Meeting Dr. Sun
Taiwan, 2014, colour, 1.85:1, 91 mins.
Director: Yi Zhiyan 易智言.
Faux-naif college heist comedy has charm but is stretched out way too long.
Taibei, the present day, summer. Shamed into having to pay their class fees by the end of term, four impoverished high-school friends, led by Zuo (Zhan Huaiyun), plan to steal a bronze statue of Sun Zhongshan [Sun Yat-sen] from the school’s storeroom. Zuo says it’s worth NT$20,000, so each of them will get NT$5,000, leaving NT$3,000 after the class fees have been paid. The next night, after gathering the necessary equipment – including some cheap manga masks, a cart, and the key to the storeroom – they go through a rehearsal, and find they have one hour to pull off the theft while the security guard (Zhang Xiaoquan) is watching his favourite TV show. However, on the street outside they find a notebook containing plans for an identical operation. After finding the owner of the notebook – fellow student, Xiaotian (Wei Handing) – Zuo follows him on the MRT and confronts him. Xiaotian says he needs the money for his graduation trip, as his family is very poor. Zuo says his family is even poorer. To prove who is the poorest, each shows the other his living quarters and, while doing so, Xiaotian’s father (Hong Shengde) comes by and scolds him for bringing shame on the family. Finally, Zuo shows Xiaotian how well prepared his group is, and invites him to join them. Xiaotian seems to agree but next day Zuo and his pals find he’s disappeared with all their equipment. Zuo decides to let Xiaotian and his friends go ahead with the theft, and then steal the statue from them. However, on the actual night both groups are forced to work together, as the statue is so heavy.
With Meeting Dr. Sun 行动代号 孙中山, the strange career of Taiwan director Yi Zhiyan 易智言, 55, reaches another staging post in only his third feature in almost 20 years. Yi debuted in his mid-30s with Lonely Hearts Club 寂寞芳心俱乐部 (1995), a typical entry in the 1990s school of Taiwan alienation with lost souls moping around Taibei, and then followed it seven years later with the much more accessible Blue Gate Crossing 蓝色大门 (2002), a high-school love story that was high on charm but low on content, and is now most famous for the big-screen debuts of stars Chen Bolin 陈柏霖 and Gui Lunmei 桂纶镁. Twelve years after that – and with work betweentimes as a film producer (the impressive Unpolitical Romance 水饺几两, 2012), TV drama director (Dangerous Mind 危险心灵, 2006) and director of an episode in a portmanteau movie (About Love 恋爱地图, 2005) – he’s back with a full-scale feature.
Like Blue Gate, it’s really a featurette stretched to an hour-and-a-half. Shot and played in an exaggeratedly simple and faux-naïf way, Dr. Sun is the slim story of a group of impoverished high-school pals who plan to steal a bronze statue of Sun Zhongshan [Sun Yat-sen] from the school’s storeroom in order to pay their class fees. Halfway through preparations, they find another group is planning the same thing. Yi keeps the focus tightly on his teenage characters, with few details of home life or even of other schoolmates, and much of the film’s low-key black humour spins on repeated jokes: the leader, Zuo, always changing location, so he’s not overheard; groups of women often exercising in the background; characters repeating sentences and phrases, and so on. Initially amusing, it starts to lose its appeal as scenes go on well beyond their natural length and no discernible edge emerges in the humour. Yi, in fact, seems to revel in the inconsequentiality of the material and at one point, when one of Zuo’s group is tasked with wheedling the storeroom key out of a female staff member, doesn’t even show the crucial scene.
Where Lonely Hearts and Blue Gate were concerned with emotional/sexual confusion – including characters being revealed as gay – Dr. Sun has none of this: aside from a few adult characters (played by known names Zhang Xiaoquan 张孝全 [Joseph Chang], 张书豪 Zhang Shuhao and Li Qianna 李千娜 in small cameos), the cast is made up of teenage boys with nothing on their minds except the task at hand. Yi draws charming performances from his non-pro cast, and especially Zhan Huaiyun as the ever-optimistic, quick-thinking Zuo, that are the film’s main draw. Some viewers may see a deeper message about economic inequality in Taiwan society, or some kind of political sub-text in the story of stealing a statue of the founding father of Taiwan’s Republic of China, but neither are really there.
Technically, the movie is fine, and shot with some precision, including the summery photography of d.p. Chen Dapu 陈大璞 and the ironic oom-pah-pah chamber score by Hou Zhijian 侯志建 (Blue Gate; You Are the Apple of My Eye 那些年，我们一起追的女孩。, 2011; Tiny Times 1 小时代, 2013). The English title misleadingly makes the film sound like a period drama; the Chinese one means “Operation Codename: Sun Yat-sen”.
Presented by 1 Production Film (TW), Warner Bros. (Taiwan) Pictures (TW), Lan Se Productions (TW), YTLHB International Entertainment (TW). Produced by Lan Se Productions (TW), 1 Production Film (TW).
Script: Yi Zhiyan. Photography: Chen Dapu. Editing: Du Minqi. Music: Hou Zhijian. Production design: Xia Shaoyu. Art direction: Chen Boren. Costumes: Chen Boren. Sound: Zhu Shiyi, Du Duzhi.
Cast: Zhan Huaiyun (Zuo/Lefty), Wei Handing (Xiaotian/Sky), Zhang Xiaoquan [Joseph Chang] (school security guard), Li Qianna (his girlfriend), Zhang Shuhao (school discipline officer), Hong Shengde [Honduras] (Xiaotian’s father), Yang Shujun (PE teacher), Huang He (MRT passenger), Hu Weijie (kitchen apprentice), Wang Yucheng (Xiaogui), Shi Kangjun (Da Zhi), Cai Cheng’en (Youyou), Yuan Jiale (Man), Gao Zhengtan (Dan), Yang Yichen (Zhong), Chen Boting (class treasurer), Xu Zhitang (mask-shop owner), Zhang Fengfeng (Meiling, aunt), Zheng Yang Shuimei (Zuo’s grandmother), Chai Yuqiao (Zuo’s neighbour), Liu Peijun (MRT girl).
Premiere: Taipei Film Festival (Taipei Award: Narrative Feature), 5 Jul 2014.
Release: Taiwan, 11 Jul 2014.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 23 Nov 2014.)