There’s something that tricks you in this film. The trick lies in the synopsis itself: a young Eurasian girl looks to be accepted in society and in her own family, but things became bumpy after she has an affair with her sister’s boyfriend. What does that sound like to you, an award-winning, film festival-touring piece of work, or a drama you’re likely to find on your screens at 9pm every night of the week? I don’t know about you, but I’d vote for the latter.
Having said that, in the spirit of trying to watch as many of the films nominated for the 4th Asian Film Awards as possible, I did manage to catch ‘Yang Yang’. I didn’t manage to catch it while it made its festival rounds in Korea (mainly, I suspect, because of the synopsis; I tend to go through the programme, reading the synopsis for each and every film, before deciding to go for the ones that strike me as the most interesting).
I made a big mistake. A mistake, that is, to skip it.
Sandrine Pinna is Yang Yang, an athlete in the making. She is good friends with Xiao-Ru (He Si-Hui), a fellow track runner whose father (Chu Lu-Hao) is the track team coach. He marries Yang Yang’s mother (Shelly Yu), making both of the girls step sisters. It’s an interesting step (pun intended), given that Xiao-Ru’s boyfriend Shawn (Bryant Chang) has a sexual attraction to Yang Yang. The feeling being mutual, things happen. At the same time, one of their seniors, Ming-Ren (Huang Chien-Wei) turns up at a practice session, and sees Yang Yang. He introduces himself as a talent manager, promising Yang Yang a life of easy fortune if only she would turn her head his way. Given how messed up things are with her family, would it be an opportunity that she would grab?
Now, writing all that, I still can’t get away from the dramatic elements of the synopsis. Of course, every drama is about conflict, and this one has it by the bucket-loads, but it still made me stop and think momentarily about the term ‘drama’ itself. When the Greeks came up with that notion, I don’t suppose that they imagine it to be appropriated for a particular genre of the television serial format. These days the connection is strong and undeniable, and I have to admit once again it is a mistake on my part to merely assume that illusion.
Because ‘Yang Yang’ the movie is a film that should be required viewing for a lot of people. Instead of being just a film that looks at teen angst and conflicts, it becomes an exercise in analysing elements of Taiwanese (and, by extension, Asian) society at large. I’d like to bring your attention to the aforementioned meeting with Ming-Ren. He stands by the sidelines, recording videos of the girls going through their motions for the day. Suspicious, Shawn jogs over to find out what’s going on. He turns out to be a talent manager indeed, but for all you know, he could very well be the neighbourhood pervert getting his fill for the weekend. He smiles a cheeky, Cheshire cat smile that makes you think he has something up his sleeve. He pays more attention to the attractive Yang Yang, but doesn’t even bother to ask fo the rather-cute-in-my-book Xiao-Ru. The camera follows this; it shifts from Ming-Ren to Yang Yang, smiling somewhat giddily, and then to Xiao-Ru. She’s not happy, she’s left out of the equation almost completely, ignored even by her boyfriend in that particular instance. A reflection of beauty, race, and gender positions in Taiwan? The director had this to say: “Thanks to their beautiful faces, people of mixed ethnicity enjoy enormous advantage in modeling and show business in Taiwan. I think that’s probably because we’re influenced by western aesthetic standards to such a great extent that we take their Caucasian features as beauty symbols.”
There is, however, a deeper issue to be explored when it comes to race. I don’t believe that Eurasians have it easy in terms of social acceptance and assimilation. In fact, this may well be a problem in terms of social perception beyond Taiwan; Malaysia, for example, do not recognise Eurasian as a race in its own right (but Singapore do). Moving over to Korea, the issue of race in the official forms do not really crop up…but that’s because there is a general assumption that all the people filling in these very forms are Korean by blood and nature. Of course, that is not true, and the social treatment of non-Koreans are different, and different within itself. You’re hands will be shaken if you’re a white Croatian girl with blond hair on the subway, but your ID card will be checked at the train station if you seem like you spent a little too much time in the sun. In this film, Yang Yang is, for all intents and purposes, 100% Taiwanese. Despite being half-French, she doesn’t even speak French. Yet the attention focused on her completely seems to be devoid of this in their configuration. Guys fawn over her; Shawn’s attention on her led to Xiao-Ru finally snapping: “Don’t call me sister, we don’t look alike!” Pretty strong words, especially from two good friends-cum-stepsisters. Yang Yang agonises over this, and tries hard to be accepted based on her own talent and abilities. It makes her work harder at whatever it is that she is doing, be it track-running, dancing or acting. Interesting to note that the only thing she consciously and truly rejects is having to attend French lessons. An indicator of her desire to reject her French roots, perhaps?
Going beyond race, there is also the issue of the absent father. In this film, as I have mentioned previously, Yang Yang gets plenty of attention from the males in her life. They are of different kinds and varieties, but they all seem to attempt to explain and fill in a certain void in her life left by her absent father, who she had not seen since birth. There is Shawn, who obviously wants her for his own animalistic desires (he even watches porn of Eurasian girls), while it would seem that Ming-Ren wants much of the same dollop as well. There is her stepfather, who she gets on well with, but I believe it’s more of a residue from their coach-athlete relationship rather than a true father-daughter bond. It’s a difficult bond to create, and I get the sense that perhaps she tries to look for the sort of guidance, leadership and presence from these respective males that she might have received from her father otherwise (minus the sexual bits, of course). A film role she did receive later on almost directly mirrors her own personal history, and it makes me wonder how much input she had herself in the script of the actual film.
That brings to mind the breakdown of the acting. How does one gauge a performance? Should it be based on how far the role is from the actual experiences that the actor themselves have experienced? Or is it merely to be depended on the actual performance we see on the screen? It is not an easy question to consider. I don’t know how much of Pinna’s own history played a role in this, but her performance makes for compelling viewing. Her tears felt real, her glances and looks here hints at real attractions felt for her male actors. It felt genuine, and it’s not something I can quite break down easily. How genuine? I don’t know, but I do know that I am quite moved by Yang Yang (it does help that she is rather attractive. Is it a standard formulated by myself, or based on Western ideals? Another question for another day, perhaps).
It helps that the director decided to go for long, long, long takes. I love it, and it helps to create the realism even more. It brings everybody’s A-game to the fore, and makes for compelling viewing. Strange, though; despite the long takes, it doesn’t seem like a lot of artificial lights were used, but the film still looks very attractive, given the circumstances. I wonder what kind of film they used. Perhaps the music could be a little better, but it’s far and few in between. Anyways, the feeling that somebody composed it at home on their electronic piano adds a certain charm.
‘Yang Yang’. Yings need not apply, because stick beyond the TV drama elements, and this film’s got all you need in an engrossing, genuine package.
Fikri had an inspired idea to make a film when he saw the batting cage scene, but upon further research, realised that somebody else had already done it. Drats…