Salute! Sun Yat-Sen is the long awaited new film from Taiwanese director Yee Chih-Yen which arrives a massive thirteen years after the award-winning Blue Gate Crossing. Like Blue Gate Crossing, Salute! Sun Yat-Sen centres around the everyday life of teenagers with a subtle level of social commentary, though this time it swaps sexuality for social inequality and complicated male friendships.
Lefty is a typical high school boy, at once giddy and lackadaisical. His major problem in life is that he’s behind on his school fees and despite his attempts to dodge the issue, it’s become an embarrassment for him around the school. Lefty lives with his grandmother who’s on a low income and he simply does not have the money to pay. That’s when he catches sight of an abandoned metal statue in a school storeroom and hatches on a plan to steal it and sell it for scrap. However, just when it looks like the plan is complete, Lefty and his friends discover another group of boys has hatched on the same idea! It’s then up to Lefty and company to figure out a way of getting to the statue before the other gang.
Salute! Sun Yat-Sen mixes comedy caper tropes with high school drama as the boys try to beat each other to this overly symbolic statue that they intend to sell for scrap. The plan is, of course, a little bit ridiculous - first of all the business of sneaking an extremely heavy and cumbersome metal statue out of the school with no one noticing and then simply taking it to a scrap metal merchant and selling it, all without anyone asking how exactly they came by this distinctive statue, is quite a childishly naive plan but one which makes for quite a lot of comedy. One of the best moments is when the boys try to buy masks to hide their faces from the security cameras and having to go for the cheapest one, which happens to be a horrible anime style face which is so cheaply priced because it’s made from an awful plastic which gives you a rash and makes your face itch if you wear it too long.
Sun Yat-Sen is obviously a hugely important, inspirational and well known historical figure, particularly in Taiwan but also across mainland China. However, it has to be said that he is not such a well-known figure in the UK and, especially as his name is not even mentioned until a news report close to the end, UK viewers may find that the symbolism his name carries is largely lost on them, as is the film’s subtle social commentary. Briefly put, Sun Yat-Sen was the “father of the Chinese Republic” who sought to steer China towards a democratic and more egalitarian society after the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the Chinese revolution in 1911. Sadly, his utopian vision for the new China was not to be, but his idealism and humanitarian thinking are still widely praised in Chinese culture. He also still appears on Taiwanese bank notes and so may be primarily linked with money in the minds of these young boys, but there is a central irony that it’s a statue of the left leaning Sun Yat-Sen that these cash-strapped young men have chosen to steal and melt down to get the money they so desperately need to get by.
However, even without grasping all of the complex political allusions to Taiwanese cultural issues both historical and contemporary, Salute! Sun Yat-Sen still succeeds as a warm and amusing coming of age tale in which a group of teenage boys on the cusp of adulthood come to realise a few things about themselves and the culture they live in. Though the central two boys are in someways very different, in other ways they have a lot in common and it’s a fun ride seeing how their conflicting personalities rub up against each other until a tentative friendship eventually develops. The second boy (who repeatedly avoids telling Lefty his name throughout the film) is, in many ways, in a far worse position than Lefty which has made him bitter and devoid of hope for the future, but thanks to Lefty’s optimism he begins to think that perhaps it’s not all as gloomy as he once thought.
Like Blue Gate Crossing, Salute! Sun Yat-Sen is a quiet sort of film where plot takes second place to character (although all the heist shenanigans are undeniably entertaining - especially one horror movie inspired episode). The film feels authentically youthful, manages to imbue its young cast with an unusual degree of realism, and it’s very hard not to be charmed by Lefty’s giant smile and happy-go-lucky attitude. Simply put, Salute! Sun Yat-Sen is unlikely to spark a revolution but its quietly encouraging messages are certainly a good start.
Salute! Sun Yat-Sen screened as the closing night gala of the Chinese Visual Festival on 22nd May 2015, and will be released on DVD and VOD by Facet Film Distribution from 27th July 2015.