Although a lusciously shot melodrama, Where the Seagull Flies unfortunately plays out its story of love and loss by the book.
Another offering from the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh (showing September 18th until the 27th), Where the Seagull Flies boasts an intriguing premise executed in a disappointingly lackluster manner. The beginning evokes a sense of mystery, as Muhai (Alan Tang), a journalist, notices a young woman (Chen Chen) is about to jump from the boat they’re both in. He saves her, later dining with her before she mysteriously disappears. He later runs into someone who seems to be her doppleganger: a singer in Singapore. A romance blossoms between Muhai and the peculiar singer before she, too, vanishes. Muhai returns to Taipei, heart-broken, frustrated, when he sees the same woman for a third time, but now she’s his sister’s friend. This enticingly strange setup begs the question: what is happening?
Unfortunately, the answer to that question is more banal than one might hope. Without spoiling too much, the film takes a turn and becomes more of a conventional melodrama. Lovers emotionally abuse each other –a tired signifier of true love– and the drama unfolds along familiar lines. The plot is centered around too-frequent miscommunications between the characters, resulting in an often aggravating experience. Other staples of melodrama appear in the film, including an abusive husband, greed, reductive attitudes toward women, and overwrought piano music. The score comes in at times of intense drama, with a thudding slam of piano keys, loudly signaling the viewer to pay attention, because spectacle is occuring.
Additionally, the film’s politics surrounding women are underwhelming. This is not completely surprising from a melodrama from 1974, but it still is worth pointing out. The lead woman, named Yuchang, is known for having a fiery personality. Throughout the course of Where the Seagull Flies, she is taught that “a woman should be feminine and tender.” By the end of the film, she has become traditionally feminine. It is a disheartening depiction of a young woman being morphed by the system she lives in, but the movie seems to treat this as what should happen to her. Some might argue that this is Yuchang growing up, but it reads as if her personality is being controlled by the status quo.
While the film falters in its storytelling, it does feature some luscious visuals and a committed performance from Chen Chen. She towers over everyone else, capturing not only Yuchang’s emotionally-charged ferocity, but also her sensitivity and heartfelt longing. Alas, these two quality aspects of Where the Seagull Flies aren’t enough to elevate a screenplay that relies more on cliche than genuine human emotions, most notably the idea that if two people hate each other, it means they’re actually in love. Plot points such as this feel played out, and, once the credits roll on Where the Seagull Flies, one is left feeling cold, a side effect of a melodrama without much heart.
Where the Seagull Flies was screened from 18th-27th September as part of the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.