Taiwan doesn’t produce a lot of politically-minded films or TV shows. You won’t find City Hunter attacking corruption in Taipei instead of Seoul, and even historically oriented movies like the 2007 hit Cape No. 7 must tread carefully. Analyzing how and why this is so would take a whole other article, but the simplest explanation is this: many Taiwanese producers want to earn Chinese money, but Chinese money doesn’t come if you piss off the Chinese government. As a result, mainstream Taiwanese movies or shows angling for RMB from China’s 1.4 billion consumers (a gold mine compared to Taiwan’s population of 23 million) avoid anything that will even slightly upset the exceptionally delicate balance of cross-strait relations.
Meeting Dr. Sun is not one of those films. Yes, it’s a pretty lighthearted teen comedy, but no, I don’t expect Chinese theaters to be screening it anytime soon. For one, the “Dr. Sun” in the title isn’t your regular neighborhood physician; he’s Dr. Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Republic of China and a revolutionary figure revered by both the Nationalists (who fled to Taiwan after 1949) and the Communists (who currently rule China). If you need a more Americanized analogy to get how important this guy is, just imagine a Chinese George Washington. Needless to say, any movie whose title contains the name of someone of this historical magnitude usually doesn’t come off as apolitical.
Given recent events in Taiwan, it’s even harder to judge Meeting Dr. Sun without seeing signs of allegory or social commentary. Spring 2014 saw the Sunflower Movement sweep Taipei; starting in mid-March, thousands of students occupied Taiwan’s legislature to protest a trade pact between the island and China. The movement represented more than just opposition to a single treaty though–many of Taiwan’s youth see a bleak future ahead, with decreasing economic opportunity and increasing inequality creeping into their lives.
Though I’m obviously not sure if this is director Yee Chih-yen’s actual intention, it’s easy to label Meeting Dr. Sun as Taiwan’s first Sunflower-inspired movie (a fictional one at least, given someone already made a documentary about the protests themselves). The movie’s protagonist is a high schooler named Lefty (liberal politics, anyone?), who comes from an impoverished background. In order to pay a “class fee” to the school bully, Lefty and a couple friends concoct a wittily ingenious plan. There’s a bronze statue of Sun Yat-sen gathering dust in the school storeroom; if they can steal it and sell it to scrap metal dealers, they can get a good chunk of change. Comedic hijinks and deadpan humor ensue, as the boys don very cheap but very itchy masks and start miming dry runs of the heist.
Unfortunately, Lefty soon discovers that Sky, an even more indigent classmate, also has his eyes on the statue as a way to pay for his graduation trip. In a series of scenes that add even more laughs to the film, Lefty tries to compete with Sky to see who is poorer and thus has a stronger need to steal the statue; the two brag about their lack of meals and horrible living conditions as if they were showing off super-cars. Unable to come to a compromise, the two must compete against each other to see who can steal the statue first.
Lefty and Sky’s struggles in Meeting Dr. Sun are reminiscent of the Sunflower Movement; as Sky exclaims in exasperation, “our children’s children will die poor!” The statue of Dr. Sun also provides some heavy symbolism for the weight of historical pain and memory; unsurprisingly, it proves quite challenging to spirit away. Even though the statue, much like the idea that the Nationalists will still “liberate the mainland with the Three Principles of the People”, has been relegated to the storeroom of Taiwanese discourse, it won’t go without a fight, one that the island’s youth must lead. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but the Chinese word for “scrap metal” (fèi tóng 廢銅) also sounds suspiciously similar to the term for “abandonment of reunification” (fèi tǒng 廢統)–something I’m sure the folks over in the Chinese Communist Party’s “Publicity Department” aren’t happy about.
There’s more political tidbits to the film, especially as you near its end. Nevertheless, politics aside, Meeting Dr. Sun tells a relatively simple and highly enjoyable story that’ll be accessible even to those with absolutely no interest or background in Taiwanese/Chinese history. Lefty and Sky are just regular mischievous high school students, not slogan-spouting revolutionaries — which you could also say slyly strengthens the film’s implicit message that “everyone can work together to bring social change”. That message is rather hokey, I’ll admit, but it’s something you don’t hear very often in Taiwanese cinema, and it’s not like Meeting Dr. Sun doesn’t have its cynical moments or fails to address serious matters. Right now, Taiwan could use more films that focus on relevant social issues over short-term Chinese profits; I’m delighted that Meeting Dr. Sun has taken a first step in that direction.
Meeting Dr. Sun (行動代號：孫中山)–Taiwan. Directed by Yee Chih-yen. First released July 2014. Running time 1hr 34min. Starring Zhan Huai-yun and Wei Han-ting.