When spilling your drink at the theatre, you’re being an arse to the people who have to clean up after you. When spilling your drink at your home office desk, you’re crippling your (already feeble) income as a film journalist. That is where my thoughts went while I found myself dabbing green tea with toilet paper scraps and cotton buds off the motherboard of my laptop.
I’m writing this second letter to you on my old laptop. The keys of the QWERTY keyboard play hide and seek with my fingers. I had, in two weeks time, already grown accustomed to the design of my new laptop. I’m truly amazed by how quick our minds and bodies adapt to such things. More worrisome is the reiterated proof of my reliance on electronic devices and digital tools. Can you still imagine life without them, Tim? What would it look like, to you?
In As We Like It, we got a glimpse of how the Taiwanese duo Chen Hung-i and Muni Wei imagine it. Their playful, happy film is set in the near future of an internet-free neighbourhood in Taipei. No dystopian or gloomy science-fiction here. The pair clutched Shakespeare’s play and turned it on its head. Dedicated to all the women who weren’t allowed on stage in the playwright’s time, As We Like It reclaims the story of Rose and Orlando with an all-female cast. Orlando works, in defiance of his brother’s business plans, for a text message delivery company while Rose goes by Roosevelt for the better part of the film.
The film plays up the humour injected by Shakespeare in the original play, by quoting the text in cheerful title cards and adding animated elements to the scenes. Bursts of magic and Taiwanese pop music guide them in their quest for Rose’s father, Duke. They meet a myriad of characters who challenge or validate the love that blooms between them. There is a lot going on. Other couples are formed in the periphery of Orlando and Rose’s adventures, among which an orgasmic ear cleaning session and a sensual billiard game. The story buzzes forward, chaotically and energetically.
Still, we always know, to a certain extent, where the characters are headed.
That wasn’t the case in Bipolar, Queena Li’s first feature. Also on a quest, its main character remains both unnamed and uncertain throughout the film. We know she’s a talented musician who arrives in Lhasa on the day of her birthday. At the sight of a lobster in an aquarium too small for crustacean’s professed holiness, she embarks on an improvised journey to escort the animal to where it belongs. Or is it the other way around?
It’s a very visual film, shot in black-and-white. The lobster and the skies, on occasion, turn to bright colours, translating the protagonist’s emotional state to the screen. Not unlike Gritt, the fierce character we discussed in our previous letters, the female protagonist of Bipolar is courageous and tenacious. But she has a hard time answering the questions of the many bizarre, wise or gentle characters she runs into. Did she run away? Is she on a pilgrimage? Is she going home? On the road trip, she becomes a gender bending Orpheus-like figure challenged by her own reflection, suicidal thoughts, and disquietude. Growing through it, she ultimately finds the colours and the joy beyond the existential dread.
Both films play with the ambivalence of gender-roles, expressions and discourse but where As We Like It exuberates its queerness, Bipolar is decidedly more subtle. The young Chinese director explores her protagonist’s mind as much as the protagonist explores Lhasa and the landscapes of Tibet, making it the tale of a solitary journey. By altering one word in Shakespeare’s title, Chen Hung-i and Muni Wei do the opposite. As We Like It is the story of a community.
As yet another day of gluttonous screen time comes to an end, one thing remains abundantly clear. Neither the lush landscapes of Bipolar nor the explosive emotions of As We Like It were meant to be screened on the 11-inch screen I revived this morning after the spilling disaster. Please excuse me while I take off on my own quest, a search for a friendly neighbour with a bigger screen.