Taiwanese high school drama expert Yee Chih-yen delivers a politically poignant heist comedy about students plotting to steal a statue of the founder of Republican China.
Making his first feature film in 12 years and only his third in 19, Yee Chih-yen has perhaps made one of the most socially engaging, politically relevant and artistically refined entries in Taiwan's long-running stream of high school dramas. As its absurdist heist-comedy veneer gradually falls away, Meeting Dr. Sun reveals itself as a powerful rallying call for the island's youth to react against their bleak future.
What makes the film exceptional is how it masterfully weaves its J'accuse into the fabric of its seemingly innocuous narrative about students trying to make off (and then make money) with a bronze statue in their school. Drawing visual tropes from a wide variety of genres — from slapstick comedy to film noir — and motored by a screenplay which trades in the comical listlessness of its young protagonists, Meeting Dr. Sun is the mix of furious hearts and creative minds. Its subtle presentation of sharp social arguments is steps ahead of many an overtly political but incoherently structured tubthumper from the politically turbulent region.
While not exactly a crowd-pleaser as the apolitical You're the Apple of My Eye, its underwhelming box office at its home market is still a surprise — given how the film could now be, in retrograde, interpreted as an origins story of the Sunflower Student Movement, both in terms of explaining the anguish driving the young protesters and offering a brains-and-brawns pairing mirroring the movement's real-life leaders of Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-ting. Still, its best-screenplay wins at the Taipei and Golden Horse film festivals should spark an international run, with next month's showing at Singapore being its first stop.
At the center of Meeting Dr. Sun are two teenagers racing against time to raise some hard cash: In their first meeting, Lefty (Zhan Huai-ting) and Sky (Matthew Wei) are reduced to wearing their poverty as a badge of honor so as to claim the rights to steal the statue of Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of Republican China whose ambitions were to bring political equality and social emancipation to his people. To the two boys, Sun's ideals matter not: All they want is to sell his bronze likeness as scrap metal and use the money to pay school fees.
True to their names, Lefty is the thinker who strategizes, while Sky casts caution to the wind and lets his fists do the talking. Their meet-up (when Lefty sympathizes with Sky's domestic predicament) and break-up (when Sky coldly exploits Lefty's generosity for his own advantage) would lead to the final bust-up as two gangs try to outsmart each other in pursuing the mission, only ending up in an increasingly absurd night of boys out-bumbling each other.
In Meeting, Yee has deployed some of the motifs in his 2002 hit Blue Gate Crossing in a more extreme fashion. The characters from 12 years ago were repeating the same sentences throughout their dialogue out of laziness or boredom; this time around, Lefty and Sky's seemingly repetitive verbal sparring stems more out of frustration and a resignation to their sorry fate.
Combined with Chen Tai-pu's many lit-for-night scenes, Meeting is noir-ish in its visual and verbal representation of a fatalistic worldview — a perspective only shattered when the figures of power awaken their faculty of tracing the myriad sources and social forces shaping the predicament haunting their generation.
Not that Yee has gone all existential, of course. A key hint lies in Chris Hou's score, a slow-building crescendo expanding on a motif from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. Specifically, the musical phrase comes from Spring — one of Meeting's myriad codes alluding to springtime political uprisings in history, the latest being Taiwan's very own in March. Here, the characters' subversive plan is positioned as merely a possible precursor to their future endeavors in ridding poverty and the social inequality spawning such destitution. Starting out as a black comedy and ending as a crimson-hued clarion call for action, Meeting Dr. Sun is a convergence of intellect and fun.