Taiwan’s entry for the foreign-language film Oscar — after “Lust, Caution” was rejected — is a strikingly lensed portrait of the island that’s “experimental” in the best sense, blurring the line between documentary and fiction with hardly a trace of pretension. On the surface a road movie, following a college student on a round-island bicycle journey, “Island Etude” uses a largely nonpro cast in a series of encounters which touch on aspects of Taiwan’s Pacific identity sans sermonizing. Neat fest item could clock up some some mileage on learning channels.
Film is the first directorial outing by d.p. Chen Huai-en, known for his work with Hou Hsiao Hsien on pics like “A City of Sadness” and “Good Men, Good Women.” Co-producer Yang Li-yin has also played in several Hou movies, as well as being closely identified with the Taiwan New Wave movement of the ’80s.
However, pic has none of the visual lassitude of Hou’s films or its thespian tics. Cleanly cut by ace editor Chen Po-wen, it has a natural rhythm in which Chen’s beautifully composed photography is just one part of the mix rather than a style statement on its own.
During a break in his studies, Ming (Tung Ming-hsiang) has decided to cycle from the southern port of Kaohsiung counter-clockwise round Taiwan’s coast, with no other reason than to do it (as he tells one person) while he still has the chance. Seven-day journey, paragraphed by time captions and extracts from his journal, takes him up through Hualien on the east coast and then down the west coast. He goes through no cities, and is almost always within sight of the sea.
Vignettes en route include a film crew whose loquacious director (Teng An-ning) is shooting some Fellini-esque fable; a young biker (Yuen-lun) from Canada who’s visiting his mom (Chen Hsiu-hui) in the process of divorce; a beautiful Lithuanian model (Ruta Palionyte) who needs help catching a train; a teacher (co-producer Yang) taking early retirement from a primary school; and a bus driver (Wu Nien-chen, a key scripter of the ’80s New Wave) taking some oldies on an excursion.
Ming, it turns out, has been almost deaf since childhood and, despite using a hearing aid, speaks with a garbled accent. His closest friend is his guitar, and his personality has an upbeat innocence that makes him a perfect listener as he bounces from one encounter to another.
Encounters touch on a number of aspects of contempo Taiwan society — children, family, environment, memories, superstition, visual arts — but often fleetingly and always in human rather than doctrinaire terms. Refreshingly, there’s no whiff of politics nor any grandstanding of “traditional” Chinese culture.
Pic won’t mean so much to auds unfamiliar with the island or its history, and for overseas viewers could be trimmed by a reel or so. But characters en route are always lively, and Cincin Lee’s music keeps the pic rolling along.