Lin Wen-sheng (“Brain”) Lin Cheng-sheng
Wife Chiang Shu-na
Brother Yang Tzong-hsien
Son Lee Hsin-tzong
Grandmother Bai Ming-hwa
Village Chief Wu Ten-luo
Blind Man Lee Bing-huei
Taiwanese scripter-turned-director Wu Nien-jen takes an ironic view of the steamroller impact of American culture on other national identities in the comedy “Buddha Bless America.” Handsomely produced and often amusing, this sophomore feature is nonetheless compromised by a certain inconsistency of tone that may limit its potential to cross from festplay into arthouses.
Set in a Taiwanese coastal agricultural village during the Vietnamese war, story centers on a U.S.-Taiwanese joint military maneuver. Since the damage this will entail to crops is to be compensated for by the government, former teacher Lin Wen-sheng, known as Brain (actor-director Lin Cheng-sheng, whose “A Drifting Life” preemed in the Cannes fest Critics’ Week this year), convinces the villagers to accept the situation.
Having read an article about the miracles performed by Yank neurosurgeons, Brain sees the troops’ arrival as the opportunity for Army medics to operate on his younger brother (Yang Tzong-hsien). The boy’s fingers were amputated in a Japanese factory and have been preserved in a jar of pickling fluid. But Brain’s attempts to make contact are mistaken as the requests of a beggar for money.
The maneuver creates more upheaval than anticipated. Fields are destroyed by tanks, and a clubhouse featuring “Music, Dance, Liquor and Hot Girls” goes up overnight. The vexed locals retaliate by stealing and reselling Army supplies. Brain attempts to regain the villagers’ esteem by pilfering two massive packing cases. But the contents turn out to be the bodies of dead American soldiers, which are then dumped in an informal funeral ceremony. The remaining troop’s exit leaves the villagers somewhat humiliated, sullying the purity of their pastoral existence.
Wu’s directorial debut, “A Borrowed Life,” was concerned with the legacy of Taiwan’s past as a Japanese colony. Here, he efficiently establishes his central point that national cultures, no matter how deeply rooted, often are powerless to withstand the force of Americanization. His charges, however, are leveled less at the invaders than at the Taiwanese who allowed this to happen. The point is made especially relevant given the island’s long history of occupation by various powers and its sponge-like absorption of their influences.
Also well conveyed is the way relations between two cultures can be undermined simply by lack of understanding or by willful distortion, as in the case of the military translator who mediates between the two sides, deliberately manipulating each one’s intended meaning. But these views are then unnecessarily reiterated, in comedy that, from its gentle, wry beginnings, becomes increasingly obvious and heavy-handed. This tonal confusion is aggravated by slight clutter of narrative incident and peripheral characters, and by a somewhat incongruous hint of the elegiac quality of “A Borrowed Life” in scenes of the village kids pursuing the innocent pleasures of another time.