Taipei Exchanges [Di 36 Ge Gu Shi] is one of the latest Taiwanese entries in the "cinema that makes you go hungry" category (Rinco's Restaurant, Kamome Diner). A pretty terrific entry too, as it adds some extra spice and flavor to what is essentially just a very simple and subtle light-hearted drama. Just make sure you have something to nibble on while watching as the will to fight your appetite will be tested quite heavily along the way.
If you own a restaurant and you need a promotional video for your business, you're best bet is to hire an Asian director and let him go berserk on your food. They seem to posses a special quality to make food appear even more tasty, almost mythical on film. I admit that it's a rather specific quality that's not very beneficial to the whole of mankind, but if you're planning to make a film on diners and restaurants it sure comes in handy.
Taipei Exchanges is a modest story about the start-up of a small café. The café is Doris' childhood dream, her sister is forced into the deal by Doris' rather pushy mom. At first the establishment is nothing special, serving coffee and tasty desserts only. But when the two sisters try to get rid of some unwanted opening gifts, Doris' sister comes up with a strong gimmick that steers the film in a whole new direction.
The opening gifts are put up for trade all over the café. The objects are not for sale (and will not be sold under any circumstance) but can only be traded for other goods. At first Doris is a little weary of the idea, she wants people to come and enjoy her pastry and not for the swapping gimmicks, but shortly after business picks up and Doris' place is becomes the talk of the town.
Like most Taiwanese dramas, Taipei Exchanges has a solid visual foundation. The camera work is subtle and beautiful, the use of color is stylish and the editing soft and dreamy. From time to time Hsiao breaks through this traditional styling with some nifty little animations and a few documentary segments. These add a definite younger and fresher feel to the film, giving it a more unique and differentiating identity. Not a bad thing as many Taiwanese dramas tend to look quite alike.
The soundtrack too is a real asset to the film. Warm, soft and moody jazz-like tunes that slowly transport you to a fuzzy state of trance. It eases the mind and puts you in a comfortable little universe where life is good, the pastry tastes great and problems are never as serious as they would be in real life. The score has an essential part in defining the entire experience of the film, something that is as great as it is rare.
Acting too is solid. The two sisters are quite different in character and are not people you would usually expect to get along very well, but both actresses do pull it off with considerable grace. The supporting cast is rather small and insignificant, but they do a pretty decent job too. The focus remains on bother sisters though, who carry the film with deceptive ease.
At the surface Taipei Exchanges is a simple film about the happenings of a start-up establishment, but there is a little more to it. Along the way the film questions the life choices of both sisters, inserting short street interviews where actual people are presented the same dilemmas. It's an interesting technique that highlights the main themes of the film without muddling them away in secondary layers. Taipei Exchanges remains above all a light-hearted film and Hsiao doesn't jeopardizes that with too much highbrow abstractions or symbolism.
In the end the film reminded me a little of Café Lumiè, not because of the topic or because both directors are called Hsiao, but because both films feature that same dreamy, fuzzy, borderline sleepy atmosphere. Taipei Exchanges allows you to drift away for a short while, feeling at ease and contented, enjoying the delicate beauty of life without too much negativity in sight.
If you like Asian food cinema, Taipei Exchanges is a pretty wonderful addition to your list of must-see films. It's a small, delicate and subtle little film that feels fresher than its peers and excels in just about every way possible. One final note: I found that online people are using "Taipei Exchanges" as the official international title, but the 36 is clearly part of the title in poster as well as intro credits design. Definitely recommended, if you know what you're dealing with.