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June 11, 2009

Splendid Float

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Yan guang si she ge wu tuan
Zero Chou - 2004
Panorama Entertainment All Region DVD

Seeing Zero Chou's last two feature films proved enough incentive for me to see her debut narrative film, Splendid Float. Like her other films, Splendid Float is a meditation on love and loss, and an eventual coming to terms with life. Like Chou's other films, it is also about being gay in Taiwan. While some aspects of the film are culturally specific, it is a film that should be seen not only because it establishes Chou's thematic concerns but also because those concerns go beyond any drama about sexual identity.

Roy, a young novice priest, works on behalf of his family's funeral business, conducting Taoist ceremonies for the dead. Unknown to his family, Roy becomes Rose at night, a performer with a traveling drag troupe that sing and dance from their mobile stage. Beyond the performers actually singing, within its tiny budget and restricted locale, Splendid Float has deeper concerns than guys in dresses and make-up lip synching to "Shake your Groove Thing".

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Roy is dealing with the death of his lover, Sunny. Sunny had been ambiguous about the extent of his feelings towards Roy. Roy has been asked by Sunny's mother to perform a ceremony for Sunny, unaware that the two were lovers. Roy's emotionalism during the ceremony causes concern both for Sunny's family as well as Roy's own, with those unaware of Roy as Rose questioning why he would act as a bereaved widow. The circumstances of Sunny's death are unclear, possibly accident or suicide. What is known, at least to Roy, is that the two made love, with Sunny leaving a letter of apology and a yellow rose.

While Splendid Float deals with Taoism as practiced in Taiwan, some general aspects to that philosophy can be appreciated. Most obviously is Roy's dual identity as seen by others, both designated by the wearing of clothing and the act of performance. The splendid float of the title refers to the brightly lit stage used by the drag performers, and by extension, where their audience sits or dances, introduced in the beginning of the show as a means to transport the audience to paradise. The mobile stage, the yellow rose, and Sunny's death could all be seen as illustrations regarding the transience of life. When Roy attempts to seek answers to Sunny's death, he tosses two I-Ching coins. Chou does not explain the cause for Sunny's death, although there may be a clue when Roy and Sunny first get together. When asking if Sunny thinks Roy and his friends strange, Sunny response that he thinks they are liberated. Indirectly through Sunny and more directly with Roy, Chou examines the dichotomy of society's expectations against personal identity.

This concern with duality can also been seen in Sunny's formal funeral. Three women, in very colorful dress, perform a dance as part of the ceremony. The scene might be read as a parody of sorts of the performance done by Roy and his friends. Duality is also at the core of the songs performed by the drag troupe so that the lyrics provide a form of commentary on the lives of the characters. Like Taoism, which might be generalized as being about finding unity within duality or two opposing aspects, Roy's journey is about finding a sense of unity within himself.

Splendid Float served to announce Zero Chou as a major talent, winning several Golden Horse awards including Best Taiwanese Film for 2004, with James Chen getting nominated for Best Newcomer for his performance as Roy. Certainly those expecting a Chinese language version of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert or To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, Chou's film might be a challenge with its elliptical story telling, shifting between past and present, comedy and drama, musical and ghost story. For a deeper examination of Splendid Float, there is this essay available from Film International.

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Splendid Float is available from HK Flix.

Posted by peter at June 11, 2009 12:15 AM