A Taiwanese-language film with a message to impart, and limited resources with which to impart it, the recently restored 70s movie Back to Anping Harbour is a heavy-handed and melodramatic affair, with its theatrical roots in clear view. But while the mood might be cloying and the story far-fetched, the film makes for an interesting look at some preoccupations of the time.
She’s an impoverished girl from Tainan. He’s a Dutch naval doctor, shore-bound while his damaged ship undergoes repairs. The good doctor Daley has made good use of his time on the island, endearing himself to the local community with his medical prowess and willingness to help. Add to that his romantic leisure time habits of landscape painting and playing the violin, and the deal is sealed as far as Hsui-Chin is concerned. Soon she’s visiting his lodgings on her own and before you can say ‘Dutch courage’, the woman is with child. The two plan to marry, but orders from the occupying Japanese mean Daley has to leave immediately. With promises of returning soon, the doctor leaves Hsui-Chin to raise their daughter alone.
The story then passes to the next generation. Said daughter is the sunny Kim, who is picked on by the local kids for her red hair and unknown provenance. The Dutch doctor has never returned, so it falls to her ailing mother and grandfather to raise her. Only one other person shows her kindness – a vaudeville entertainer who chances upon her one day and rescues her from her bullies.
This entertainer turns out to be important for a number of reasons. He’ll turn up again at another hour of need in Kim’s adult life and later prove crucial to the plot. Secondly, his antics – which involve a cunning disguise – are key to revealing the hypocrisy and prejudice of a rich Taipei family and therefore one of the film’s moral messages. When he later reveals his true identity he is given the chance to verbally dress down the arrogant father in a piece of cathartic misrule: the time-honoured tradition of the wise fool. Finally, in a story full of life-changing events, big emotional close-ups, improbable coincidences and melodrama, his comic turn provides much-needed relief and, ironically for a clown, a more natural and human performance.
That rich family enters the story through a young medical student who is visiting Tainan from Taipei. The contrast couldn’t be clearer as he saunters into the town with his pressed suit and shiny smile. But he takes a shine to Kim and asks for her hand in marriage. That’s when the prejudice begins – his family are not at all happy about the hard-up Southerner with the red hair and funny eyes. Will she eventually win them over? Will the young student complete his training abroad? Will he remain faithful? And what became of that Dutch doctor?
The Taiwan Film Institute warns that some of the sound and footage could not be recovered, so it’s not easy to know how much of the choppiness of the film is a result of the restoration process. Back to Anping Harbour was made at a time when the physical supply of celluloid was limited, so filmmakers often worked without a master shot. It also bears some of the stylistic features of the time, such as rapid zooms into a character’s horrified face. Another feature, in common with films such as Last Train to Taipei is the use of Taiwanese songs at moments of emotional impact. Interestingly, one of these is set to the tune of Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’. It’s clear that the film was made with a purpose in a political time, and even a couple of old-timer’s ‘casual’ conversation just happens to mention how much better things are now the Japanese have left.
Despite its clunkiness by modern standards, the film feels progressive in a number of ways: the two heroines – mother and daughter – are both celebrated for a certain independence of spirit. The former, though reprimanded by her father for bringing shame on the family, is not condemned by the film for having a child out of wedlock. There’s strong social commentary about the rich/poor divide. Finally, the story of the red-head with the funny eyes has at its heart a message of acceptance and racial harmony, so for that alone it’s worth making the trip to Anping Harbour.