“Finding Sayun” and aboriginal romance films

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Darryl Sterk.]

Finding Sayun is a superb new anti-aboriginal romance film by Laha Mebow (陳潔瑤), a Taiwan indigenous director. The film revisits the 1943 Japanese propaganda film Sayon’s Bell about an indigenous girl from Nan-ao, a “rural township” in northeastern Taiwan, who drowned trying to carry luggage across a river for the man she adored: a departing Japanese officer. (Sayon and Sayun are two different transliterations of the same name.) Sayon’s Bell wanted to reassure the Japanese public that, a decade after the Wushe uprising in 1930, Taiwan’s indigenous peoples had been converted to imperial subjects, and to convince aboriginal braves to fight for the emperor: it would be hard to resist after hearing Sayun singing the inspiring Song of the Taiwan Soldiers:

After the Second World War, the KMT relocated Sayun’s people from their old mountain village to a new village on the plain. Laha Mebow is one of Sayun’s people, and her new film is ostensibly about finding Sayun, but finding Sayun is not the point of the film. Instead, Finding Sayun has two aims: 1) to critique the use of romance in aboriginal films (which is to say films about but not by indigenous people) like Sayon’s Bell, and 2) to document the everyday worlds of three different generations in a contemporary indigenous village.

Avatar is only the most flagrant example of an aboriginal romance film in the past few years. In Taiwan, Song of the Spirits (心靈之歌) was about a Chinese man who falls in love with an indigenous teacher (played by a Chinese actress) in a remote mountain village, while Waiting For the Flying Fish (等待飛魚) reversed the formula: an indigenous fisherman falls in love with a swimming teacher from Taipei. How does Finding Sayun critique the use of romance in aboriginal films? First, by questioning the story told by Sayon’s Bell. Sayon’s Bell was very loosely based on a true story, a news report from 1938. Sayun’s death was celebrated as an example of imperial devotion, and a bell was erected in her honor. Sayon’s Bell introduced romance: the actress who played Sayun, Shirley Yamaguchi, acted in many Japanese imperial romance films. In Finding Sayun, episodes from Sayun’s life are reimagined several times as a “student-teacher romance” (師生戀) in sepia-filtered video:

This preview switches back to regular coloring when it returns to the present, and in the end the skepticism of Sayun’s people in 2011 interrogates the “student-teacher romance” idea. One person suggests that Sayon was carrying the luggage because she had to, while another says flat out that romance was Sayon’s Bell’s spin on Sayun’s story.

Finding Sayun also critiques the use of romance in aboriginal films by introducing a young Taiwanese casting director character who goes to Nan-ao to scout talent for an aboriginal romance film. She video auditions the local people and asks the most videogenic among them to star in her film. She even finds a high school student named Sayun! – Sayun turns out to be a fairly common girl’s name – as well as a boy named Yugan who is fond of Sayun. So far so good. But Yugan refuses to act in her film, and Sayun has her priorities straight: she’s too busy studying for the high school entrance examinations to fall in love, let alone act in a movie. As a result, the commercial aboriginal romance film does not get made. But through the device of the film pre-production within the film, Laha Mebow has already made the audience more self-conscious about how a typical commercial aboriginal romance film is constructed, and hopefully more critical of commercial filmmakers like James Cameron who cash in on a simple formula: nature+aborigines=romance, sometimes as pure entertainment, sometimes as an ideological vehicle. Yet Laha Mebow’s criticism is warm-hearted, and not heavy-handed. Indigenous peoples might well feel some hostility towards outsiders who want to commercialize their cultures, but the young Taiwanese casting director character in Finding Sayun is very likable and even somewhat perceptive. She’s not exactly a visual ethnographer, but she has a notion of “participant-observation” – she hangs out with the people in the village and adopts local customs, such as wearing rain boots (she’ll need them on the trek up to the old village).

So what kind of story does Laha Mebow offer instead of aboriginal romance? At first, there is no strong narrative line, and the casting director’s efforts soon fizzle out. Yet not every feature film needs to have a good story, just as plot is not the point of every novel. Initially, Finding Sayun seems like a fictional documentary evoking the everyday lives of three generations in contemporary Nan-ao: 1. Young indigenous students like Sayun and Yugan hoping to get into university and do something with their lives out in the wider world. Sayun plays the organ in church and Yugan is a hunter who hopes to get into college on the strength of his soccer skills. 2. Their parents’ generation tend to engage in low-pay high-risk labor, and one man actually dies in an accident at the beginning of the film (his death caught on camera by the casting director), leaving behind a wife and son to cope as best they can, relying on the support of others in the community. 3. Their grandparents’ generation has never been to the big city; rather than the wider world, their minds are on the old village. Yugan’s Grandpa, one of the original Sayun’s classmates, takes Yugan and the casting director on a final trek back up to the old village. On the way, he jokes around, saying that the original Sayun was his girlfriend so many years ago, but when he reaches the old village the only words he has are for his mother and father, for the ancestors.

Grandpa’s return to the old village is the closest thing Finding Sayun has to an Aristotelian plot with a clear beginning, middle and end, but instead of an aboriginal romance that is consummated in accordance with audience expectations, Finding Sayun gives us a web of unfinished, ongoing, interrelated stories of people in the community. For the most part, these stories are presented not through seamless, continuity editing but rather documentary style. The casting videos seem like part of a “making of” or “behind the scenes” documentary for the commercial aboriginal romance that never gets made, and the shaky footage of Grandpa’s final homecoming is filmed on a consumer video camera. Shot in standard professional quality video, the other scenes – going to church, going to school, swimming in the waterfall pool, hunting, having a drink at the bar, playing ball, chasing pigs – have some sort of ethnographic significance.

Laha Mebow’s film is an community-oriented anti-aboriginal romance film with a documentary aesthetic. That might make it sound a lot less watchable than Avatar, but in addition to being informative, Finding Sayun  is also appealing. It is poignant (without being sentimental) and very funny. It’s worth going out of one’s way to see. See it while you can!

Note: the Chinese name of Finding Sayun is “Light of a Different Moon,” which opens a page in Taiwan’s film and pop music history. In 1941 a Japanese language song called “Sayun’s Bell” was released (listen for the sound of the bell). This is the song grandpa sings on his last trek up to the old village. In the 1960s the song was remade as a Mandarin pop song called “Moonlight Nocturn.” This is what the title of the film is referring to. But Grandpa’s version is best, sung to the light of a different moon.

Note: I’ve gone and written two other posts on the film, one on the mainland Chinese presence in the film, the other on the definition of indigenous film.


Darryl Sterk is a Chinese-English literary translator and scholar of Chinese literature, specifically Sinophone literature from Taiwan. His scholarly interest is the comparative representation of aboriginal places and peoples in film and literature.

One thought on ““Finding Sayun” and aboriginal romance films

  1. Hi Darryl, glad to have you on board guest blogging here at SM! And thanks for your thoughtful review of this film. I think your focus on the depiction of aboriginal people in film and lit is really fascinating. Are you a filmmaker as well as a scholar of film and lit? Just wondering.

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