Single Take: Patrick Wang on “A Borrowed Life”

The director of A Bread Factory describes watching what would become his favorite film, Wu Nien-jen’s A Borrowed Life, at the Musuem of the Moving Image in Queens, and the conversation it inspired with fellow filmgoers on the subway ride home.

The room was almost empty. Gone were the opening crowds for The Puppetmaster, the curiosity seekers at Cute Girl. Over the past weeks, I had seen many friends here at the Museum of the Moving Image for the Hou Hsiao-hsien retrospective. I didn’t see any of them here tonight. There was one familiar face, a Japanese filmmaker I had met at another screening. I say hello and then claim my row, settling in with the comfort of boarding an empty aircraft after weeks of fully booked flights.

This was a sidebar screening of Wu Nien-jen’s A Borrowed Life. I knew nothing of the movie, and my only expectation was to add a little something to my understanding of Taiwanese movies. The lights went down, and I began to watch — for the first time — my favorite film.

The setting is a small country town in Taiwan, and as a father leaves the house, his young son follows behind him. The father tells his son to go home; the mother tells him to follow the father. Following the father wins out, and the pair end up in a small movie theater. Refreshingly, this is a scene in a movie that takes place in a movie theater where the movie hardly matters. How could it when it is so flat compared to the life in the room.

You hear what sounds like a narrator’s voice but soon realize that this is the projectionist shouting. It’s a foreign film, so he is translating the dialogue and acting out the voices of the different characters. But he also narrates the physical action as if the audience is blind, and he narrates how to feel about what is happening as if the audience is dumb. He interrupts his own commentary to ask a child in the audience to be quiet, to announce a phone call for a patron, and to let the crowd know that a second batch of popsicles has arrived and get them fast.

That phone call it turns out was for the father, and he tells his son that he must go to see an uncle in hospital. He tells his son to stay and watch the movie, and he will be back. He doesn’t come back. Instead the son remains alone in the movie theater long past the end of the film. Eventually a mysterious young woman comes to fetch him and bring him to his father.

Memories of this scene in a country movie theater return at the close of the film and form a metaphor in triplicate: as literary, visual, and living poetry. Watching this movie, my education went beyond that of Taiwanese movies, though it gave me a very specific tool for explaining to others what it means to be Taiwanese. The use of the Taiwanese language. The objects, settings and behaviors that belong to my parents, my grandparents, my aunties and uncles — they are all here. Like the best short stories, the specific contours of frustration and love are local but their essence universal. The grandfather refuses to put on his oxygen tube for fear of appearing like a monster to his grandson. Later the grandson approaches the gasping grandfather, holding out the oxygen tube and imploring the grandfather to use it, using words he knows his grandfather cannot understand, for they are separated by a language barrier. This might as well be O’Henry.

The credits ended, and I’m not sure how long it was until we started to move. The Japanese filmmaker turned around to me and said, “That was really good.” It was almost a question, and I shared his disbelief at what we had just seen. Riding the subway home that evening, I found myself talking with a woman who had also been at the screening. There were so few of us in that room, we knew each other. And we needed to talk. We commonly suspend disbelief at the movies, but what an uncommon joy when we can share disbelief at what is possible in movies.


Patrick Wang is the writer-director of A Bread Factory, which is available on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as In The Family and The Grief of Others.

Single Takes are short reflections on memorable viewing experiences. Read more entries.