The Taipei Film Festival audience award-winner revolves around the struggle of an indigenous family resisting property developers encroaching on their ancestral land.
Once a topic of concern to mostly documentary makers, the past anguish of Taiwan’s aboriginal communities has, in recent years, been given the fictional-film treatment through historical epics like the Seediq Bale diptych and the baseball drama Kano. Wawa No Cidal, the inter-ethnic directorial duo of Cheng Yu-chieh and Lekal Sumi breaks new ground by moving forward and casting an eye on the indigenous tribes’ current predicaments. While based on the much-used trope of prodigal descendants returning to their roots and regaining their long-submerged identities, the film thrives through its measured, authentic depictions of a rich, organically mutating culture in crisis.
Bolstered by powerful performances from its cast — most of them first-time actors, ranging from singer Ado’ Kalitaing Pacidal to young non-professionals such as Dongi Kacaw and Rahic Gulas — and striking imagery throughout, Wawa No Cidal is at once a crowd-pleaser and a contemplative piece about social schisms beyond the urban-centric political discourse of the Taiwanese media. With its none-too-subtle positioning of its rural characters’ struggle as a continuation of last year’s anti-establishment Sunflower Movement, Wawa No Cidal effortlessly scooped the audience award at the Taipei Film Festival. The film should be able to secure bookings at Asian or Asia-themed festivals, in addition to programs dedicated to social activism or indigenous communities.
The film’s Amis-language title translates as “Children of the Sun,” and at the center of the story are small-town kids who are not all right. While just a teenager, Nakaw (Kacaw) has grown to become quite cynical about life: Resigned to her fate in a far-flung corner of Taiwan, she readily admits her part-time folk dance performances are merely “random” steps invented to entertain uninitiated tourists. Her younger brother, Sera (Gulas), is even more in peril of losing his traditional and social bearings, the impressionable boy hailing the “strong” Chinese yuan when told about the currency’s rising purchasing power in Taiwan. Their grandfather (Kaco Lekal) can hardly do anything to mold their views, his helplessness in stemming these social tides shown in his inability to get proper irrigation to his and his fellow villagers’ ancestral lands.
Things begin to change only after the return of the children’s mother, Panay (Pacidal), who quits her job as a TV journalist in Taipei after the last of many fallouts with a supervisor over the ever-softening editorial line in the newsroom. Back in her hometown, Panay begins to reconnect with her children and her heritage; her antithesis lies in childhood friend Sean (Bokeh Kosang, Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale), who is back home trying to convince the townsfolk to sell their land to property developers plotting the construction of a seaside resort complex.
Conflicts ensue both between the locals and the interlopers, as well as within the community itself, with Panay’s campaigns riling not just the profiteering foreigners but also getting the cold shoulder from some doubtful elders. Such friction provides a wealth of opportunities for dramatic scenes — Pacidal, for one, gets to deliver quite a few stirring speeches as Panay is shown speaking about her past misguided ways of erasing her aboriginal identity and her visions for a future where her tribe could evolve through advanced modes of agriculture.
But it’s in Nakaw and Sena that the film’s beating heart lies, the former’s adolescent angst and the latter’s innocence embodying all the contradictions at play in this narrative. And it’s with them that moments of beauty emerge, with Liao Ching-yao’s camerawork vividly illustrating the siblings interacting within a milieu that appears sweepingly beautiful on a good day or eerily menacing when bad developments threaten to arise. With the rhythms of locals' everyday life also finely showcased — the farming, feasting and food preparations far away from the superficial, exotic rituals put on for the sake of travelers — Wawa No Cidal is one small but very good step toward the development of a cinema by and about communities still stuck in Taiwan’s social margins.