Deep Focus

The Price of Existing

Three Vignettes of Cold War-era Taiwan in ‘The Sandwich Man’

This essay contains spoilers for The Sandwich Man.

The Sandwich Man, an omnibus of three shorts, is unequivocally more significant for its role in kickstarting Taiwanese New Wave and as a turning point in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s career, than for its actual content. All three tales, The Sandwich Man by Hou Hsiao-hsien, Vicki’s Hat by Jen Wan, and The Taste of Apple by Zhuang Xiang Zeng, deal with a 1960s Cold War-era Taiwan, and how the poor suffer under circumstances of foreign mingling and rapid industrialization. The analysis of how capitalism affects Taiwanese citizens, especially the common person, will become a focal point in both Hou’s career, as well as for Taiwanese New Wave.

As for the stories presented here, they’re all contained pieces eager to draw analogies between the pain of characters showcased with larger systemic issue–to varying degrees of success. Hou’s piece, from which the omnibus’ name derives its name form, may be the strongest of the trio, following Kun-shu, a young man who works as a sandwich board advertiser, trying to support his wife and son.

The role is demeaning, he must don a clown outfit in order to grab attention, lingering around train stations to get the attention of schoolchildren. Kun-shu is bombarded by humiliating happenings–having his uncle express his embarassment to his face or having his clothes stolen by kids while he was in the outhouse. These scenes–played with a harsh, but patient lens–contrast tense moments at home. His wife, A-chu, is burdened with taking care of the children, cooking for the family, and all the housekeeping. This dynamic breeds a hostile environment, where emotional connections feel far and few between.

Kun-shu is rarely home, to the point where his kid only recognizes him when he dons his clown persona. Initially, this is a source of angst for Kun-shu, his child, for which he labors to help support, doesn’t comprehend his existence. Eventually, fortunes start to turn, and Kun-shu is promoted to a biking job that doesn’t require him to hide behind a mask. However, this also means his child now sees a stranger, and in the ending scene, Kun-shu, exacerbated by his child’s ceaseless crying, once more dons the clown makeup–with a renewed eagerness.

At a structural level, the daily struggles of Kun-shu’s family mirrored many families in the early 1960s, swept aside by the hustle and bustle of the cities by more “sophisticated” folks. A-chu is seen washing clothes downstream from another lady, in order to use her soapy water. Kun-shu and A-chu argue over getting an abortion because of the financial strain it’ll bring. Their routine, their lives are dominated by a looming threat. This refocuses The Sandwich Man, from a tale on a hard-working man moving up the ladder, to a person willing to give up anything for a gasp of air. Indeed, it’s clear Kun-shu’s given himself up to the marketplace. Not only reflected in a loveless relationship, or even the mask–a new identity–he must constantly wear, but the literal advertisement that adorns his front and back.

He’s become a commodity. Hou spends some time pointing out how this relationship knows no boundary. When he comes back to his work office, sweating and visibly tired, he’s frustrated to find the tea kettle empty. He goes home and tries to pour some tea from that kettle, only to find this one empty as well. There is no separation of work and life. It’s a simple mechanism, but it’s effective, especially as it pairs with the physical identity of his clown face and his normal face. Just as with the tea, the face he dons at work can not be separated from home. This recontextualizes the ending of the segment, less a victory, and more a bittersweet survival. He’s happy to recast himself as a person he loathed–and moved past–for the sake of his son, but his work is forever entangled with home. Worse still, the happiness of home, of family, is interlocked with work.

These aren’t groundbreaking ideas–how capitalist culture seeps into the living room, dominating mind and heart, and Hou isn’t necessarily framing them as new ideas, but rather as an anecdotal piece to draw compassion. With that in mind, it better connects the three stories presented in this omnibus, as their ambitions lie in digging up the empathetic, rather than the philosophical.

The second story, Vicki’s Hat, struggles the most, because it feels indecisive in its messaging, too convinced by its own symbolism, but remains aggressively emotional. Where Hou mostly allowed The Sandwich Man to play out the injustice that society throws at people, Jen Wan’s piece is heavy-handed in analogies, but muddled in execution. It charts the story of two pressure cooker salesmen, Wang Wu-hsiung and Lin Tsai-fa, struggling to convince people to buy their dangerous-looking product. To convince onlookers that the foreign kitchenware is safe, Lin sets up a demo, only for it to go wrong and impale himself in the process. It’s a bloody and gruesome affair, especially when coupled with the context that Lin’s wife was very pregnant.

Other than offering the direct correlation between labor and death (and the ominous on-the-nose pressure cooker), Vicki’s Hat also plays on expectations of normalcy and fate. While Lin was a loyal worker, convinced they sold a safe, solid product, the young and jaded Wang was always cynical. Instead of formulating plans to push more cookers, he meets a curious young girl, Vicki, who always wore a hat. The first usurping of expectation comes when the dedicated worker, Lin, with a bright future, dies. The second comes when Wang finally catches a moment to lift Vicki’s hat, revealing a bald spot. A young girl, representing innocence, hides pain and tragedy under her hat. Both cases work to counteract the capitalist fairy tale that hard work results in reward, and misfortune only befall the guilty.

Wan struggles to tie these two threads into one convincing narrative, and attempts to jump cut the climax is frustratingly sloppy. With that said, Wan, more so than Hou or Zhuang, forgoes their more naturalistic style for something riskier, something flashier. Even as the narrative languishes, the camera’s dynamism offers something refreshingly thriller-esque in a small village affair.

Zhuang Xiang Zeng’s The Taste of Apple seeks to examine these Cold War changes as it relates to international affairs in a more direct way. Vicki’s Hat made allusions to foreign powers influences (the cookers were Japanese products), but The Taste of Apple goes for a more intimate analogy. (Yes, even more so than a Japanese product impaling a Taiwanese person). In this case, an American ambassador driving in his fancy American car hits a poor Taiwanese biker. The ambassador scrambles to right his wrong, grabbing a translator and bringing the victim’s family to an American military hospital–ensuring all expenses will be paid for. The most striking scene comes here, when the family gets to try an apple for the first time, their faces contort–in confusion, in displeasure, in delight, it’s never certain. The flavor is so foreign, so different. It came at the culmination of many emotions, horror at the breadwinner’s injuries, which quickly shifted to fear for the family’s well-being, and then jubilation that they’ll be compensated–and then some.

The family’s dynamic and emotions are dictated by their financial situation. When the wife and mother of the family finds her husband crippled, her first fear was his inability to work. Because to her, at that moment, he becomes worthless. Their family is doomed. She becomes vehemently aggressive towards the American, that is until he brings out a wad of cash. Then, just as rapidly, she becomes instantly grateful. All is forgiven, as the American’s problem is solved with his expendable paper, and the family’s problem is solved with this monetary lifeline.

In a space where the dollar dictates lives, it takes precedence over even simple human connections. It becomes dangerously easy for the rich to cover their wrongs, while maintaining complete control over the poor. The less fortunate are left scrambling for scraps, burying decencies in the process. Zhuang makes this rift very clear, perhaps too much so, having the family gawk in fascination at every trinket in the hospital or having one of the family’s children be deaf.

It might’ve been tempting to rely on clear directives and obvious symbolism because the problems and complications from the Cold War is so obvious, yet so pervasive. The exploitative nature of capitalism is everywhere, yet it’s rarely targeted. While all three segments tackles these themes with varying degrees of subtlety–and success–their forthrightness in approaching the issues at hand, energized a budding film industry to continue digging into the fabric that formed and continues to form the delicate democracy of Taiwan.