By Olivia Yang
“China can’t produce films like this. That’s why we have to.”
Film director Wang Yu-lin (王育麟) is joking. Or maybe not. It’s hard to tell with his light tone of voice, face hidden behind dark rectangular sunglasses, a bold Asian-print thin t-shirt, and Wang digging into his bento box as he speaks.
We’re talking about his latest film, “Alifu, The Prince/ss.”
The trailer for the movie was released on Facebook and YouTube on May 22, two days before Taiwan’s Constitutional Court announced its ruling on same-sex marriage. It has since garnered over 490,000 views and 5,000 shares on Facebook.
“We had the trailer ready, but we’re thinking, ‘Christ, the film isn’t going to be in theaters until October. Isn’t it a bit early to release the trailer?’ In the end, we did it anyway,” says Wang, 52.
“Alifu, The Prince/ss” is making waves across the island-nation, not just because it discusses LGBTQ issues, but also the conflicts between gender identity and indigenous traditions in Taiwan.
Alifu (Utjung, 舞炯恩.加以法利得), a 25-year-old man of the Paiwan tribe, works at a salon in Taipei. His dream is to undergo sex reassignment surgery and become a woman. However being the firstborn child of the tribe’s chief, Alifu is caught between succeeding his father’s position and realizing his dream. Things get further complicated when Alifu’s lesbian roommate and colleague, Pei-zhen (Chao Yi-lan, 趙逸嵐), falls in love with him.
“I don’t believe many in the older generation would want to watch this film. They might get really angry. Older people are less accepting of these things; conflicts within a tribe and between generations,” says the director.
‘Not unusual’ within the Paiwan tribe
Wang started thinking about gender issues in his twenties because he “had so many intelligent and talented friends that were gay.”
“That was in 1984 and 1985 when these were still sensitive topics. United Daily [News] even wrote that [being gay] was a ‘curse from the heavens,’” says the director.
It wasn’t until the director was serving in the military did he come to understand why people of the same sex could fall in love. One of the men Wang served with was a shaman, and when the director brought up questions of being gay with his comrade, the shaman simply said, “Men and women have the same souls.”
That’s when the director realized that “appearances don’t matter, and what’s important is the inner soul.”
Since then, Wang has wanted to make a film on gender issues. It was by chance around two years ago a friend approached him with the script for “Alifu, The Prince/ss,” which is based on a true story.
The Paiwan culture, which “Alifu, The Prince/ss” features, is Taiwan’s second-largest indigenous group, with a population of 96,000. Taiwan’s indigenous people currently number around 535,000, or 2 percent, of the country’s 23.5 million population.
The island-nation now recognizes 16 groups of indigenous people, three of which have a particular hierarchical social structure in which the chief holds the highest status — the Paiwan, Rukai, and Amis. The Paiwan society is divided into four classes — the mamazangilan (chief), nobles, warriors, and commoners — and first-born children inherit their social status, regardless of gender. The name “Alifu” is also one of the 12 names only those of the mamazanglian class is allowed to have.
The script was rewritten five times and Wang had concerns about what indigenous people would think of the story.
When the director and his crew were in Taitung, southeast Taiwan, looking for places to shoot among a Paiwan tribe, the tribal members asked Wang what the film was about and he “had to take a deep breath” before answering.
To his surprise, an elementary school teacher, also of the Paiwan tribe, said to the director, “Oh that’s nothing unusual. I’ve been teaching elementary school here for 20 years and I’ve discovered that one out of every six Paiwan boys is more feminine.”
The teacher also told Wang that the people have a name in their language for such boys, which sounds like, “Adu.”
While gender issues are “not unusual” in the tribe, Utjung, who plays Alifu in the movie, says older generations of his Paiwan tribe in Pingtung, southern Taiwan, still see gay and transgender people as “different species.”
Being gay, 23-year-old Utjung faced discrimination growing up, and his family “drew a deep breath” when he told them he was playing a transgender woman in the movie.
“I haven’t pretended to be someone else or forced myself to become the person they wanted me to because I knew I was doing the right thing,” Utjung says. “I told my family that there were many people like this, so it wasn’t something they should be scared of.”
Wang, the director, adds that they didn’t meet any kind of resistance when filming in the tribe, and many of the over 12,000 likes on “Alifu, The Prince/ss’” Facebook page are from indigenous people.
Though convincing indigenous people to accept the film was easier than anticipated, a larger challenge was seen by the two main actors.
“I used to think there were similarities in being a gay and transgender person, but there actually isn’t,” says Utjung.
Transgender is a term used to describe people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth, according to GLAAD, a U.S. non-governmental media monitoring organization.
Some transgender people bring their bodies into alignment with their gender identity — either through prescribed hormones or surgery. But not all transgender people can or will do so, and being a transgender person is not dependent upon medical procedures.
To further understand how a transgender woman thinks and acts, Utjung spoke with many transgender friends and started putting on makeup at home to “feel what it’s like to be a female.”
“I couldn’t think about Alifu from a male perspective,” says Utjung. “The biggest difference between Alifu and I is that she is a very attentive person. She thinks twice before acting. Going through sex reassignment surgery is her dream and she has thought more than once about realizing this dream.”
The indigenous actor also saw difficulties adjusting his mentality to understand the character Pei-zhen — Alifu’s lesbian friend who falls in love with him. Utjung “just couldn’t understand how it was possible,” and it wasn’t until Wang told him to ignore the gender aspect could he loosen up in the intimate scenes.
“Being on set, I felt what it is like to forget about gender or appearances and focus on what you really like in a person,” says Chao Yi-lan, who plays Pei-zhen. “Facing yourself with honesty is so much more important.”
The director also met with various transgender people as part of “his research” for the film. One of them was a friend of Utjung, who is a transgender woman now working as a flight attendant.
“I admire the amount of effort they (transgender people) make to undergo sex reassignment surgery. I have a lot of respect for that,” says Wang.
Taiwan requires the surgical removal of gender-specific organs and two psychological assessments before a person is allowed to apply for gender reassignment. The Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament, changed this rule in January 2015, but the Ministry of Interior is still reviewing the law.
Though sex reassignment surgery (SRS) is considered to be a kind of cosmetic surgery in Taiwan, a parent or guardian’s consent to surgery is required. The surgery is not covered by public health insurance. In Taiwan, male to female SRS costs NT$250,000 to NT$300,000 (US$8,200 to US$9,800). Female to male SRS is divided into two stages: the first being eligible for legally changing one’s registered gender (removal of the breasts, ovaries and uterus), and the second being genital reconstructive procedures. The first stage costs around NT$300,000 and the second ranges from NT$500,000 to NT$600,000.
While “Alifu, The Prince/ss” has received wide attention in Taiwan, it also caught the eye of Reel Suspects, a Paris-based film distribution company, at the Cannes Film Market earlier this year. Reel Suspect is now in charge of sales in the U.S., Europe, Japan, South Korea and China for the film.
But the movie had trouble finding investors in the beginning because of its narrative. Wang had to produce the film with only a NT$3 million (US$100,000) grant from the Ministry of Culture and a bit more he borrowed from “here and there.”
“Richer people tend to be a bit older and more conservative. We finished editing the film and played the DVD in our office for potential investors, which is something rarely seen in this industry,” says the director. “It was only after we did so that three people were willing to invest.”
“Alifu, The Prince/ss” will be in Taiwan theaters this October, and Wang says they are working on getting the film released in Hong Kong as well.
“I hope we will see an okay box office performance because the story isn’t over,” says Wang, hinting at a possible sequel.
There are tales that the real Alifu went through sex reassignment surgery and is now living as the wife of a doctor. But none of this has been confirmed and the director has yet to meet the protagonist of whose story his movie is based on.
Banter and laughter goes around the table as the three refuse to share what the sequel might entail.
“You’ll just have to stay tuned,” says Chao, and Wang gets up for a smoke at the window of his office, all the while wearing his shades.
This article was first published in The News Lens International as “Gender Identity Confronts Indigenous Traditions in ‘Alifu, The Prince/ss’”. Cinema Escapist has been authorized to republish its contents.