Ohong village — the eponymous location of director Lim Lung-Yin’s first feature film — is sinking. The remote Taiwanese village that once thrived on its lucrative oyster farming trade is starting to yield unimpressive and diminutive molluscs. The effects of climate change are here now, and they are chipping away at the morale and economic stability of its local farmers and families. Paired with the strain of competing with the bustling neighbouring capital of Taipei, which flaunts its wealth with flashing lights just across the sea, this age-old story of rurality versus urbanity is well articulated by Lim’s narrative. But the most arresting part of his filmmaking is the framing of this inherently contemporary struggle through the lens of hazy but rich visual nostalgia.
Shot on 16mm, Ohong Village almost drips with colour. The film’s glowing hum of LEDs and neon lights are like a warm hearth inviting the audience’s attention; the specks, cracks and lines that animate the screen giving it a constant and familiar texture. The choice to shoot on celluloid lends a grainy tactility and lush saturation to Lim’s depictions of festivals, firework displays and boat trips, and recalls the rainbows of buzzing lights and colours in Tsai Ming Liang’s debut Rebels of the Neon God (1992). But, Lim’s aesthetic choices go beyond homage to the seductive urban dystopias of Second New Wave filmmakers like Tsai, instead harnessing their scintillating lustre to convey the struggle, longing and loneliness of fringe spaces like Ohong Village. Lim’s style is a kind of functional and live nostalgia.
The story follows Sheng-Jii (Lin Yu-Hsu) and his father Ming (King Jieh-Wen), two men so protective of their pride that they resort to deceit, to uphold their socially-presentable images. Sheng-Ji has recently exiled himself from Ohong and has been working in Taipei, but successive failures has meant that he is forced to return to his hometown to reassess his career options. He struggles however, to confess this truth, and so begins to parade his faux-wealth, boasting that he earns millions of dollars a day and regularly enjoys the luxurious Taipei nightlife. Ming is the only person suspicious of Sheng-Ji, and his frustration with his son’s arrogance and dishonesty leads to some explosive interactions. The dining table is the site of several of these ballistic outbursts, with Ming imploring his son to “stop the fucking bullshit!”
The first act of Ohong Village lays the foundation of a narrative that sees Sheng-Ji’s longing for the comforts of home, pitted against his web of lies. Perhaps, after having a crisis of morality — Sheng-Ji would consider finally coming clean. But, instead, director Lim does something different: he pulls away from the temptations of a predictable narrative and redirects our attention to Ming. We quickly realise that Ming’s stoniness is not just animosity directed at the duplicity of his son, but in fact his own form of self-protective stoicism. Ming is old, his oyster farm is on the verge of ruination and his health is rapidly deteriorating.
This focal pivot is masterfully executed and it cleanly transitions the film into a more sombre and poetic second act; the attention shifts away from Sheng-Ji staring into the distance and contemplating his choices, to his father’s slow-but-blistering refusal to acknowledge his own fragility. One powerful shot sees Ming sitting somewhere medical, undisclosed to the audience. Lim and cinematographer Alexander Elagin frame Ming with surgical precision: the doorway squeezes him, amplifying his smallness in this moment of resigned weakness. The austere, harsh-coloured décor of the room cements this image as a remarkable director-cinematographer collaboration producing an unmistakable tableau of frailty and loneliness.
Aside from one sequence where Ming visits a doctor, Taipei exists only in off-screen space — within the edge-lands of the film, though its thick and immense presence is felt by every character. It’s a land of redemption, of wealth and prosperity; but it’s also Sheng-Ji’s secret source of shame — an unattainable, bitter place that has rejected his attempts to tap into its bountiful opportunities.
The film’s third and final act verges on allegory — and it is, unfortunately, the most underwhelming part of the film. I am omitting story elements to avoid spoilers, though this is not an especially challenging task given Lim leans into the experimental and enigmatic for his final thirty minutes. Some heavy-handed moments — like Sheng-Ji and his childhood friend imagining if their children will ever make it big in Taipei — feel forced in an otherwise carefully observed film. Ming’s deterioration takes on a mythological quality and, while moving in and of itself, this transformation blunts the sharpness of his character’s specificity.
Ohong Village embraces the strain between new and old, and its radiating celluloid texture locks it in a space of memory that is painfully trying to catch up to the present. The lies of father and son become an intergenerational tapestry of ignorance allowing pain and longing to flourish where oysters and careers won’t.
Ohong Village opens the 2019 Taiwan Film Festival on Thurs 25 July.
Zach Karpinellison is lucky enough to put films on screen almost every day as projectionist for Golden Age Cinema and Bar. He writes reviews and criticism and gets very angry about Netflix pretending to be woke. Every Monday night he co-hosts a radio show called Send Moods for SURG FM and his super specific content can be found @karpinellison.