If your idea of a Taiwanese film veers toward that of art house fare, then think again. Of the two Taiwanese movies which are released here in close succession, one next week with Au Revoir Taipei, and this one which is executive produced by Hou Hsiao-hsien and already screening, both showing plenty of promise in mixing mainstream sentimentalism with art house production values. Both films are helmed by first time feature filmmakers (edit: well, Hsiao Ya-chuan already has one more credit to his name, according to IMDb), and you can safely say that things are indeed looking exciting with their youthful exuberance, being breezy in treatment, and whimsically beautiful in their simplicity.
Writer-director Hsiao Ya-chuan has an eye for style and technique here, putting together various ways to mix the genres of comedy, romance and even a pseudo-documentary all rolled into Taipei Exchanges. It's multi-layered, which makes it have something for everyone, underneath the topmost veneer story of two sisters having to set up a cafe as part of pursuing their dreams, or serve as a conduit to their desires. Doris's Cafe, opened by Doris (Guai Lun-mei) as a means of getting out of the paper chase and gaining independence, sees her teaming up with her sister Josie (Lin Zai-zai, who looks Like Lun-mei o make it even more convincing) who starts a scheme to drive up traffic for a newly opened store.
Which is as the title states, a barter trade system of goods or even services exchange, where almost everything in the shop is open to trade. It's quite a neat strategy giving their cafe a unique value proposition from the countless of cafes out there, in order to drive eyeballs, visits, and of course, sales when the would be customers come in and start to order something. As an unintentional seed which came as a problem to be solved, no thanks to friends who donate unwanted knick-knacks, this forms the crux upon which subplots got weaved into the narrative, from small supporting characters coming and going, and where other stories got told to form what the Mandarin title promises, no less than 36 stories.
I simply love the beginning of the movie, which took its time to demonstrate real life woes faced by any typical entrepreneur, following Doris' setting up of her one year old shop, with the baseline issues of menu design, furniture selection, and the constant worry of finances when customers don't show up, with overheads already sunk, and operating expense bleeding the business everyday. One clearly cannot rely on friends alone to drive traffic, nor make recommendations to visit the shop (I think some friends who have set up a business in similar fashion can attest to this), since they are at liberty to pay lip service, and don't actually turn up.
Then come the many unique stories, some fantastical, others folk legends, which are provided an additional dimension through the drawings that were designed to go along with them, coming from bars of soap associated with cities around the world. Hsiao Ya-chuan also adds in that dash of realism with those documentary styled moments where people on the streets were asked the same hypothetical questions posed to characters in the film, and while some answers do seem rehearsed and canned, there were others which I felt were brutally honest and sincere. And as if not enough, Hsiao also keeps a running joke ongoing in the film with the sister's mother constantly questioning her daughters intents and objectives in life, which inevitably get answered by others, providing separate insights.
With life imitating art in having the real life shop location now operating and becoming a tourist magnet, just like what's in the film, Taipei Exchanges entertains, yet makes you think about how each of us potentially have many stories to tell based on life's experiences, and this will only increase through what's essentially the passage of life. With an excellent soundtrack and a deceptively simple narrative hidden under bubble gum pop, I'll file this under my highly recommended list as a contender for one of the best this year!