Review: DIN TAO: LEADER OF THE PARADE
[Giving this review a bump, as the film hits Hong Kong cinemas today.]
Following on from the colossal success of Giddens Ko's coming-of-age drama, You Are The Apple Of My Eye, the latest smash hit from Taiwan is another youth-centric combination of humour, music and familial angst. Din Tao: Leader of the Parade is based on the true story of the Jyou-Tian Folk Drum And Arts Group, who found international acclaim through their modern interpretations of classic Taiwanese drumming performances. Filmed largely at the actual temple where the real drummers live and train, and featuring a number of the real troupe in supporting roles, Din Tao is, at its heart, a classic story of the younger generation rebelling against what they perceive to be out-dated tradition, and eventually learning the importance of compromise to the benefit of all parties involved. It certainly struck a chord back home, as the film proved an incredible success when it opened over the Lunar New Year break, taking more than NTD315 million (US$10.5 million) at the box office, from a reported budget of just NTD41 million.
The film centres on Tai (Alan Ko) who returns to the family home in Taichung, after many years spent in Taipei struggling to become a rock star. There is bad blood between Tai and his stern father, Da (Chen Po Cheng), the no-nonsense drumming teacher at a remote temple. Tai's parents have shown great charity towards the local community, taking in youngsters whose families can't look after them, and training them up to be talented musicians and responsible young adults. Tai, however, has never felt this kind of love from Da, and now refuses to acknowledge him as his father. He has only returned home to see his mother (Samantha Ko), and earn enough money to move to the USA.
The members of the Jyou-tian troupe are quick to call Tai out on his behaviour towards their "Uncle Da", while it appears their sole female member, Min-min (Crystal Lin), takes something of a shine to him. However, there is a feud brewing between the troupe and their bitter rivals, led by Da's former classmate Wu-cheng and his arrogant son, Hsien (Alien Huang). Tensions quickly come to a head and Tai's arrogance leads to a challenge between the two drumming troupes: in six months' time they will have a contest and if Jyou-tian - under Tai's leadership - loses, then they will leave the city for good.
Predictably, Tai's challenge is accepted, but only serves to cause more friction between him and all the other temple residents, especially his father. Since Tai's return he has already picked up the nickname "Three Minutes" because of his willingness to give up so quickly, but this time his stubbornness to prove his father wrong may just win out - especially when the local media begins to take an interest in the troupe's round-the-island training march. However, aggressive and not-unattractive reporter, Bi (Esther Liu) also develops an interest in Tai that goes beyond his drumming skills, which only serves to complicate the already delicate situation.
Din Tao marks the feature film debut of veteran TV director Feng Kai, who has a number of successful Taiwanese-language drama series under his belt. The film also predominantly features the island's native dialect over Mandarin, and the casting favours local talent and competent musicians over popular idols and familiar faces. Feng's script takes only the framework of the real events, and is populated almost entirely by fictional characters - although many of the supporting roles in the drumming teams are played by real-life members.
Feng keeps things light for the most part and there are plenty of laughs throughout the film, but the big sell here is the music and there are plenty of opportunities throughout the film to enjoy the drumming talents of the cast. In fact, my biggest compliant with the film is that it spends too much time on lengthy performances and training montages when it might have been nice to have explored the dramatic possibilities of the narrative more extensively. For a film that is just over two hours long, almost half the running time consists of drumming sequences, at the expense of a number of promising dramatic possibilities.
The introduction of Bi as a potential love rival to Min-min is disappointingly underdeveloped, as is the rivalry of the gang members from the opposing troupes. Short of Hsien popping up occasionally to shout and dance around in order to taunt Tai, precious little is made of an on-going feud that is supposedly so fierce that Taichung can no longer contain both troupes. Elsewhere, Tai's longstanding issues with his father are often addressed but become increasingly repetitive as both parties continue to stick stubbornly to their guns and wheel out the same obstinate arguments for most of the film.
Din Tao approaches its deeper themes of tradition, compromise and acceptance with a welcome degree of intelligence. The youngsters are not beaten down into submission, nor do they come to any realisation that the ways of their elders are to be treasured and preserved. The film's conclusion feels like a genuine victory for the younger generation, with Tai and the rest of the troupe embracing the practices of Din Tao only on their own terms, and only when performed in such a way as they feel comfortable. Da, Wu-cheng and the other "adults" are given no choice but to accept this new interpretation of their traditions, or risk alienating their children completely. It helps that the masters ultimately acknowledge their own petulance and disregard for tradition and authority when they were young, but does this mean that real progress has been made, or just that youth must be recognised and endured as a passing phase, before eventually we settle down and embrace the status quo?
It is entirely possible that Feng Kai isn't all that interested in making any kind of political statement with his film and simply wants to tell an inspiring story that might encourage more youngsters to take up an artistic pursuit. The film's closing credits are accompanied by footage of the real Jyou-Tian Folk Drum And Arts Group on a number of gruelling marches in some exotic and far-flung locations around the globe, acknowledging their on-going commitment and dedication to this chosen path. Din Tao: Leader of the Parade manages to capture all of that, and while it certainly runs far too long for the version of events it chooses to tell, it remains fun and good-natured while keeping a pretty good beat.
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