what’s missing in “the missing piece”

my friend over at national tunghwa university, kerim friedman, once described a film as “not a particularly good film, but good for showing something about the cultural context” (or at least that’s how i remember it–maybe kerim can correct his usage here). a recently released comedy, filmed around ‘atolan last year, seems to fit this description. on the one hand, “the missing piece” has all the elements for commercial success on taiwan: compelling, but not particularly complicated characters, comedy but with enough shadow of the right type to bring an audience sensitive to taiwanese family dynamics to tears, a moral message about the value of care for others. but on the other hand, i find the film reproduces a mainstream taiwanese mythology about taitung in which this county “closest to the sun” can serve as a temporary retreat for eccentrics and others who feel temporarily alienated from the urban west. moreover, the film erases any indigenous presence from the location in which it was filmed

the director might have wanted to avoid the charges of appropriation that might have followed were he to have included an indigenous character or imagery. fair enough. nonetheless, what seems to be missing from “the missing piece” is that “sunshine village,” as the film’s east coastal location is called, lacks an indication of ethnic difference. indeed, of the film’s characters, only one is a local (the others have settled from the west coast, one as a retiree, two as temporary visitors) and she is depicted as a member of the hoklo speaking majority

the film relates the story of a college student from taichung with a curious psychological malady, which makes him unable to converse normally. before he can respond to any question, he must first endure a five second lag, which makes it difficult for him in any social situations–not to mention school. even his parents, unable to endure his problem, communicate to him in voice messages. the female lead is a betelnut beauty. however, she came to the trade for reasons that the viewer might not expect. also curious is her daily habit of ordering two bowls of stewed pork rice for lunch, as if waiting for someone to come join her. another character gazes at the smokestack of the sintung sugar factory day after day, as if expecting the factory to be revived. somehow, these characters meet each other and serve as a source of mutual healing. true to form for taiwanese melodrama, the love interest develops at the moment of maximum vulnerability, which turns out to have its roots in love for one’s parents and grandparents

why is the female lead posing as a betelnut beauty? for whom is she really waiting?

why is the female lead posing as a betelnut beauty? for whom is she really waiting?

the film is compelling for a taiwanese audience for its exploration of parent-child relationships and the playful touch in which it presents characters not too eccentric to be frightening. but it’s precisely in this sense that “the missing piece” misses something

although ‘atolan is never mentioned by name, the film gives plenty of clues that the youthful protagonist is engaged in what has become a national rite of passage, making a circuit of the island that ideally includes the east coast. moreover, the sintung sugar factory already holds a symbolic status, which communicates “eccentric, quirky, laid back, sunny” taitung to a taiwanese audience. as such, the film participates in a narrative in which taitung exists for those whose nerves are frayed or spirits damaged by life in taiwan’s urban centers. it is a place where one can expect acceptance for one’s quirks and the possibility of healing. whole books have been written in this mode of taitung as a site for personal transcendence for the neurasthenic masses or visionary dreamers of taipei. the sugar factory smokestack might as well be the statue of liberty (except, of course, the taipei settlers generally have enough cultural capital to run a business even if they lack the funding to buy land)

local landmark: the smokestack of the sintung sugar factory

local landmark: the smokestack of the sintung sugar factory

but those of us who have spent any time in taitung know a couple things that make the film’s depiction of taitung fail: for one, there are no betelnut beauties in ‘atolan and likely none on all of the coast of taitung. betel stands on the east coast are generally run by aunties and grandmothers, and never feature the neon, clear walls, and sexual fantasy of betel stands on the west coast. second, stewed pork rice is generally a rarity around here. by placing betelnut beauties and stewed pork rice at the center of the narrative, the film neglects adequately to engage with its setting. this neglect is unfortunate for, lacking such engagement, the fantasy of taitung as an ever welcoming psychological retreat for urban ethnic chinese taiwanese people will not be balanced with a sense of taitung’s real difference from the rest of the island

i know that a few of my readers may accuse me of buying in to a kind of localism which has become prevalent in taiwan’s neoliberal multiculturalist public culture over the past 15 years. am i not just taking offense at the film for not presenting the local (which in this case would include the real presence of indigenous people)? perhaps. but i would argue that the “local taitung” now circulating in taiwan’s mainstream society actually reflects the taipei fantasy of taitung as a quirky place to clear one’s mind or to retire. oh yes, there are those aborigines, but they’re only there for local color. they need not disturb this fantasy of taitung as a national sanatorium

so, although i’ve got to admit that seeing a glimpse of myself acting as a betel buyer was a bit of a thrill (and that i’m not completely immune from the film’s particular brand of schmaltz), i found that i couldn’t exactly enjoy the film

rather, i was made anxious by the film’s adaption of the troublesome discourses in which taitung is situated. what’s missing in “the missing piece”? a population for whom taitung is more than a place for the refreshment of taipei people

One Reply to “what’s missing in “the missing piece””

  1. caraw Post author

    i’m thinking that this post reminds me of zygmunt baumann’s discussion of “tourists” versus “vagabonds.” the film presents a tourist experience of taitung, for certain. but the taitung i know is one in which those who grew up here spend years away from home to scrape a living


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