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Be With Me grapples with big themes, including a modern Taiwanese woman’s search for meaning

Taiwanese film Be With Me
Faye (Ariel Lin) and Mr. Yu (Ethan Juan) engage in some blunt and colourful banter in Be With Me.

At the outset, Hwarng Wern-Ying’s film, Be With Me, appears to be about a modern Taiwanese woman juggling a busy career with looking after her sick father. But this epic feature evolves into so much more.

There’s the central character Faye’s spiritual search, highlighting the enduring hold of Taoism in Taiwan. Plus, imaginative dialogue reveals the changing nature of relationships with increasing gender equality. The director also gingerly dips her oar into shapeshifting seas of Taiwanese history, without coming in contact with a large monster lurking beneath the waves.

All things considered, Be With Me is truly an ambitious film. But it may befuddle some viewers and leave others astonished by its scope.

It opens with Faye (Ariel Lin), a harried film production designer, driving to the hospital to pick up her dad. She’s taken temporary leave from the film she’s working on, only to be called from the set one hour after departing. Meanwhile, her father insists on being discharged against the doctor’s orders. And her mom is fine with this because her brother prayed to the Taoist god Xuantian.

The film that Faye’s working on revolves around an earthquake in her hometown of Chiayi in 1941, which took hundreds of lives. It also destroyed her beloved grandfather’s home—and she’s meticulous about re-creating this world on-screen. The earthquake can be taken as a metaphor for what’s unfolding in Faye’s inner world.

Hwarng, also known as Huang Wen-Ying, set the film in various time periods. The 1940s era in her hometown of Chiayi is shot beautifully in black-and-white. The cinematography captures striking imagery of the city that was home to painter Chen Cheng-po. The director also highlights the hardship of the earthquake and American bombardment.

Watch the trailer for Be With Me.

Selective glimpse into Taiwanese history 

Meanwhile, scenes set in the mid-1980s reveal a different side of Taiwan. Men gathered in private clubs, sometimes accompanied by children or grandchildren but not with their wives. Then there is the pivotal year of 2015 in Faye’s life, when she meets a handsome yet crass real-estate tycoon, Mr. Yu (Ethan Juan) in Shanghai. She also comes briefly in contact with a suave and cerebral architect, Chunshan (Vic Chou).

These two men loom larger in Faye’s life in present times. The outcome is never certain.

Viewers with a deep understanding of Taiwan will notice things in Be With Me that might escape the attention of most westerners. At one point, Faye mentions that her ancestors came from Lukang, a city in northeastern Taiwan known for its many temples. In other scenes, her grandfather speaks fluent Japanese. That’s because he would have been forced to learn Japanese in school during the colonial period.

However, the historical references are selective. For instance, there’s no mention of martial law, which was imposed on Taiwan by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. It lasted for nearly four decades. Rather, the film implies that after the New Taiwan Dollar was introduced that year, everything was hunky-dory. It wasn’t.

If you can get over that, Be With Me still has a lot to offer, particularly in set design, cinematography, and Lin’s captivating performance as Faye. It doesn’t tell the whole tale of Taiwan, not by any means. But it still provides a thought-provoking glimpse into one woman’s search for answers in a country that has undergone a monumental transformation.

Event details

LNY Splash, LunarFest Vancouver, and VIFF will present Be With Me at the VIFF Centre at 5 p.m. on Sunday (February 18). The director will hold a virtual Q&A after the screening. For tickets and more information, visit the VIFF website.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.