese brides in Taiwan, and while all of their circumstances differ, one can imagine many of them feeling the same way as Azhe. She’s not in the worst situation, and living with A-long sure beats being back home, yet it’s still a life that few viewers will envy.
Wu shuttles between Vietnam and Taiwan, showing the stark contrast between what’s considered poverty in each place and how Azhe’s marriage has improved her parents’ lives. The same attitude of resignation is found there.
“This family doesn’t have land or daughters, so they remain poor,” Azhe’s father says while pointing to the neighbors’ house in one scene. But his pain and regret is also apparent.
Wu fully captures the complexities and silent tension below the surface of these relationships. Nobody is really good or bad here, even A-long’s mother, who criticizes Azhe relentlessly: they’re just products of their environments. This unbiased portrayal has much to do with the skillful editing, as Wu clearly lays out each characters’ story and motivations before diving into the heavier stuff.
The only downside is that the story drags a bit in the middle as nothing really happens, and viewers may fight the urge to doze off for a second. But that’s also the beauty of the film, as what’s depicted can only be captured naturally; the events and dialogue would feel extremely forced and trite if it was all scripted.
Wu insists that Azhe is not a representation of all Vietnamese brides, but rather she’s a window through which the audience can get a glimpse of her often neglected world, speaking to the broader social problems that led to her situation in the first place, as well as the discrimination she and her countryfolk often suffer in Taiwan. It’s easy for society to judge these transactional marriages from the surface, but Wu reminds us that even though they’ve accepted their fate, they’re still as complicated as any other human being.
The Good Daughter (阿紫)
Directed by: Wu Yu-ying (吳郁瑩)
Language: Taiwanese, Mandarin and Vietnamese with Chinese and English subtitles
Running time: 84 minutes
Taiwan release: In theaters
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