Photo: © SKY FILMS Entertainment Co., Ltd. © All rights reserved
Gaga is the third film by aboriginal Tayal director Laha Mebow, who continues to draw from her heritage and cultural connections to illuminate the cultures of the Tayal people.
The film offers a warm invitation into the unfiltered lives of a multi-generational family in a Tayal village, not just for the viewers, but also for the director. In an interview with Mebow, she shares that the film offered her an opportunity to reconnect with her heritage since she did not grow up in the rural environment. Through close-up looks at traditions, interpersonal relations, and living situations, one begins to grasp the meaning of “gaga,” which can be understood as the core values that guide the people’s way of life. Respecting a neighbor’s plot of land is “gaga,” and so is the act of sacrificing and sharing a pig. To outside viewers, the tradition of sacrificing a pig seems gruesome, but Lebow shares that the practice brings the community together to share resources. Acting in accordance with gaga also is a way to honor your family. Mebow further elaborates that “gaga” is similar to laws, but she’s careful to note that the film, despite its title, is not intended to examine the nature of “gaga” as a preserved code of actions, but rather to illuminate aspects of “gaga” that are disappearing and question how “gaga” can transform in modern times. She also hopes that her films can serve as “cultural bridges” and address misconceptions around indigenous Taiwanese people as being inferior or uncultured by providing a vibrant portrayal of the aboriginals’ deep and unique cultures.
The plot moves quickly through major events–the passing of a respected elder, a land dispute that results in a mayoral bid, an unexpected pregnancy, and a wedding celebration. While this allows the film to showcase a variety of situations through which to understand the Tayal culture, the pace dampens the emotional impactful of each event. Inter-family tensions are exacerbated by perceived injustices and the desire to uphold the family’s honor. The most interesting conflicts are the ones in which personal convictions run contrary to family pressures and cultural norms. For example, Ali’s initial reluctance to bear a child goes against conservative values about abortion. Instead of delving into the roots of the conflicts and allowing that exploration to create more complex characters and a more nuanced understanding of cultural values, conflicts like these are ironed out in favor of moving the plot forward.
There are moments of tenderness and raw emotion that peek through despite the pacing–Silan’s frustrated outbursts towards his brother, Andy (Ali’s boyfriend) warmly hugging Ali’s grandma–but even these could have been more impactful if they were more contextualized. What were the origins of Silan’s anger issues? How did Andy become close with grandma? Because the viewers are not privy to the characters’ histories or emotional processing, they are left with questions like these.
Lebow shares that one of the themes she wanted to explore is the corrupting nature of Western ideals, portrayed in the film through behaviors that range from morally questionable to outright fraudulent that stem from and/or contribute to the erosion of “gaga” and collective trust. The scenes with modern infrastructure like roads and light-up signs exhibit brighter colors, while the rural scenes depicting traditional ways of living have a muted, earthier tone, further delineating the contrast between modernity and traditional livelihoods. The film makes that connection with mixed results, and in several instances, the viewers’ first reaction is to apply blame to the characters from some morally murky behaviors, even if the drivers were external and uncontrollable.
Despite the challenges around the pacing, the film is a visual treat and is able to shine a light onto the values and livelihoods held by the Tayal peoples. Underneath the familial squabbles lie a strong sense of collectivism, radical compassion, and unconditional care, values that the modern world could use a little more of.