Ethnography and entertainment are neatly mixed in “Long Time No Sea,” an uplifting drama set among the indigenous Tao community from Orchid Island in Taiwan. Based on life experiences of first-time feature writer-director Heather Tsui (also known as Tsui Yung-hui), this tale of a newbie teacher from the city who prepares students for a dance competition is sweet without ever getting sticky, and sends strong but never-didactic messages about the need to preserve traditional cultures and languages. Following a successful local release in June, this family-friendly film deserves to attract further festival attention in the wake of its international premiere in the Asian Future competition at Tokyo.

Tsui’s impressive feature is deftly structured to inform audiences outside Taiwan about the challenges facing an indigenous people while also spinning a thoroughly entertaining and accessible “let’s put on a show” yarn. Featuring a cast comprised almost exclusively of non-professionals from the Tao community, “Long Time” has an unforced authenticity that will connect with viewers everywhere.

The young star of the show is Zhong Jia-jin as Manawei, a motherless young boy who lives with his doting grandmother (Feng Ying-li). Like many of his friends, Manawei rarely sees his father (Ou Lu), who left Orchid Island to work in Kaohsiung, a big city on the main island. Zhong is terrific as the youngster whose high spirits mask the sadness of being separated from his dad and the embarrassment of being so poor he’s forced to wear sandals instead of shoes to school.

The sole professional actor here is Shang He-huang, cast most effectively as Chung-hsun, a thirtysomething teacher who’s just arrived from the city. Far from having noble ideals or even much interest in Orchid Island and its inhabitants, Chung-hsun is looking to stay just long enough to earn the career-boosting status that comes with accepting such a remote posting.

Things begin to change when the school principal (Zhu Zhi-sheng) offers bonus points for teachers who’ll take charge of organizing a team of students to compete at a national indigenous dance competition in Kaohsiung. Without knowing the first thing about Tao dance or culture, Chung-hsun takes up the challenge.

As he gradually warms to the task, Chung-hsun finds a friend and potential romantic interest in Chin-yi (Zhang Ling), a kind-hearted local radio announcer who joins a community-wide effort to teach the kids about their culture and take pride in their performance. Best of all is Chung-hsun’s bonding with Manawei, whose occasional bad behavior in the classroom is seen in a new light by the teacher once he becomes aware of the lad’s difficult circumstances.

Tsui’s screenplay balances gentle humor and non-melodramatic heartache wonderfully well en route to a climax on the big stage at Kaohsiung. A surprise visit from Manawei’s dad delivers initial joy, only to end in bitter disappointment that brings home the harsh reality of financially driven family separations. Among many amusing and illuminating scenes is a discussion about appropriate attire. Tao men and boys wear thongs while dancing. Manawei and his pals want none of this until their teacher and respected community leaders speak about the importance of upholding such a tradition. Sensitive photography and the beaming smiles of the lads do the rest. The story’s only real shortcoming is superficial treatment given to girls’ roles in the performance.

Without ever looking like a travelog, Liao Jing-yao’s photography shows the beauty of a place the Tao have called home for 800 years. Especially nice is an underwater sequence in which Manawei plunges into Love River in Kaohsiung and is magically transported to Orchid Island, where he dives joyfully with his loving and happy father. Also of note in the fine technical package is a lovely score by multi award-winning composer Cincin Lee and a sprinkling of traditional Tao songs, the lyrics of which are emotionally powerful and highly informative.

Tokyo Film Review: ‘Long Time No Sea’

Reviewed at Tokyo Film Festival (Asian Future — competing), Oct. 26, 2018. (Original title: “Zhi you da hai zhi dao") Running time: 97 MIN.

  • Production: (Taiwan) A Swallow Wings Films release of a Richland Production Co., Dragonfly Prods., TWR Entertainment production. (International sales: Swallow Wings Films, Taipei.) Producer: Chen Pao-ying. Executive producers: Gene Yao, Heather Tsui, Su Gwo-shing.
  • Crew: Director, writer: Heather Tsui. Camera (color, HD): Liao Jing-yao. Editors: You Zhi-han, Tsui. Music: Cincin Lee.
  • With: Shang He-huang, Zhong Jia-jun, Feng Ying-li Zhang Ling, Ou Lu, Don Zhi-hao, Yan Hao-wei, Xie Ming-chang. (Mandarin, Tao dialogue)
  • Music By: Cincin Lee