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Taipei Exchanges
Taipei Exchanges

Guey Lun-Mei and Zai-Zai Lin brew coffee and barter junk in Taipei Exchanges.
Chinese: 第36個故事
Year: 2010
Director: Hsiao Ya-Chuan  

Hsiao Ya-Chuan


Guey Lun-Mei, Chang Han, Zaizai Lin, Atari Kosuke, Ma Yu-Li

The Skinny: Insubstantial but charming, this light drama about a couple of sisters who run a Taipei cafe pleases during its brief (82 minutes) running time. Guey Lun-Mei does her usual Guey Lun-Mei thing, but Zai-Zai Lin steals the film as her sassy but smart sister.
by Kozo:
It's thin and underdeveloped, but writer-director Hsiao Ya-Chuan’s Taipei Exchanges possesses quirky charm, a relaxing tone and a fine pairing of actresses. Funded in part by the Taipei tourism bureau, Taipei Exchanges stars Guey Lun-Mei as Doris, the proprietor of newly opened Daughter's Café, your standard latte, cheesecake and tiramisu-serving coffee joint located in a suburban Taipei district. Doris always wanted an elegant café, but unfortunately hers is cluttered; at her grand opening, her friends decided to give her lots of useless junk as gifts, leading to a nice-looking café filled with a menagerie of ill-fitting and even tacky belongings. What's a willowy, determined young businesswoman to do?

Simple: she can barter. Working with Doris is her sister Josie (Zai-zai Lin), a supposed business major who for some reason has settled with working in her sister's café. When a customer finds a Thai-Chinese cookbook among the café's mess, Josie makes a deal for the customer to clean their storm drains in exchange for the cookbook. The rationale: the café only sells coffee and related nosh, and all the random junk must be bartered for via other objects or even stories, songs or favors. There's little money involved, but the quirky business does put Daughter's Café on the map. Doris is soon approached by tourism groups, plus the odd customer or two who gets a kick out of this whole bartering thing. Somewhere in all of this, there’s a story.

The premise of Taipei Exchanges could have made for a quirky romcom, but the film instead tells an elliptical tale of two sisters who are different but the same. Or something. There's backstory about how their father left them and how each sister possesses different goals, with a whole sequence where Josie concocts a fake past to slyly tell the real story of the two sisters. It’s all very pop art but also very unnecessary. Despite offering metaphorical hooha about the true nature of bartering, the film’s issues are only simply addressed, with complete ideas sacrificed in favor of easy meaning. Taipei Exchanges says a lot but doesn’t really do very much. Even Doris' burgeoning romance with a roguish traveler (Chang Han a.k.a. brother of Chang Chen) is only told between the lines. You don't get clinches or declarations of love here – you get the moments surrounding and possibly relating to the movie-like emotions we're used to. We could call it Wong Kar-Wai-like, but Wong Kar-Wai takes himself a lot more seriously.

Still, it’s that lack of pretension that makes Taipei Exchanges very easy to like – that is, despite the fact that its drama is so light that it barely seems to register. The themes of change, self-value and both tangible and intangible trade are explored only superficially and the film's voiceover is sometimes too much. It’s really the little things that make Taipei Exchanges enjoyable, like the sharp production design, the jazzy piano score from Summer Lei, the minor family comedy and especially the pairing of Guey Lun-Mei and Zai-Zai Lin. Guey is photogenic and charming, but Lin steals the film, not with obnoxious overacting but with subtle sass and underplayed attitude. Hsiao Ya-Chuan’s script and direction pull off the same trick, charming affably without hammering home its decidedly slight dramatic goods. Also, at only 82 minutes, the film never overstays its welcome. Taipei Exchanges is probably just like hanging out at Daughter’s Café. It might not be the best use of your time, but the atmosphere is pleasant and you’ll enjoy stopping by. (Kozo, reviewed at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, 2010)

Notes: • Japanese crooner and Cape No. 7 actor Atari Kosuke shows up in a cameo as a customer who barters through song.
Availability: DVD (Taiwan)
Region 3 NTSC
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin Language Track
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
Various Extras
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image credit: Hong Kong Asian Film Festival Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen