Chinese Visual Festival – Meeting Dr. Sun – Review ****

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The Chinese Visual Festival which has been bringing London a wonderful and fascinating array of films, filmmakers and discussions over the past few weeks came to a close on the 22nd of May, with a reception and the UK premiere of Meeting Dr. Sun by Chih-yen Yee. This extraordinary film marked not only the end of the festival but the end of the ambitious Vision Taiwan strand of the festival that showcased the best of Taiwanese independent cinema.

This is Chih-yen Yee’s fourth feature film; he first made a name for himself with his second feature, Blue Gate Crossing, with which he entered the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002. Generally choosing to focus on young people and their stories, Yee presents us with his youngest cast yet, using a 14 year-old lead with no previous acting experience for Meeting Dr Sun.  But don’t let the young cast, or in fact the largely comic storyline fool you. When you look between the lines it is easy to see that Meeting Dr Sun is not simply a light-hearted comedy to pass the time…

Our setting is a high school in Taipei. Taipei, like a lot of big cities, has a great mixture of rich and poor. This is reflected in the classroom as there is a group of poor students in the school who cannot pay the “class fees”. One day Lefty, one of these impoverished youngsters, makes a chance discovery that leads him onto a rather cunning plan. In one of the old storerooms in the school there is a huge metal statue of Dr Sun Yat Sen, one of the founding fathers of Taiwan. If only he could steal the statute and sell it to the steel mill, all his troubles will be over. So, Lefty and his motley crew hatch a crafty plan but are quickly stumped by a rival. Sky, another poor student in the school, has had the same idea and is eying up the statue with a view to stealing and selling it. What starts as a conflict between the two boys and quite a knock-about comedy will push them (and us) into becoming conscious of their social position, the inequality and the reverberations of all of this throughout their lives…

First of all, let’s make one thing clear. Meeting Dr Sun is funny, and for all its underlying serious messages it means to be funny and wants you to laugh. It is a very specific type of comedy based on straight-faced repetition and the absurd, but it is well done and should engage most people – even though I can imagine some of the comic sequences being perceived as too long.  In the Q& A after the film, Yen said that he had literally found the entire young cast by traipsing around the streets of Taipei and approaching likely candidates. What followed were intense rehearsals and impromptu acting lessons but, credit where it is due, the final result is truly extraordinary. In the screening I saw the film in the audience was clapping and cheering out loud in places. The upbeat tempo is kept up throughout – and you could easily enjoy this film completely on a surface level, without checking the background at all and have a thoroughly enjoyable experience. But herein lies the strength of the film. Because while Meeting Dr Sun lulls us into a sense of light-hearted jovialness from the beginning, once it has made us comfortable – round about the middle of the film – we begin to get slightly more serious hints and messages and invitations to look below the surface. There are some really interesting thoughts lingering there.

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When asked why he consistently chooses to use a young cast in his films, Yen replied that it is mainly because he is very pessimistic about his own generation. He said that the film was set in a junior high school, partly for autobiographical reasons. It is at this age that the director himself first became conscious of class differences and the rich and poor coexisting in the same city. In Meeting Dr Sun, our young protagonists learn valuable lessons , not least the fact that they have to put aside personal differences – no matter what they are – and band together if they want any hope of reaching a common goal. The moment the unity of the group is abandoned, the goal itself falls into jeopardy. This is also why, in Yen’s film there are no adults or authority figures present. “The adults were the last to know what I was up to when I was young” jokes Yen, but more importantly, in life and in politics, rights and benefits are not “given” to you from a higher power of any kind – you must work for it and achieve them yourself. Quickly, our young protagonists figure out that they are at a disadvantage because they are young and because they are poor. But at least the film ends on a powerful – if not exactly happy note. Yen may well despair of his own generation but he clearly has hope for the future as we can clearly imagine our young characters banding together and achieving greater and better things in the future.

It’s quite a difficult craft to successfully blend comedy and any other genre together, but possibly even more so when there’s a serious political analysis underneath. And yet, Chih-yen Yee’s little gem comes through with heart, conviction and sincerity, taking us with it every step of the way. By the end you will be uplifted and have thought at considerable length in equal measure. Highly, highly recommended…

A native of Istanbul, Turkey, Sedef moved to London three years ago to get her MA in Film Studies and never quite got round to going back home. As she once worked in a DVD company and watched films for a living, she started a personal blog (essiespeaks.blogspot.com) as a short answer to being constantly asked “watched anything interesting recently?” and loved blogging so much she just kept typing . She is the biggest Tarantino fan she knows and would be unable to choose a single film of his as a favourite.