Taiwanese kids can be just as quirky as those in other parts of the world — so there’s no excuse for the island to not have its own movies about the perks of being a wallflower. As it turns out, even before the release more popular (and less wallflower-y) offerings like You are the Apple of My Eye (2011), Taiwanese cinema took eccentric kids into account with 2009’s Somewhere I Have Never Traveled.
The film’s title comes from an E.E. Cummings poem, a big hint at what’s to come given that Cummings is famous for his avant-garde, punctuation-disrespecting poetry. Unsurprisingly, Somewhere I Have Never Traveled‘s protagonist Ah-Gui is as odd as Cummings — she’s a klutzy young girl who turns out to be completely color blind. Ah-Gui is a difficult child in difficult circumstances. Her mother ran off while she was still young, leaving her with her strict grandmother (who’s taken charge of all parenting functions) and her docile but irresponsible alcoholic father.
There is some light to her existence though, and it comes in the form of Ah-Hsian, an older male cousin who has a knack for storytelling and navigation. While Ah-Gui’s grandmother and teachers rail against and try to suppress her eccentricities, Ah-Hsian encourages her to embrace them. Different people, he tells her, make the world a more interesting place. Ah-Hsian is different too — he’s gay, a rarity for Asian cinema as a whole but actually not so novel for Taiwanese film (see Vive L’Amour, among others). The cousins thus bond over mutual unorthodoxy, but their relationship starts to fray when Ah-Hsian takes on a male lover. Formerly the primary subject of Ah-Hsian’s attention, Ah-Gui begins to feel increasingly neglected.
It’s actually quite hard to precisely define what Ah-Gui and Ah-Hsian’s relationship is. They’re cousins, not lovers, yet Ah-Gui can display the jealousy of a girl who’s been turned away by her prince. This relationship, in all its hidden complexity, forms the heart of Somewhere I Have Never Traveled, and from its beats and palpitations arise all else. The film’s plot flows forwards in unvarnished and fluid movement; where its journey will end, however, is not necessarily predictable.
An interesting aspect to Ah-Gui and Ah-Hsian’s interaction is that, despite the fact they have each other, they both still long for something more — whatever they have, wherever they are, it isn’t enough. Somewhere I Have Never Traveled drives this point home with setting, eschewing the hustle and bustle of Taipei for the sleepy seaside streets of southern Taiwan. Its visuals hold a conflicted beauty — they’re exceptionally elegant in their quietude, yet they seem so stiflingly normal; they evoke a palpable sense of nostalgia, yet hold reminders of pain. Apparently the film’s production took over two years because the director had trouble finding and deciding on locations. From what I see, that delay was worth it.
Somewhere I have Never Traveled seems relatively novel for Taiwan, especially considering it was made by a first-time director, Fu Tian-yu. As the heavyweights of New Wave Taiwan Cinema (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-liang) either died or shifted towards more mass-market efforts in the mid/late-2000s, newer directors haven’t necessarily filled in the resulting vacuum of indie/art-house films — Somewhere I Have Never Traveled appears to have slightly bucked that trend.
Nevertheless, on a worldwide scale the movie isn’t mind-blowingly innovative; there are a a good number of English-language films that also talk about the lonely struggles of quirky kids. I’d say Somewhere I Have Traveled is an excellent guilty pleasure in the way of a Haruki Murakami novel — it’s beautifully crafted, emotionally poignant, and certainly not marketed for cheerleaders and football players, but you should consume it with the knowledge that its idiosyncrasies come standard and not by surprise.
Somewhere I Have Never Traveled (Chinese: 帶我去遠方)–Taiwan. Directed by Fu Tian-yu. First released 2009. Running time 1hr 36min. Starring Lin Po-hung, Mei Fang, Lee Yung-yung, Wasir Chou, and Yu Hsin.