A gushingly affirmative drama about a Taiwanese aboriginal family pulled into land-rights disputes, “Panay” is partly redeemed by two utterly adorable child actors and a radiant debut performance by singer-songwriter Ado Kaliting Pacidal. Co-helmed by Cheng Yu-chieh and Lekal Sumi Cilangasan with all the right sentimental beats, this saccharine, prettily shot pic won the audience award at the Taipei Film Festival, and it’s easy enough to see why. The film is assured a place at festivals (it opens the Singapore Film Festival on Nov. 26), on family and campus screening platforms, but in the context of aboriginal-themed films, it’s just ticking the usual boxes.
Once a budding auteur in Taiwan, Cheng (“Do Over,” “Yang Yang”) has turned his hand to TV in the last few years. What he’s lost in stylistic edginess, he’s gained in narrative clarity and a less scripted approach to characterization. Co-helmer Cilangasan lends the film integrity and cultural heft by drawing from his ethnic background and firsthand stories, yet the abundance of indigenous song and dance rituals, however pleasing, cannot help but feel a bit too festive.
Panay (Pacidal), a single mother from the Pangcah (aka Amis) tribe in Hualien, southern Taiwan, is a reporter at a TV station in Taipei. Even though she’s hailed as “the pride of her tribe” for making it to college and breaking out of rural poverty, she seethes helplessly at the daily marginalization of her people in mainstream media. To hold down her job, she has to leave her children, Nakaw (Dongi Kacaw) and Sera (Rahic Kulas), to the care of her father (Kaco Lekal), who mourns their dried-up rice paddy and frets about the fading of their ancestors’ heritage as young people desert the reserve for city jobs.
Meanwhile, the kids enjoy a carefree life, content to dance in an ethnic show targeting mainland tourists for pocket change. “Renminbi is awesome!” enthuses Nakaw, innocently pointing up the mainland’s looming economic dominance over Taiwan. She soon learns the importance of money when Grandpa is diagnosed with lung cancer. While the only way to pay for his treatment is to sell their family plot, the elderly man is preoccupied with making the soil arable again for his future descendants. When Panay’s junior-high classmate Sheng-hsiung (Bokeh Kosang) returns from the city as an agent for mainland property developers who want to buy up native land and turn it into a seaside resort, conflict deepens among the struggling farmers, the aboriginal elders and the local government.
The film’s impetus sprang from the documentary “The Wish of Ocean Rice,” helmed by Cilangasan to chronicle an irrigation project his mother kickstarted to revive his hometown’s parched rice paddies, which were untended for some 30 years. The project was lauded for applying ancient aboriginal wisdom to establish an eco-friendly agricultural model on one of the world’s rare ocean-bordering terraced fields. The fiction feature, also shot in the same location, captures the panoramic scenery of watery paddies that become one with the azure ocean; sequences of fishermen casting their nets, or the whole community pitching in to mend the blocked canal, are joyously rousing, especially when scored by a chorus of euphonious aboriginal songs.
Nevertheless, once the confrontations between developers and smallholders take over the narrative, the story seems to devolve into round after round of fighting, and for too many causes for audiences to swallow all at once. Panay, in particular, becomes a one-dimensional character whenever she mounts her soapbox. There’s no doubting the helmers’ sincerity of purpose, or the necessity of indigenous people to assert their identity and rights in a film centered on them. But in diverting attention away from the family drama, the film squanders its biggest asset — the two charismatic tykes and their spontaneous take on the world. Nakaw’s coming of age, as she gains the self-confidence necessary to compete in mainstream society, is drawn with a tender, feather-light touch, whereas Panay’s parallel path to self-determination is priggishly delivered as a lecture to civil servants and corporate sponsors.
That said, it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that none of the characters seem too morally black-and-white — especially Sheng-hsiung, who could have been a stereotypically smarmy real-estate agent. Instead, his arc is one of the most sympathetically drawn: His early life of drifting from one tribal reserve to another with his errant father has led to a paradoxical yearning for integration with the Han majority, as well as a foothold in his own ethnic group. Not only does he want to make good for himself, he genuinely wants other aboriginals to embrace new economic opportunities. It’s a dilemma that Kosang dramatized so heartrendingly as an aboriginal indoctrinated by Japanese colonialism in “Seediq Bale: Warriors of the Rainbow.” In this contempo context, he plays up his milksop image to affectionately humorous effect, while his tentative outpourings to Panay constitute the film’s most emotionally honest moments.
Active musician and TV host Pacidal attacks her role with volcanic passion, commanding the scene with unusually self-assured presence for a newcomer. Lekal, a venerated Pangcah elder, naturally exudes authority and integrity. But the film is ultimately illuminated by the unaffected beauty and charm of Kacaw, Kulas and the whole young cast of amateurs.
Tech credits are competent but somewhat televisual, devoid of any stylistic flourish in structure, editing or art direction. Shooting extensively outdoors, lenser Liao Ching-yao manages to compose some gorgeous shots of natural scenery, all radiantly lit to echo the original title, which means “Children of the Sun” in Pangcah. Aboriginal songs and music, though often inserted by music supervisor rather unsubtly for sentimental effect, are in themselves a treat.