Language: Mandarin, Min Nan
Director: Yang Ya-che
Screenplay: Yang Ya-che
Cinematography: Jake Pollock
Soundscore: Baby C.
Cast: Chang Hsiao-chuan (Joseph), Gwai Lunmei, Rhydian Vaughan
Runtime: 105 min
Distribution: Atom Cinema
Note: This review is a little spoilerish – somehow I ended up detailing quite a bit of what happens.
It is a little strange to watch a film and realise that you were in the middle of some of the history playing out on the screen, but, having been a child, you never noticed any of it all. If someone had asked me before the Nyeobungu. Nambungu screening if Taiwan ever had martial law, I would have shrugged; if someone had inquired whether anything much exciting was going on in the Taipei of the early 1990s, I would have said “not really”, for the most historically significant event I remember from one summer in 1989 (when I lived there for three months) and from a year and half between 1990 and 1991 (when I lived there again) is the breakout of the Gulf War because it meant that the guards at my USAmerican school started checking everyone’s IDs in fear of a potential retributory attack.
But martial law there was (from 1948 until 1987) and things were happening in the Taiwan of the early 1990s (the White Lily pro-democracy student demonstrations, including a 6-day sit-in at the Memorial Square in March 1990) and it is these historical-political events and an atmosphere of rebellion that get the story of Liam/Chen Chung-liang (Chang Hsiao-chuan), Mabel/Yin Mei-pao (Gwai Lunmei) and Aaron/Wang Hsin-jen (Rhydian Vaughan) underway. As we begin in 1985 Liam, Mabel and Aaron are gutsy high school students in the southern part of the country. They live under the system of repression but challenge it at every opportunity, sporting bizarre haircuts and publishing – in defiance of the censorship imposed by their school’s militaristic head – photographs of naked classmates chasing after girls to retrieve their clothes (incidentally a prank instigated by Mabel herself). As much as the country’s history defines the film’s opening hour, Nyeobungu. Nambungu is really about its three leads, the initial historical focus forming simply one part of their coming of age.
They are rather different characters: Liam is the manly hunk on the swimming team, Mabel, tomboyish and fearless, like a bomb always ready to go off, Aaron, the playful pretty boy that seems to take nothing seriously. But these are superficial outlines of their personalities, the film soon revealing other facets: Liam remains noticeably quiet on the sidelines, calmly accepting the banter around him especially when Mabel sticks close (“your wife” his mates tease). Hints of his homosexuality soon emerge and also the fact that he is a deeply caring person as well as extremely sensitive to his surroundings. These traits are particularly visible in his interactions with Mabel, who allows only Liam to accompany her in vulnerable moments – at the night market, where she sells books to support herself, or when she is cramped over in pain. We see Liam slip in, unbeknownst to Mabel, extra money and crush tree leaves that will relieve her physical distress. While Aaron is presents in those situations as well, he always arrives late and is unaware of what is actually happening, something that is beautifully illustrated in a small scene when Liam and Mabel sit on a lookout balcony together, the former massaging the latter’s hand to make her feel better. When Aaron sneaks up to them, they immediately stop, the gesture becoming a secret that they will not share.
Their reaction is not because they don’t consider Aaron a good enough friend, but rather because the relationships between the three of them is complicated. Mabel clearly likes Liam (the back hug in the swimming hole reveals that her affection runs deeper than friendship), while Aaron assumes that his besties are a couple but is in love with Mabel himself, never noticing the languishing looks that the male half of that pair casts at him. Liam, of course, remains in the closet, but does tell Aaron that Mabel is not – and never was – his girl, enough for his friend to throw himself at her. Again, the deeper nature of each character is highlighted: Aaron, insensitive to the indirect message in Liam’s words, seeks his own happiness and personal gain in the situation, Liam withdraws to suffer his unrequited love in solitude, while Mabel bravely jumps into the relationship, knowing she cannot have what she actually longs for.
Five years on, martial law and high school times are a thing of the past. Liam and Aaron are students in Taipei, while Mabel, presumably working, resides in their home town, visiting only on occasion. Things have changed: Mabel is less interested in rebellion and more (or, rather, only) in Aaron, whose persistent adoration for her meanwhile has lessened. Although he still showers Mabel with kisses and is perfectly willing to have sex, he has also become attracted a classmate and companion in the emerging student protest movement. Only Liam seems (nearly) the same, even if now seeking sexual satisfaction with other men, his affection for Aaron remains as ever. As feelings clash and truths – some ugly, some simply painful – are revealed, the bonds between the friends are realigned and even shattered, though how exactly becomes clear only much later. The narrative skips to 1997, when we find Aaron and Mabel still together, the former married to another woman (with a child) and the latter his mistress, while Liam is estranged from them and has not been in touch for years. Yang abandons Taiwanese history completely at this point, the personal stories of the character coming to the fore and reaching their climax.
