Some more things about Taiwan

Continuing from this post:

  • Restaurant bathrooms are often oddly residential looking, sometimes even with a bathtub, which is usually converted into storage space. Oddly, this is sometimes seen even in restaurants which do not even remotely appear to have conceivably been converted from houses.

  • Traffic on the right side (coming from Japan here).

  • Seaweed very common in food. Much more than in Japan (at least parts of Japan I’m used to).

  • Men sometimes grow a single fingernail, or one on each hand, creepily long.

  • Restaurants typically bring you lukewarm drinking water, although they will add ice if you request it.

  • Military bases right in the city.

  • The truly genius 統一發票 system, which deserves its own post.

  • Ordering food in most places is done by checking off boxes on a disposable menu. There may be room to write in any specials not included on the regular menu.

  • Pedestrian crossing signals often count down how much time is left. This is an amazing stress reliever, like the electronic signs telling you how much time remains before the next train that almost every system outside of the US seems to have.

  • Cell phone signals are available throughout the ENTIRE Taipei Subway-not just in the stations. I have never seen this anywhere else in the world.

Children of Darkness

On Saturday, I went with a friend of mine to see the “Children of the Dark“(闇の子供たち) , a new film by Japanese director Sakamoto Junji primarily about child prostitution in Thailand. The story is primarily told through the perspective of the two Japanese main characters, a reporter for Bangkok bureau of the fictional Japan Times (no relation to the actual English language Japan times, but more of a pastiche of the Asahi or Mainichi. I believe the Mainichi was thanked in the credits) named Nambu, and a Japanese college student named Keiko, who is volunteering at a tiny Bangkok NGO. Secondary characters include Nambu’s mildly irritating 20-something Japanese backpacker/photographer sidekick, and a wide selection of Thai criminals, NGO workers, and abused children.

Except for a brief trip back to Japan around the middle of the film, it takes place entirely in Bangkok. The dialogue is mixed Thai and Japanese, probably with Thai dominating. Nambu speaks appropriately good Thai, as a foreign correspondent should (even if they don’t all), and Keiko speaks a bit haltingly, but according to the subtitles at least she seems to have no trouble expressing complex thoughts, or understanding what anyone says.

The central plot thread is your fairly typical “newsman uncovers a story and chases it ragged even at the risk of his own life” and makes sure to include a selection of the typical cliches, such as a back-alley gunpoint menacing in which none of the stars are harmed, despite a secondary Thai character having been shot in the head in another scene moments before or the photographer’s constant wavering between going home to safety in Japan or staying in Thailand to fight the good fight. At the beginning of the film, Nambu receives a tip that Thai children are being murdered so their organs can be transplanted into dying Japanese children. This is just one of the ways in which children become disposable in the film, but I felt like the addition of this imaginery (although certainly not impossible) scenario to the array of real horror detracted from the film’s effectiveness.

The primary goal of the film is the depiction of evils inflicted by adults on children, and there are a number of truly unpleasant scenes involving child prostitution by foreigners of both Western (American and European) and Japanese origin, as well horrendous mistreatment of the child slaves by their Thai captors. These sorts of terrible things happen all day long in many parts of the world, and it is understandable that the film makers wanted to depict it on screen, but I found the “deeper” messages to be more muddled than sophisticated.

Incidentally, the Japanese Wikipedia article on the film has a rather odd criticism I’d like to mention briefly. It mentions that Japanese blogs (2ch-kei foremost I imagine) have called it “an anti-Japanese film” since it “puts all of the blame for the selling of children in Thailand on the Japanese.” This claim is patently absurd. Of course a significant part of the film’s purpose IS to blame Japan predatory Japanese, but Western perverts are given at least as much of a spotlight in the brothel vignettes. And the Thai criminals who actually run the victimization business are hardly made out to be innocent bystanders.

For some reason I was mildly irritated by Keiko’s inexplicably competent Thai throughout the film, but it may simply have been the fact that I found the character generally pointless. When she first arrives at the NGO, one of the ladies working there asks her “Why did you come to Bangkok, isn’t there some good you can do in Japan?” While this question lingers throughout the film, and naturally Keiko does come to do some good in Bangkok, her motivations are never explored and her character acquires no depth. Why did she come to Thailand? Why is she even in this movie? She is tabula rasa- a standin for the audience, or rather for the way the film maker wants the audience to think. Her initial appearance suggested that she could have been an aspect of a message that I think the filmmakers were trying to convey-that Thailand (and presumably other countries like it, although no others are mentioned) are playgrounds for Japanese and Western neo-colonialists to act out their fantasies of either depravity or heroism without repercussion. However, despite this theme perhaps being touched on ever so briefly during her first  appearance, Keiko turns out to be nothing but an autonomic cliche of a young NGO volunteer.

I hope my ramblings do not give the impression that I hated the movie- I did not. I would, in fact, say that it was overall decent. But I did find it very disappointing. It starts well, and has a number of powerful scenes of horror and despair, but it is too long, the story is meandering and a bit cliched, and one of the leads is just dull to the point of no longer being annoying. Those with a particular interest in the problems this film addresses should see it, but wait for the DVD.

Some things about Taiwan

When you’ve lived in a place for a while, and then left for a while, there are any number of details that you haven’t exactly forgotten, but don’t often think about. And when you go back, you notice the un-remembered (but not forgotten) details of everyday life with a reaction that fits somewhere between remembering and discovery. During my first few days back in Taiwan, I kept a list of all of these everyday details that jumped out at me as familiar but rarely thought of since.

  • Roaches- they love the sub-tropical climate. I see them out on the street almost daily.

  • No plastic bag in the convenience store- costs extra by law.

  • The ubiquitous Taiwanese style breakfast shops Chinese/American fusion breakfast shops.

  • Trash: categories of separation, daily pickups, having to bring it to the truck yourself if you don’t live in a building with dumpsters.

  • Gas powered water heater on the balcony- gas canister delivery instead of gas utility. (This works because it’s only needed for hot water and cooking, never for space heating.)

  • The styles of doors and gates.

  • Indoor/outdoor footwear customs influenced by Japan.

  • They LOVE their sweet tea here. You have to really remember to check the labels in the store to get even unsweetened green tea, and restaurants always serve sweet black tea.

  • Binglang (betel nuts) EVERYWHERE. Selling, chewing, blood-red spit stains and dried nut husk.

Next: some photos, then writeups of my visits to Aboriginal villages.