In recent years, a rather distinctive annoyance has plagued Taiwanese society: phone scammers. While phone scammers exist in other countries like the US (ever received a call “from the IRS”, which in reality will only contact you by mail?), Taiwan’s scams get creative. In one common flavor, scammers will impersonate a kidnapped child, wailing about how they’ll be hurt unless their parents pay a ransom. This happens so often that it’s become the subject of dinnertime jokes, especially when people who don’t have kids get the call.
The 2011 film Formosa Mambo seizes upon this phenomenon and spins it into a surprisingly rich and entertaining story. When a group of kidnappers abducts a boy in southern Taiwan and asks for ransom, they get dismissed as scammers. However, as the hours go by, the child’s mother begins to realize that something is wrong. At this moment, actual scammers call and, on her nerves, the mother thinks they’re the real deal. A darkly comedic conundrum arises: the mother correctly knows her son is kidnapped, but incorrectly believes that phone scammers, not the real kidnappers, have him.
Making matters more complex, after losing his job and unsuccessfully running a friend chicken stall, the boy’s uncle joins the very same phone scamming firm that is tricking his sister-in-law. Now we not only have phone scammers v. kidnappers, but also one half of a family v. another. If this sounds exceedingly complicated, that actually doesn’t show in the movie, which aptly interweaves this complex web of interests into a smooth, relateable narrative.
What could’ve easily turned into a one-trick pony solely reliant on its real v. fake kidnappers premise actually ends up hinting at deeper issues relevant to contemporary Taiwan. Formosa Mambo‘s tone is superficially comedic, but also fraught with mountains of apprehension. The prevalence of scams, it illustrates, are both the result and cause of disillusionment. In a society that lacks faith in the arrival of economic or social progress, people become more susceptible to scams as an easy way out of their misery. However, when people realize they’ve been duped, their faith drops and misery rises even more, creating a vicious cycle in which easy answers become all the more attractive.
As the movie progresses, we learn more about the characters’ anxieties and motivations — the lead kidnapper has a sick wife he needs to buy expensive medicine for, while the lead scammer looks towards China as a savior of scamming opportunities, believing that Taiwan’s small size limits his ambitions. Insecurities are rampant, and hope is an illusion. Everyone in the movie pines for an easy way out, but true escape is as illusive as hope. Frankly, this sounds a lot like Taiwan’s reality today, a society plagued with economic stagnation, declining birthrates, and great apprehension about the future.
Looking at Formosa Mambo through a social lens runs the risk of reducing its characters into archetypes — the empathy-inducing kidnapper here, the hubristic scammer there. While the characters do develop and have distinctive personalities, I believe this apparent risk arises because those characters have little agency. After watching the film, you don’t necessarily remember what the character’s names are or what they do; rather, you remember what happens to them. We do see some moments of moral reckoning, for instance when the kidnapped boy’s uncle throws up after his first scam, but it’s not clear what impact they have.
Formosa Mambo might be, whether it’s meant to be or not, the first Taiwanese black comedy I’ve seen. For an island with such a tragic and conflicted story, I’m actually quite surprised that something of the sort hasn’t come out earlier. Don’t let the “black comedy” label discourage you though. While Formosa Mambo might touch some darker themes, it’s still quite a bit more touching and accessible than others in the genre, not to mention a fitting and distinctive narrative about contemporary Taiwan.
Formosa Mambo (Chinese: 寶島曼波)–Taiwan. Dialog in Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese. Directed by Wang Chi-tsai. First released October 2011. Running time 1hr 36min. Starring Yao Cai-ying, Jhen Yi-wen, Huang Jie-fei, and Cyu Jhong-heng.
Support the moviemakers and help us pay our bills! Buy a copy of Formosa Mambo on YesAsia with our affiliate link. Thanks for your support!