In this conclusion, we are left wondering. Why is it that Liam breaks off with his friends? Why did Mabel become the lover? And why is Aaron so indifferent to the two people who are supposedly closest to him? There are answers to these questions, though I would disagree with the Asian House representative that led the Q&A session that the characters of Nyeobungu. Nambungu are individuals we truly get to know and understand. It may apply for Liam as his actions are consistent with his personality and the society around him that still forces homosexuals to live a life of lies, his disappearance coming as a reaction to the drunken and always thoughtless Aaron crossing the line (“Why did you do this?” Liam asks, no longer able to bear the pain). That Mabel is left behind as well is most likely the unfortunate side effect of Liam’s need to remove the person he can never be with from his life, since Mabel will not give up Aaron. However, the explanation for her choice – to be the other woman and to maintain that status for years, into her thirties – is more difficult to provide, as it contradicts the spirited and self-confident girl we first met. She loved Liam in the beginning. She was the girlfriend of Aaron originally, not the other girl. And she is, by 1997, just a little too old to hold on to a relationship with such naivety – allowing us to conclude only that Mabel is weaker and more desperate than her initial characterisation suggested. This leaves Aaron, who is either the most unknowable one of the trio or simply a superficial jerk. In the high school days he is defined by a sort of grimacing smile, permanently etched into his face, therefore never properly acknowledging the feelings of others but always brushing over them with this smile. He pursues what he wants, using others’ moments of weakness to his own advantage: he half-bullies Mabel into a relationship, yet eventually cheats on her and also betrays the woman he marries (presumably for a comfortable life of status and riches?). These actions are hardly defensible, but much worse still, they are not readily comprehensible, except if we (unsatisfyingly) conclude that he is just an emotionally clueless and selfish person.
Despite these flaws in parts of the characterisation, Nyeobungu. Nambungu offers much that is compelling. Particularly Chang Hsiao-chuan but also Gwai Lunmei perform well (Rhydian Vaughan is the weaker link – quote hklovefilm.com: “Unlike [Gwai] and Chang, Vaughan’s gazes reveal only what he’s looking at and not what he’s feeling.”). The atmosphere of rebellion in the initial stretch and the thrills, trials and tribulations of growing up are also wonderfully conveyed, through narrative as well as soundscore and cinematography. The photography is stylish, colours are bright and intense, shots often striking (enhanced further of course by the photogenic looks of the main actors):
There are cleverly choreographed scenes, one example being when Mabel & Aaron and Liam & his partner make love. The shots are intercut and juxtaposed, but slowly merge into one another. As the lies of the two that are married mix with the sincere, but forever unfulfilled longing of the two others, symbolically Mabel calls out to Liam, and Liam to Aaron.
Laudable is also Ya-che Yang’s willingness to not spell things out and thus his belief in the viewers, their imagination and intellectual capacity to understand the story unfolding in all its nuances on the screen – indeed, this is one of the most refreshing aspects of the film and will keep you engaged a good while after the credits have rolled. Nyeobungu. Nambungu makes large jumps in time between the different segments of the film and never describes what might have happened in between. There are no extensive explanations of the plot’s twists and turns – blink and you might miss a small, but important detail –, and even the somewhat unfortunate trope of an illness is wisely given minimal screen time, enough to allow for a particular outcome, but not enough to transform into a cliché weighing the narrative down. We are also never filled in on what exactly happens to Aaron in the end, in particular whether he learns about Mabel’s fate and all that relates to it. Finally, there is also plenty that is left entirely open for interpretation. The tree-leaf crushing? We can only guess that it is meant to lessen the girl’s menstrual cramps. The letter that Liam retrieves? Perhaps an indication of the fact that Mabel was always aware about her friend’s sexuality, even if on the surface she acted as if clueless: the empty sheet suggests that she knew better than to put her confession on paper.
Nyeobungu. Nambungu is a tale of three individuals whose triangular friendship becomes increasingly complex as they enter adulthood and is inevitably ill-fated: it is not possible for each one of them to obtain what they long for the most and to achieve full happiness. Liam, reflecting on his life in the aisles of a supermarket, however finds a solution. “If one of us is happy,” he says, “that is enough”. Though in that moment none of them is, Mabel remembers these words of painful truth in a crucial hour and decides to gift at least one of them that happiness.
Overall Verdict: Although starting in the midst of tumultuous Taiwanese history, Nyeobungu. Nambungu soon transforms into a character-focused tale about three friends whose friendship is really an ill-fated triangle of love that can never bring all of them happiness – a painful realisation they must come to over the course of several decades.
- I do not recall this shot (which I had seen before the screening and was therefore expecting), making me wonder if the version shown was a shorter, international cut of the film?
- I had this complaint already at last year’s Pan Asia Festival: the Q&A didn’t work. The problem again came down to translation. The filmmaker directly responded to the questions, but seemed to misunderstand some. This is not his fault of course, but rather it should have meant that the moderator phrase questions more simply or the translator tactfully step in to assist. The latter, however, struggled, sometimes seemingly not catching (or understanding) the director’s responses. The end result: perfectly good questions (To what extent were Vaughan’s facial expressions directed by Yang? What are future screening plans for the film in the UK and elsewhere?) went unanswered and some responses were puzzling (I’m sure I’m not the only one left wondering why Yang proclaimed he liked Oscar Wilde. Perhaps he really does, but I just have no clue why.). It’s not that difficult to find a well-trained professional – the KCCUK regularly manages to do so in their Q&A sessions, as does the Japanese Foundation.
- The film premiered at the 2012 Taipei Film Festival and went on to screen at the Busan International Film Festival, the Hawaii International Film Festival and the San Diego Asian Film Festival (all in 2012).
- Nyeobung-u. Nambung-u is the director’s second movie, he directed《囧男孩》(Jiǒng nánhái/Orz Boyz, Taiwan) in 2008.
- Other reviews: lovehkfilm.com, HK Neo Reviews and filmbiz.asia.