Taiwanese director Heather Tsui’s debut film, Long Time No Sea (只有海知道, 2018), may have intended to bring awareness to the indigenous Tao people of Orchid Island, but it drastically falls short by focusing on their struggles through the perspective of the mainland.
The film follows the journey of a young boy, Manawei (Zhong Jia-Jin), a native of Orchid Island. Like most children of the indigenous Tao community (also known as the Yami people), Manawei’s father has to work in the mainland in order to support his family. From the beginning of the film, we see Manawei waiting for his father to bring him back a new pair of shoes. During this moment, a young teacher, Chung-Hsun (Shang He-Huang) from the mainland arrives at Orchid Island to teach the children at the local school. Right off the bat, we witness Chung-Hsun’s “modern” uneasiness towards Orchid Island — bless his heart, there is no air-conditioner. He even goes on to deride Manawei for wearing slippers to school instead of shoes. Of course, he soon comes to humble himself by personally asking the children why they lack basic necessities.
Such a premise disturbingly exudes an overwrought narrative within the portrayal of class differences: the struggles of the poor are used as a moralising function to cure the ignorance of the privileged.
By looking at the indigenous Tao community through the perspective of Chung-Hsun, Tsui’s film misses the point of awareness altogether. Instead, audiences are made to measure indigenous people against a unitary standard of modernity espoused by people from the mainland. It prompts us to ask: who decides modernity, and who does the use of this homogeneous construct of modernity serve? Tsui’s non-professional casting of the indigenous Tao community in her film feels wasted, particularly when their voices are filtered through Chung-Hsun’s idea of what progress means. As if that is not enough, the film’s portrayal of indigenous culture feels especially crude and superficial.
Upon hearing that bonus points will be awarded by training the students for a national indigenous dance competition held at the mainland, Chung-Hsun leaps at the opportunity. Indeed, there is evidently no better person in charge of this task then someone who is not indigenous. During the training for this competition, Long Time No Sea highlights how indigenous culture is eroding because most people are moving to the city to support themselves financially. Since most of their parents working abroad, these children gradually lose touch with indigenous culture. While these are worthwhile points to raise, they are only tangential to the larger problem of Taiwan’s political investment in a capitalistic narrative of modernity. Furthermore, the film seems to place the onus of preserving culture onto these children, who are even chastised for refusing to put on their traditional wear. In Tsui’s film, it appears that indigenous culture can be restored simply through the power of multiple rehearsals, and the tenacity of one teacher from the mainland.
By suggesting that indigenous culture can simply be sustained by sheer human will, the film neglects to show that the erosion of indigenous culture is the devastating price to be paid for the country’s political investment in global capitalism. Within this context, tradition will only be preserved by political institutions insofar that it realises its value as profit. Even up to today, the Yami people of Orchid Island are still protesting against Taiwan’s imposition of a nuclear waste plant on their land. All over the world, indigenous land continues to be colonised and destroyed. This is not something that can be easily cured by an epiphany on how important indigenous culture is through mere performance.
Long Time No Sea does highlight the struggles that indigenous Tao people face. It is only a pity that Tsui chooses to focus on their struggles through a capitalistic narrative of modernity, thus robbing the right for indigenous people to speak for themselves.
Heather Tsui’s Long Time No Sea (2018) was screened at the Seattle International Film Festival this year.