For someone who counts film as a...hmm,
I had bought a copy of its screenplay almost ten years ago, but it was only at our recent trip to Taiwan that I found an inexpensive copy of its DVD and finally watched the film.
But first, who is Wu Nien Jen? To most folks in Singapore, he is probably recognised as the older man in the Jolin Tsai Visit Taiwan TV commercial below.
Of course, he got to be the "Visit Taiwan" ambassador because he is also well-known as a prolific writer for the cinema, having crafted screenplays for countless films since the 70s (e.g. Hou Hsiao Hsien's A City of Sadness), and an actor for half as many films (e.g. the lead in Edward Yang's fantastic Yiyi). His 1994 directorial debut A Borrowed LIfe is a restrained yet moving film.
When Wu directed A Borrowed Life or Duo-sang, he perhaps had picked up from Hou the habit of keeping the camera a respectful distance from the characters, literally framing the individual histories against a larger social and historical backdrop. But A Borrowed Life is, if nothing else, about personal history.
The premise seems typical enough - the narrator is a Taiwanese boy growing up in a coal mining community, eventually goes to the university and forms a family in the city. But the film is, more accurately, about the narrator's observation and remembrance of his father's life - a coal miner who had grown up during Japan's largely benevolent rule over Taiwan, remains enamored with Japan (he is referred to in the film as "Sega", and his children call him "Duo-sang"), and dies of a lung disease without fulfilling his dream of visiting Mount Fuji and the Imperial Gardens.
The English title "A Borrowed Life" is apt in several ways. The film borrows from Wu's own life - he, too, was a son of a coal miner. The narrator, the eldest son, remains almost fiercely filial to Sega throughout the father despite Sega's shortcomings (his biggest vice was gambling), conscious of a son's debt to his father - a life borrowed from one spent in coal mines. Sega is representative of a generation lose to modern Taiwan - a generation for whom Mandarin is not a native language, a generation that had grown up under a Japanese schools and riding Japanese railways. Sega's life is one of borrowings from cultures foreign and distant - Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese modernity.
I am reminded of Pa J and his strange defence of all things Chinese (as in People's-Republic-of-China Chinese), including his insistence that Taiwan is a renegade province that should be "reunited" with China. Strange because he left that country for Malaya at the age of 8 or 9. Yet any relative from China, however distant, is welcomed by Pa J with open arms today. He keeps track of developments of his extended family in China via frequent phone calls. In fact, he even disapproves when any vaguely disparaging comments, even in jest, are made relating to China. At the same time, it is not so strange. Despite having spent most of his 70-odd years on this island, besides the few family relations he maintains, there is very little on this island today - its culture (heh, did you say "what culture"), its people, its society - that Pa J can connect emotionally with.
p/s. The 22nd Singapore Int'l Film Fest (better logo this year!) is coming soon! For preview of its website, click here. Tickets are supposed to go on sale 14 March only.