Yang Fumin, PhD student, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University
The Sandwich Man, a representative work of Taiwan’s 1980s New Wave Cinema movement, is adapted from Huang Chunming’s short stories, “His Son’s Big Doll” (1968), “Xiaoqi’s Cap” (1974), and “The Taste of Apples” (1972). The three-part film was directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien, Zeng Zhuangxiang, and Wan Ren respectively, and the screenplay was written by Wu Nianzhen. Composed of three separate yet interlinked stories, the picture’s themes – the disappearance of individuality, the increasingly indistinct border between rural and urban areas, the influx of Western culture, and the cold war political and economic structure – echo postwar Taiwan’s initiation in modernity.
In the first part, “His Son’s Big Doll,” a man named Kunshu imitates a signboard-wearing “sandwich man” in a Japanese advertisement in order provide for his family. Dressed and made up to look like a circus clown, he parades back and forth along city streets advertising a local theater’s upcoming features. Survival, a theme that runs through the film’s entire narrative, is also this story’s focus: the relief package provided by a local church at the start of the film, Kunshu’s wife A-Zhu’s birth control measures, and even the struggle occasioned by the happy circumstance of landing two jobs at once, all highlight the difficulty of living in the modern age. For example, when Kunshu’s son A-Long fails to identify him because he is not wearing his clown outfit, Kunshu laments: “I wish A-Long could recognize me…” When his uncle meets the costumed Kunshu on the street and says to him, “I can’t tell if you’re a man or a beast,” the uncle’s appearance hints at Kunshu’s father’s absence and the loss of the traditional family order, an allusion to the breakdown of the clan system and the rise of the nuclear family that resulted from Taiwan’s rapid social transformation in the postwar era.
Part two, “Shaoqi’s Cap,” tells the story of two traveling salesmen, Wang Wuxiong and Lin Zaifa, who are peddling Japanese-made “quick cookers” – pressure cookers – in a small Taiwanese fishing village. A concrete manifestation of modern life’s brisk pace, the appliance’s “quickness” is out of synch with the unhurried life of the fishing village. The images of injury and loss that pervade this part of the film – Shaoqi’s scars, severed pig’s feet, the metal shard that lodges in Lin Zaifa’s neck when a pressure cooker explodes, and Lin’s wife’s miscarriage – all mock modern industrial society’s penchant for speed and efficiency. Wang Wuxiong calls both himself and the world into question, the intense pressure of his inner life akin to that of a quick cooker, capable of blowing up at any time. In the end, remnants of posters advertising the cookers still cling to walls in the fishing village, evidence that contact with modernity has already altered life in the once placid hamlet.
“The Taste of Apples” begins with a car accident, another testament to the harm speed brings. The film’s final section is set in urban Taipei, where an American-driven car has struck A-Fa, a common laborer, breaking his leg. As a result, A-Fa receives a large sum of money in compensation; thus, his wife and children feel both sorrow and joy, an absurd and ironic twist. “Apples” are a metaphor for America, their “taste” becoming increasingly complicated as new conflicts arise. Contrast serves as an important device in the film: the illegal structure in which A-Fa and his family live is juxtaposed with the bright aura of an American-built hospital; blood and apples are set off against white hospital beds and the tissues a white-clad nun constantly draws from a box; an American-made car is contrasted to three-wheeled pedicabs and pedestrians. This opposition creates great tension, revealing the geopolitical considerations that informed American aid to Taiwan, as well as the endless grief of the rural poor who migrated to cities in search of a better life.
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