Love Boat: Taiwan
“Lose yourself in this nostalgic summer retrospective, and maybe learn a thing or two about the modern history of Taiwan.”
Title: Love Boat: Taiwan (2019)
Director: Valerie Soe 👩🏻🇺🇸
Writer: Valerie Soe 👩🏻🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
In describing her reason for making the documentary Love Boat: Taiwan, director Valerie Soe told audience members at the Asian American International Film Festival (AAIFF) that she simply couldn’t get the idea out of her head. A summer abroad participating in Taiwan’s youth study program, class of 1982, had left its mark.
Akin to Birthright Israel or other government initiatives around the world that aim to reinvigorate ethnic identity among diaspora, Taiwan’s colloquially dubbed “Love Boat” program was launched in 1967 by China’s Nationalist Party (known today as the Kuomingtang, or KMT). Even today, with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) currently in power and eyes on the upcoming presidential election that will take place in January 2020, the KMT-devised cultural program is still ongoing—albeit in a much reduced capacity from its heyday of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Soe does touch on the political agenda of Taiwan’s Love Boat program, but prefers to shine a nostalgic and jovial light on the teenagers and young twenty-somethings who have made up its attendees over the decades. Interview clips feature entertaining personalities like comedian Kristina Wong who reads cringingly relatable excerpts from her diary aloud, or an eccentric fop who leaves his program utterly transformed, as evidenced by the bright red Chinese fan that never leaves his hand even after he’s returned to Belgium. Soe herself pops up in front of the camera, and the end result feels like a warm reunion of Love Boat alumni eager to reflect on their unique, shared experience.
Above all, Soe keeps it fun. A voyeuristic look into a youth program flush with parties, booze, moments of self realization, and lasting friendships, Love Boat: Taiwan would feel right at home in a John Hughes movie—only, with a Chinese diasporic bent of course.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Buoyed by Soe’s presence behind the script and camera, Love Boat: Taiwan proudly boasts feminist chops from a production standpoint. Onscreen, however, gender dynamics feel more suited to the eras depicted, between the ‘80s to mid-aughts. Women and men fit pretty neatly into their respective boxes, with party girls relishing memories of chasing boys and boys—shirtless as they learn martial arts on the front lawn of their dorms.
Some of the program’s younger participants reflect newer sensibilities, including a young man who comes into his own sexuality during his experience, or a woman who derides the program for being heteronormative. All in all, however, the documentary pursues straight romance as one of its primary curiosities—something that shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering the cultural program’s time period and moniker of “Love Boat.” But with it, stories of female friendship or women’s issues take a backseat.
As a Taiwanese American myself (who laments never having heard of Love Boat growing up), I was instantly drawn into this familiar world. Like many of the interviewees, it took me several years to learn, understand, and appreciate my cultural heritage, and I’ve since adopted the rose-tinted glasses that I suspect immigrants and diaspora all over the world can recognize, no matter the exact coordinates of our sources of longing. Regardless, Love Boat: Taiwan feels accessible to all. Viewers are given a good sense of the history that has led to the exile of the Nationalist Party from China to Taiwan, and Soe diplomatically explains why party members felt it necessary to establish a cultural program that would exert soft power across the world, even as their own military might had definitively lost to the Communist Party.
Historical overviews are only discussed to provide structure, however, as Love Boat: Taiwan focuses more on issues of identity. Key confessions by interview subjects land affectingly, such as the alien feeling of being in the majority for the first time and the ensuing freedom that comes with such visual assimilation. Just as impactful are testimonies from the Taiwanese counselors, one of whom admits to crying for her peers as the government charter bus they rode stopped traffic, just to shuttle a bunch of foreign brats through as if parting for royalty.
To see these internal struggles and triumphs discussed plainly onscreen sheds light on the immigrant experience. Above all, Soe plugs her unique experience into a broader, universal truism—that no matter where you’re from or where you live, college-aged kids are going to be hormonal, self-absorbed, and incredibly exasperating at times. If that isn’t a uniting touchpoint, then what is?
Mediaversity Grade: B+ 4.42/5
Lose yourself in this nostalgic summer retrospective, and maybe learn a thing or two about the modern history of Taiwan.
Love Boat: Taiwan is still making the film festival rounds and heads back to Taipei on 9/20 and 9/29, both screenings at Fuzhong 15. Stateside, you can check it out in San Jose, CA at Silicon Valley Asian Pacific Film Festival (SVAP) on 11/1. Keep up with the project on Facebook!
Credit: Han Cheung