Director: Lou Yi-an
By Marilyn Ferdinand
At last year’s CIFF, among the many embarrassingly dumb questions director Mike Leigh had to field in the Q&A following the screening of Happy-Go-Lucky was one about why the characters in his films always seem to be crammed into tiny living quarters. Leigh growled that the question could only have come from an American, with our sense of limitless space. Britain, he reminded us, is an island, and the land only goes so far.
Taiwan is also an island, and Taipei, its largest city, is stuffed to the rafters with people, both living and dead. A Place of One’s Own, a deceptively rollicking film, is obsessed with housing both in the physical world and in the afterlife. Real-life political realities in Taipei—a year-long, unsuccessful protest over the displacement of about 300 people from a long-time leper colony and the demolition of their homes—provide a background for the meaning of place to the main characters whose fates intersect.
Mozi (Mo Zi Yi), a punk rock star whose fortunes have fallen after a drug bust and the rise of techno music, is having more than his share of problems. He has defaulted on his mortgage and has to peddle his new CD by hand, while his live-in girlfriend and former bandmate Kasey (Lu Chia Hsin) is a fast-rising pop star. He also has to suffer the indignity of hiring a bass guitarist who says he idolized Mozi when he was a kid.
Master Lin (Jack Kao) builds fabulous origami houses for the spirits of the dead to live in after the houses are made incorporeal by burning; he’s just finishing one for a mobster whose son requests a gun in every one of the fabulously furnished rooms. Lin’s home and workshop rest on land his ancestors have occupied for generations but never owned. The son of one of Taipei’s wealthiest citizens comes to buy Master Lin’s home and demolish it; he intends to use the site for his dying father’s tomb because of its ideal feng shui and powerful chi. Lin refuses to sell, even though the government can simply seize the land at a lower price.
Lin’s son Xiao Gang (Tang Zhen Gang) dresses in a tiger costume as part of his job to hand out fliers for a real estate company; he wears the costume while tooling around on his motor scooter to keep warm. His mother Yue (Yu Li Ching), who, for about $100, tends to graves for families who cannot get to the massive mountain cemetery near the Lins’ home and talks to spirits not yet at rest, tells Gang to get a real job. Gang, however, is a nerd who prefers to play computer games and whose vocabulary seems to consist only of “Oh” and “Huh.”
Master Lin must have an operation to save his life; the government will cover the cost of surgery but not of the nutritional supplements he also must have. He figures the odds for his survival and decides that instead of wasting the money, he’ll finish his own origami house. Naturally, Gang doesn’t want his father to move into his paper house. Gang sells some valuable virtual real estate on his computer game for about $2,500. He also convinces his boss to give him a one-month trial as a real estate salesman. A fortuitous encounter with the younger son of the dying mogul who will be buried on his ancestral land has Gang flipping properties the son buys, decorates, and sells for a profit. One of those properties is Mozi’s apartment.
The fortunes of these characters rise and fall based on real and not-so-real estate, and the guiding principle is the Golden Rule: He who has the gold makes the rules. Unlike Darryl Kerrigan in The Castle, Master Lin doesn’t fight city hall. He spends months making origami masterpieces that must be destroyed in order to be useful, so he’s especially in touch with the ephemeral nature of existence. Eventually we all lose our place. Sadly, it seems that in Taiwan, one even has to fight for a place in the afterlife.
It’s hard to believe a film that deals so directly with death and homelessness can be so much fun, but it is. Except for Mozi’s story, which is mainly a sad depiction of the concern that the film’s title coincidentally evokes—Virginia Woolf’s “room of one’s own” for creating art—the characters are comic. Yue climbs through the cemetery talking to the air, but the plot suggests these spirits are real. Mo Zi Yi, a very nice young man who attended the screening with producer Ramy Choi, said that belief in an afterlife and its attendant notions of chi and feng shui are very real in Taiwan, so opening the story to this other dimension was nothing startling or done strictly for comic effect. Ironically, the film teems with life. I can’t begin to describe all of the threads in this smart script and how little they seem contrived. This film is reminiscent of and compares favorably to those of another Taiwanese filmmaker—the late, lamented Edward Yang.
It wasn’t always easy to understand the episodic actions until they converged, but it was a treat trying to make sense of the culture-specific aspects of the film and marvel at the way these origami houses are constructed. I really felt like I had a wonderful, enlightening trip to Taipei with people I liked through the alternately fatalistic and funny A Place of One’s Own. Make a place for it in your festival schedule.