Review: Panay // 太陽的孩子 (2015)

We so rarely encounter nuanced treatments of aboriginal lives and struggles in the movies that some of the buzz around Panay, the opening film at this year's SGIFF, proved to be very promising indeed. What less could emerge from the collaboration between two directors, one with multiple feature films under his belt, and another whose aboriginal status should grant him some firsthand purchase on the struggles faced by such populations? What less might we expect from a film that clinched the Audience Choice Award at this year's Taipei Film Festival, and that landed among the top eight contenders for SGIFF's equivalent award after the festival's first five days?

Sure, critical reactions to Panay might have been lukewarm, drawing attention to its broad characters, saccharine plot and generic village milieu. But perhaps those compromises are not out of place for a film aimed directly at the hearts of a mass festival audience, especially to serve a cause as well-intentioned as the representation of aboriginal lives. Of greater concern, however, is the risk that Panay's good intentions don't necessarily serve the cause that it promises to back, and could well lead it instead to backfire.

Here's a rundown of why:

1) Panay bogs itself down with too many challenges for its protagonist.

Panay opens with wide shots of an idyllic cliffside motorbike ride into the title character’s village, giving us a sense of what’s at stake as we glimpse roadside billboards that declare ‘Land for Sale’. A boy sits on the roof of his house at dusk, trying repeatedly to make phone calls to an absent mother working on the mainland. That same mother, our title character, has her news item on the aborigines cut by her employer for, in her own words, ‘some showgirl’s tits’. An old flame from high school shows up at her doorstep, and turns out to be trying to help a client buy over their family’s plot of farmland. Her children tell him that their village canal has stopped flowing, leaving the land barren. Panay’s elderly father, tending the grasses alone, collapses into a faint.

These stockpiling challenges shape our sense of the stakes that might permeate Panay and plague aboriginal communities beyond the dark of the cinema. But we might also sense, just from Panay's first reel alone, that the film bites off far more material than it can chew in the space of 99 minutes. Given a miniseries, or even a full TV season, this material could have served as fodder for a sweeping and impassioned portrait of a contemporary Taiwanese aboriginal family. (We might not be surprised to learn that Cheng Yu-Hsieh, one of Panay's two directors, has devoted more of his recent filmography to the realm of TV.) Unfortunately, as a relatively short feature film, Panay simply doesn't have the running time or economy of expression to support such a portrait. And, as we will see, this lack of time and economy ends up further spawning two of Panay’s more fundamental hurdles to its own cause.

(WARNING: Spoilers to follow!)

2) The film never dwells enough on the impact that these challenges have on Panay and her family.

For a film about the difficulties faced by a subaltern population, Panay remains strangely bloodless. We hear that the farmlands have dried up, and yet the cinematography insists on leaving them in a hue of luscious green. Panay's father collapses from exhaustion, inciting a key plot turn, and yet his eventual fate isn't to receive a ceremonious death, but to be dropped unceremoniously from the plot altogether. Panay quits her job on the mainland, and drags her daughter away from hers, and yet no one in the family ever seems wanting for money. Instead of committing to any of these costs, the film opts instead for the occasional familial dispute, including a naively sentimental call for a grandparent's continued illness, the ripping of a crayon drawing, and a petulant cursing of family-owned land that would resonate with the older characters from Gone with the Wind.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that these melodramatic moments couldn't have worked in a film that worked to earn them. Nor am I saying that a film about aboriginal struggles shouldn't address how wider forces can strain the ties among the members of an aboriginal family. However, by focusing many strands of its drama on the familial, without ever extracting deep costs on that front, Panay loses much of the political currency that it earned when it initially framed the wider socioeconomic difficulties faced by these aboriginals. If we're asked to identify with the family at the film's centre, and yet this family never seems to deal with problems that can be traced to those dealt with by members of their race, then how can they help to channel an emotionally direct experience of those latter problems, in ways that the best of sociopolitical cinema can provide?

The sole exception, and one that Panay deserves much credit for, emerges in the harrowing encounter between Panay's daughter and a group of village children who resent her mother for apparently rousing the village in order to serve her own ends. Here, instead of presenting us with the confrontation point-blank, Panay's filmmakers opt for a cutaway and slow tracking shot that leave us genuinely worried about the fate that has befallen Panay's daughter. These scenes offer us a glimpse of a Panay that dwells on what we might not dare to countenance about the costs of fighting for a cause—if only the filmmakers had chosen to commit to it.

3) Panay proceeds to resolve its challenges far too neatly.

The film does commit to two particular sociopolitical challenges: the first involves Panay’s attempts to revive rice-farming traditions amid a village divided over urban development, while the second focuses on her battles against the state-sanctioned land grab that takes up much of the film's last reel. To Panay's credit, these challenges contribute its most mature and clear-eyed treatment of the realities that these aboriginals might endure. Unfortunately, however, these challenges also contribute some of Panay's most maudlin passages, a result of the film struggling to resolve these tough (and even intractable) realities.

In these passages, it becomes apparent that Panay and its title character deal with problems by insisting that they don't exist, or won't, in the face of pure humanist sentiment. When Panay is questioned by skeptical fellow villagers about what they'll do if their rice remains unsold, Panay guarantees that she will buy it all. When cops arrive to break up these villagers' protest against a land grab, one of the elderly villagers induces an identity crisis in one of the cops by asking him what tribe he is from. Panay's daughter takes a Tiananmen-esque stand against a hulking excavator, and suddenly their rice stock is sold, the land grab dissipated, and their canal re-hydrated. It's the Disneyland version of a story that deserves telling, except that even Walt Disney knew that happiness must be borne of sacrifice. Panay, for all the worth of its subject matter, sacrifices nothing.

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