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It Came from the Sinosphere: Night Market Hero

Image from the opening of Night Market Hero

This movie was Taiwan’s biggest box-office success in 2011. The top-rated review of this movie at the IMDb starts like this:

As a Taiwanese in a foreign country, this movie reminds me of my home town more than I think. With all the joys and tears, this movie is just so TAIWAN! Not exaggerated, this movie brings the way we live, we feel, we care, and we earn for life.

As a foreigner in Taiwan, I agree that this movie is “just so TAIWAN!”

The Story

Well, there’s a night market, the 888 Night Market, full of a cast of colorful characters. Ah Hua, a young man, helps manage the night market, and when he’s not dealing with the night market he takes care of his grandmother.

A screen shot of Ah Hua

A screen shot of Ah Hua

He also gets into a bit of a tense (flirty?) relationship with a young journalist, Yi-nan.

A screen shot of Yi-nan

A screen shot of Yi-nan

But then a corrupt local politician sells the night market’s land to developers (note: this kind of thing happens all the time in Taiwan). Can Ah Hua and Yi-nan SAVE THE 888 NIGHT MARKET????!!!!

Oh, and to make things juicier, the corrupt local politician is Ah Hua’s uncle.

Night Markets

When you ask a Taiwanese person “What is Taiwanese culture?” or “What makes Taiwan special?” there is a very high probability that they will mention night markets within the first few minutes. Almost all tourists visiting Taiwan are advised to visit night markets, for that matter, when I tell Taiwanese people “I visited [place in Taiwan]”, I’m often asked “Did you go to the [place in Taiwan] night market?”

A screen shot showing the night market in action

I have a confession to make.

I don’t actually like night markets.

Okay, at first there was the novelty value. That gradually wore off. What I eventually found is that, even though the food seems cheap, that’s only because it’s sold in small portions, and if you want a full meal, it’s cheaper to go to a humble restaurant than to try to fill your stomach a night market, and IMHO, the restaurant food will probably taste better. Night markets are also often crowded, and … yeah, I’m not a night market person.

It's still common to see traditional performances at night markets, temples, and other public spaces in Taiwan.

It’s still common to see traditional performances at night markets, temples, and other public spaces in Taiwan.

However, I definitely prefer the night markets in the mid-size to small cities than the night markets in big cities like Taipei and Kaohsiung. When I go to big city night markets, I get the sense that most of the sellers are trying to get their buck quickly and efficiently, and they don’t have much energy left over for human bonding. I think the smaller city night markets are just as commercial, but at least the atmosphere generally feels more laid-back. If I do go to a night market, I prefer going to a night market like the Taoyuan City Night Market. It’s small, it’s usually not too crowded, there aren’t many tourists so many of the people there actually know each other, and it just feels friendlier.

The night market in this movie is definitely a small-city / town night market. You won’t find a night market like this in the big city, or at least I haven’t.

Countryside vs. Metropolis

Many contemporary Taiwanese stories revolve around a clash between small towns and rural areas, and the cosmopolitan big city. This can be seen in Fated to Love You and even in Autumn’s Concerto. Usually somebody from the countryside encounters somebody from the big city, and they have some kind of relationship. The country person often speaks Taiwanese, needs to take care of elders, has economic trouble, etc. The city person generally speaks Mandarin, and often speaks English or another foreign language too, is better dressed, is wealthier, and might not even live in Taiwan. In this movie, the country person is Ah Hua, and the city person is Yi-nan. While country-boy-has-romance-with-city-girl seems to be the most common setup, there are other setups – in Seven Days of Heaven the city girl and country boy are siblings, and in Formula 17, both the country boy and the city boy are gay.

Ah Hua and his grandmother

Ah Hua and his grandmother

The fact that this story is so common and popular demonstrates that it really resonates with a Taiwanese audience. On the one hand, Taiwanese people want to learn English/Japanese/German/Korean/whatever, want to live abroad, or at least travel extensively, and want to adapt a modern, international lifestyle. On the other hand, there is a great deal of fear that they are about to lose their own culture and identity.

I think their fears are well-founded. If you ever come to Taiwan, I dare you to find somebody under 30 who is fluent in the Hakka language. I have met young Hakka speakers in Hsinchu county (where the government supports Hakka language education and, in some towns, over 90% of the population is Hakka) but even in the hills of Taoyuan county – which also has a large Hakka population – I have yet to find a single young Hakka speaker. And I’ve spent a lot more time in Taoyuan county than Hsinchu county.

Ideally, Taiwanese would be able to preserve their own traditions and embrace whatever aspects of international culture they please. However, life is not so simple. Both understanding foreign cultures and keeping one’s own heritage alive requires a great deal of time and effort (you can ask Melinda what it takes to maintain Manga Bookshelf). Therefore, Taiwanese people do have to choose what they are willing to invest their time and energy in, and that’s why there’s a debate.

Stereotypes and Zhong Xin Ling

Like the United States, Taiwan is a fat-phobic society. However, a much smaller portion of the population of Taiwan is fat, so it’s much easier to forget that there are fat people.

Zhong Xin Ling in Night Market Hero

In spite of this, Zhong Xin Ling, who is fat, has forged a career as an actress, TV host, and media personality (she performs in both Fated to Love You and My Queen). She has done a lot to make fat people visible in Taiwanese media, and to demonstrate that fat people are, you know, people. For that, she has earned my respect.

However, when a producer wants to cast someone to play the stereotypical “fat girl,” they call her. This is not Zhong Xin Ling’s fault, it’s the producers and scriptwriters’ fault that they perpetuate the stereotypes.

Zhong Xin Ling’s brief appearance in Night Market Hero, alas, is as a stereotypical “fat girl.”

Chu Ke-liang

A screen shot of Chu Ke-liang from the movie.

Chu Ke-liang is Taiwan’s most well-known living comedian and TV personality, and is by far the most famous person in the entire cast. However, even though he is famous for his humor, and this film is a comedy, his part as the corrupt politician is played completely straight.

Budaixi Puppets!

Ah Hua’s grandmother has a set of budaixi puppets – not the jinguang kind, but the old, traditional kind.

Ah Hua shows Yi-nan a budaixi puppet

Once upon a time, there was no television in Taiwan, and most of the population was illiterate. Back in those days, glove puppet shows, known in Mandarin as budaixi were the most popular form of public entertainment. In fact, they stayed in the mainstream of Taiwanese entertainment until a generation ago, and even now they have a core group of die-hard fans. Even 7-Eleven sometimes uses budaixi in its ads.

When I ask why budaixi are not as wildly popular as they were, say, 30 years ago, I always get the same answer: there is too much competition from Hollywood, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and most recently, Seoul. People who in an earlier generation would have been puppet geeks are today anime geeks (or Hollywood geeks, or K-pop geeks … you get the idea).

Based on my observation of young Taiwanese men (which, to be fair, is entirely anecdotal), they are most likely to embrace manga and anime as their primary form of mass entertainment, with Hollywood movies coming in second place. Though I know there is a set of young puppet fans, I haven’t met them, and most of them are into jinguang budaxi, not the traditional budaixi. To see Ah Hua messing with traditional budaxi puppets instead of, say, One Piece merchandise, simply screams of Taiwanese pride. In fact, it is so unusual that stretches my suspension of disbelief, and makes me feel that the movie might be laying on the Taiwanese pride a bit too thick. On the other hand, it is sending the “this is authentic Taiwanese culture” meme pretty pretty clearly (at least to an audience that is familiar with ‘authentic’ Taiwanese culture).

Location Spotting

A screen shot showing Mount Guanyin

In some of the flashback scenes, they show Danshui, with Mount Guanyin—possibly the most recognizable of all Taiwanese scenery—in the background. Danshui, of course, is one of the most touristy places in Taiwan, and is referenced in Autumn’s Concerto, Pinoy Sunday, and in my post about Creative Comics Collection, while Mount Guanyin is also shown multiple times in It Started with a Kiss (adapted from Itazura na Kiss).

Some comments on the language

This movie is in a mix of Taiwanese and Mandarin, with a little Hakka too. I suspect they deliberately added the Hakka to show that this is a movie about Taiwan, and not just the Hoklo people (about 70% of the population of Taiwan identifies as Hoklo, while about 10-15% identify as Hakka).

In Taiwanese media, it is common practice, when people are speaking Taiwanese, to have subtitles in Mandarin. However, in this movie, I noticed that the subtitles (at least on the DVD released in Taiwan) for the dialogue in Taiwanese were not pure Mandarin, but rather a mix of Mandarin and Taiwanese, so they assumed that anybody who would use the Chinese subtitles could understand at least some Taiwanese. I notice that they did not do this with the dialogue in Hakka – those subtitles were in pure Mandarin (as were the subtitles for the Mandarin-language dialogue).

Speaking of subtitles…

Availability in English

This movie is available on DVD with English subtitles.


The eight generals, a staple of Taiwanese festivals, arrive on motorcycles

When seeing these guys in the street doesn’t seem remarkable, you know you’ve been living in Taiwan for a while.

I don’t think it’s possible to sum up Taiwanese culture in two hours. However, I think this movie can serve as a decent introduction to Taiwanese culture. It IS a movie – life in Taiwan is more mundane and less idealized that what is seen in Night Market Hero. At the same time, it does manage to convey a sense of what Taiwan is like, and I’m tempted to tell my friends and family to watch this movie so they have a better understanding of the environment I live in.

Next Time: The Laughing Proud Wanderer (manhua)

Sara K. is shocked, saddened, and angered by what happened to Aaron Swartz (if you don’t know what happened, read this and (trigger warning) this). If you feel the same way as Sara K., please sign this petition if you can. Aaron Swartz was one of the key organizers of the anti-SOPA/PIPA campaign in which Manga Bookshelf participated (he speaks about in this video). We should all honor, remember, and most importantly, continue the good work he has done.

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  1. […] In the 1990s, the Taiwanese movie industry collapsed, and prior to 2007, local movies were for art-film types, and everybody else ignored them. This situation changed when Cape No. 7, a local film, became the second-highest grossing film in the history of the Taiwanese box office (first place: Titanic). Since 2007, ordinary Taiwanese people have started watching new local films in significant numbers, and other local box office hits have followed, including Night Market Hero. […]

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