During the 1980s and the 1990s, the small island nation of Taiwan experienced a cinematic renaissance unlike anything the country had previously seen. The country’s two New Wave movements not only helped to put Taiwanese cinema on the map, but also provided a platform in which Taiwanese could talk about relevant societal issues of the time.
Over the last ten years, things have changed quite a bit. What once was a nation in the midst of a cinematic spring awakening, has now become a cultural sponge—absorbing the art of other countries, and repackaging it as their own. This mass assimilation of outside influences has had the unintended effect of throwing the country’s art landscape into a full scale identity crisis. Now, the country is left hoping for somebody to come and save the day—and that person might just be director Cheng Wen-Tang and his film Tshiong
Tshiong is set in the small rural village of Tugou in south half of Taiwan. It’s the story of A-Tek, a rebellious young teen who balances his time between protesting social injustices, and performing as the lead singer in his own metal band. While kids in the West may have their Justice League and their Avengers— A-Tek draws his inspiration from the Taiwanese metal band, Chthonic. In his eyes, Freddy Lim and his misfit metal militia aren’t just musical icons— they are the messianic saviors of Taiwan. With one fist grasped firmly around the head of a mic, and the other raised high in the air, A-Tek is stalwart in his quest for protecting Taiwanese values and being a voice for Taiwan independence.
When one of the local village representatives announces his plans to level the village in order to build a Chinese theme park, A-Tek and his bandmates beside themselves with rage. Feeling outmanned and overmatched, A-Tek hops on his scooter, and makes a pilgrimage to the North in order to enlist the services of his metal idols, Chthonic. What starts off as a simple plea to help save his village, quickly escalates— leaving the future of the whole island in the hands of one young Southern boy. Along the way, he encounters a range of loveable characters from a head banging Japanese fan girl, to Lamb of God lead singer, Randy Blythe. It’s a no holds-barred rollick through Taiwan that brings it’s audience along for the ride.
In a way, Tshiong is the Taiwanese’s answer to 1999 Adam Rifkin film, Detroit Rock City. Much like it’s western counterpart—the film’s premise is built around a boy whose irrational fandom for a band emboldens him in his struggle to fight against perceived social injustices. The main difference between the two films is that while Detroit Rock City was a commentary on societal issues of a decade long past, Tshiong’s message is about the here and the now. It may not share the Hollywood glossiness of its counterpart, but what it lacks in aesthetic, it more than makes up for in enthusiasm. A-Tek may seem like just another character in a film, but in actuality he is much more than that—he is the physical embodiment of all the pent up rage and frustration that has been bottled up inside Taiwanese for years.
Tshiong is the brain child of both band Chthonic and director Cheng Wen-Tang. It should come as no surprise to some, that Chthonic’s debut film is one that is wrought with political ideology and social commentary. Their albums Seediq Bale (2005) Takasago Army (2011) dealt with the tragic and oft overlooked period of Japanese occupation and oppression on the island, and their open rejection of Chinese sovereignty has caused them to be banned from parts of the mainland, as well as made them the recipient of death threats. Whereas some punk and metal bands tend to keep their politics confined to the stage, Chthonic is all about mobilization and action. Their lead singer Freddy Lim, is not only one of the founding members of the politically progressive New Power Party (NPP) in Taiwan—but he also holds a seat in the country’s Legislative Yuan, and sits on Taiwan’s Foreign and National Defense Committee. That’s like if Bad Religion’s Greg Gaffin ran for and won political office in the 1990s. It’s no wonder Chthonic is so venerated by A-Tek and his bandmates.
One of the problems with a film like Tshiong, is that it requires a little bit of patience on the part of its foreign audience. A lot of the film’s hilarity is derived from wordplay, and not understanding the difference between the Taiwanese word for foreigners (a-tok-á) and the name of our main character (a- tik)—may alienate some audiences. The film’s plot tends to meander quite a bit and the acting may be a far cry from what independent audiences are used to. However, the film’s quirky writing, sporadically delightful animation sequences and imperative political commentary more than make up for any faults in the aesthetics department. Sure, a linguistic and historical familiarity with Taiwan will enrich the audience’s viewer experience—but they are in no way essential to the enjoyment of this film.
When writing a review, critics are forced to take the blood sweat and tears of an artist, and rate it on a scale numbering no larger than the fingers on a human body. This works all good and well for films like Wind River, but when not so much with a movie like this. Tshiong is a film that is almost impossible to fairly evaluate on stars alone. It’s aesthetic quality and rushed nature might cause some critics to give it a fairly low rating, but a film of this magnitude cannot be judged on its aesthetic qualities alone. This film absolutely could not exist in a western studio system, and the complete guts it takes to produce a film with such a racy political subject manner—especially when you consider the countries proximity to China—is mind-blowing.
Everyone knows what it’s like to struggle with identity; to want to protect the things we love from outside threats. We also know too well the fear that comes with meeting our idols, and worrying that they won’t meet the expectations we set for them. Tshiong is the embodiment of these feelings— but yet it is also the cinematic apotheoses of the inner struggle facing everyday Taiwanese. It’s a film that will be the subject of adoration from both Chthonic and Lamb of God fans alike, and it’s dissection of modern issues make it an important entry in Taiwanese cinematic history. It is a middle finger to the face of the establishment, a rebel cry for Taiwanese independence, and the only film about metal that matters.