HONG KONG — Ang Lee, Taiwan’s most famous director, brought new respect to his homeland with the artistic achievement created there in his Oscar-winning “Life of Pi.”
But in the movie “Together,” which screens Thursday at the Hong Kong International Film Festival as part of the Young Taiwanese Cinema program, Taiwanese director Hsu Chao-Jen sought to create a different sort of Taiwanese movie.
Hsu, a well-known television director, wanted his feature film debut to be fully Taiwanese. “In my definition, the plot, script, shooting location, crew and cast should be in Taiwan [to be classified as a Taiwanese film],” he explains. “ ‘Life of Pi’ is a Hollywood film.”
Under this criteria, “Together,” which opened the 2012 Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival, comes up trumps.
The film is told from the perspective of 17-year-old schoolboy Xiao Yang (played by Huang Chao-Yang). Xiao whizzes around Taipei’s zigzagging streets on his scooter, trying to put the world to rights — or, more specifically, sorting out the fickle love lives of his classmates. (At the start of the film, the English title breaks apart to form the words “To Get Her.”)
“I know Taipei is a really modern city. But the small hutong streets are actually very charming,” says Hsu, speaking in the glitzy lobby of a hotel in Hong Kong. “I wanted to show that part of Taipei, as opposed to the towers.”
Meanwhile, Xiao’s mother, Min-min, and father, Bin (played by the veteran Taiwanese actress-producer Lieh Lee and Hong Kong singer-actor Kenny Bee), are struggling in their marriage. In incremental steps — a flirtation here, a smile there — they turn away from each other.
Min-min, who runs a street fruit juice stall, slowly allows herself to enjoy the attentions of a much younger, handsome tease who operates a costume stall in the same market. Bin begins to spend more time with a quirky aspiring songwriter who is having doubts about her upcoming wedding.
Interspersed are family, friends, lovers and neighbors who rub up against one another. Together they form a winsome patchwork of lives delivered winningly by a delightful ensemble cast.
Beyond the focus on the characters’ often idiosyncratic love lives is a wider homage to the sounds, scents and sights of street life in Taipei.
Hsu, who wrote the script with Chuang Shih-Hung, says that in large part, inspiration came from European filmmakers, including the Serbian Emir Kusturica (director of “Underground”). In “Together,” plot is secondary to ambiance. There is no real denouement, simply a palate of different portraits.
But if European cinema helped give rise to the mood, Taiwan provided the cash. One-third of the $15-million Taiwanese budget (about $500,000 in U.S. currency) was provided by the government.
Most importantly, Hsu wanted to show a slower pace of life that exists in Taiwan, if you look for it. He shot the film where he actually lives. In the movie, Bin finds comfort by hiding in the printing shop he runs; the whirring of the machines provides a background soundtrack to the film. The printing shop itself is in front of Hsu’s real home.
“Young people have a really fast-paced life,” Hsu says. “But because of my job, I don’t have a tight schedule. I do appreciate a place where I can listen to the noise of the neighborhood: people frying their own meals, the printing press. The noise is actually quite peaceful.”
Photograph: Hsu Chao-Jen directed the Taiwanese film “Together,” screening at the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF)