Shi Tingyu, PhD student, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University
The Chinese title “Savory Soy Milk 1 ,” might lead audiences to believe the film, produced by Xu Ligong and directed by Wang Mingtai, focuses on food culture. But by looking at how various characters select special tasting “savory (salty) soymilk,” the 2002 film explores the difficulty of making “choices” in the process of growing up.
On the one hand, the camera alternately focuses on characters and settings, highlighting the intensity of new-wave Taiwanese cinema’s mature style; on the other hand, by presenting characters’ indistinct and confused identities, it intensifies the truth and hesitancy those characters feel in making various choices that accompany the growth process. Owing to the multiple ingredients added to savory soymilk – egg, hot-pepper oil, vinegar, dried shrimp, deep-fried bread sticks, and dried, pickled turnip – the dish is far more complex in both taste and texture than the more common sweetened variety.
The film is set in the 1980s, when “scholastic advancement” – i.e. the race to test into better schools and universities – dominated Taiwanese society. The story centers on Mingxian (Ma Zhixiang) and Qiwen (Fan Zhiwei), two youths who don’t want to study at a buxiban, a highly regimented cram school where students prepare for university entrance exams. The two friends leave the school after Mingxian gets in a fight with a teacher, setting out to meet life’s challenges on their own terms. And when they search for love, they discover that romance too poses difficult questions, the answers to which aren’t taught in classrooms.
In the film “love” is a profound motivator, jolting the two restless youths with seismic force. Mingxian chooses to walk on the wrong side of the law, falling in unrequited love with Jingfen (Jian Pei’en), a young woman who enlists him as a partner in a sexual blackmail racket so that she can save money to buy her musician boyfriend an electric guitar. In a show of solidarity with Mingxian, Qiwen gives up the chance to attend a good school, breaking up with his prim, studious girlfriend. In the final scene the two friends run side by side, suggesting that they will continue to face endless choices in their search for self-fulfillment.
Savory soymilk’s flavor is unlike popular tastes, symbolizing the choice of an existential attitude different from that of the masses. In the process of growing up, most people hope to taste life’s “sweetness,” but Mingxian and Qiwen resolutely face bitterness and hardship; thus, the question Savory Soymilk asks is, when confronting “thoughts of being true to one’s self,” is one willing to accept challenges and choices different from the established values of the herd?
1The English title is “Brave 20.”
|Related Literary Themes：||Food in Literature|