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Who’ll Stop the Rain Film Review

People wear yellow raincoats and shout in the rain during a protest in the film Who'll Stop the Rain

Following a student strike in mid-1990s Taiwan, Who’ll Stop the Rain has a gently-told love story but ends up losing steam.

It’s 1994, and Taiwan is entering a new era after martial law was lifted seven years before. But as the opening text to Who’ll Stop the Rain explains, the remnants of the previous authoritarian regime clash with a new liberal moment. “It was not only a resistance to the establishment,” it says, “but everyone’s own revolution.” At the Chinese Culture University in Taipei, Chi-wei (Lily Lee) is a first-year art student venturing into a new world. She is a little naïve (she doesn’t know what a pager is), but she also has undeniable talent. “Your painting follows no rules,” says Fine Arts Department chair Chien (Lee Ming-Che) – except that is somehow a negative, with Chi-wei subsequently receiving bad grades.

It turns out that the university emphasises classism, punishes independent thought and neglects Taiwanese art in favour of an exclusively Western canon of Cezanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin. Then, an opportunity to change things arises. Chi-wei literally bumps into the enigmatic Ching (Yeh Hsiao-Fei), who is part of a student group calling for Chien to resign. Intrigued, Chi-wei joins the group as a student strike is called. Ching’s boyfriend Kuang (Roy Chang) is the leader of this movement. But as the group try to figure out a plan for victory, Chi-Wei and Ching form a close bond. Will their romantic feelings get in the way of the group’s goals?

Based on the student protests during this time (there is a reference to the Wild Lily movement of 1990), Who’ll Stop the Rain is the debut feature from Su I-Hsuan. The writer-editor-director has managed to latch onto an appealing sociopolitical context for her drama, which is about finding collectivism and love amidst a fight against the system. It is quite similar to the Bollywood hit 3 Idiots, with both films having themes relating to academic pressures and students bristling against elders who only care for subordination. In Who’ll Stop the Rain though, the youthful hope and rebellion are met with an added dose of helplessness.

Early on, Chi-Wei confides to Ching her fears this movement will be too insignificant and fail in its aims, her metaphor of choice being a mouse running in its wheel. Soon, support starts to wither because of the threat of expulsion from the university and conflicts within the group. In particular, Ching and Kuang disagree over whether legislators should be involved. Given her strained relationship with her father, a prominent government official, you get the sense that aspect is personal to Ching. All the while, she and Chi-wei are in an inner conflict over their feelings for each other.

Students hold hands in the film Who'll Stop the Rain
Who’ll Stop the Rain (Hope Content Marketing Co. Ltd / BFI Flare)

Lily Lee gives a confident performance here as a young woman trying to forge her own path. As uninterested in conforming with her artworks as she is in men, Chi-wei is standoffish, determined and knows what she wants. Meanwhile, Yeh Hsiao-Fei’s Ching is effortlessly cool whilst still managing to be vulnerable and – at times – unknowable. The look of the film is undisputedly ‘90s-coded, with pagers and denim aplenty. And spaces like the main characters’ flats feel lived-in, helped by DP Chen Chi-Wen shooting in 4:3 and effective colouring courtesy of Hung Wen-Kai.

The big problem with Who’ll Stop the Rain is that it loses steam, stalling out halfway through. The reserved parts and quiet emotions of Chi-Wei and Ching start to dominate the tone of Su I-Hsuan’s script but, as a result, it is almost as if the drive that propelled the film disappears. The group’s decisions and choices regarding their strike become repetitive. A love triangle is added to the equation but is handled oddly. And the final act – where an office occupation leads to personal and professional tensions coming to a head – leads to a resolution that feels a little unearned.

It is frustrating because the film has a lot of potential. The performances by Lee and Yeh are great, the historical setting is initially interesting, and you do care about the lesbian relationship at its centre, the story of which is gently told and sweet in places. Yet it ends up not being expanded upon enough, neglected for a strike action plotline that Su I-Hsuan doesn’t quite know how to resolve. In the end, Who’ll Stop the Rain is about sexual and creative awakenings, about the fight for freedom of expression and against a conservative Taiwan artistically and socially (as early exchanges reveal, the expectation that Chi-wei will marry a man is forced onto her). If the film had kept its momentum going, those themes would have worked wonderfully. 

Who’ll Stop the Rain was screened at BFI Flare on March 16-23, 2024. Read our BF Flare reviews and our list of 10 films to watch at BFI Flare!

Who’ll Stop the Rain Trailer (Hope Content Marketing Co. Ltd / BFI Flare)
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