In the two hours leading up to the US premiere of Meeting Dr. Sun, I saw director Chih-yen Yee speak twice. First was at a reception hosted by New York Taipei Economic and Cultural Office. The second was just minutes before the screening began. Both times, he said the same thing: “This movie is a comedy. You can laugh. You can laugh with the characters, or you can laugh at the characters, but please laugh.”
I’ve interviewed multiple actors and directors who have told me that they’re surprised by how animated American audiences can be. Even if Asian audiences love a film, they said, the response is much more muted. So while it’s kind of sad to hear a director ask people to laugh at his movie, given the demographic at the reception and the screening, it made sense.
Fortunately for Mr. Yee, it didn’t really matter if the Taiwanese moviegoers found the film funny, because there were a whole bunch of white people in the audience. And white people sure do like to laugh.
Meeting Dr. Sun (Xingdong daihao: Sun Zongshan)
Director: Chih-yen Yee
Everyone knows the rule of threes. You can do a joke three times before it becomes grating. If done well, that repetition can make it amazing, but going beyond that just becomes frustrating. I don’t know who who it came from, but I’ve heard it said that the trick to Family Guy‘s humor is that things become funny again after you’ve done them for the 27th time. It’s funny, funny, funny, not funny, not funny, infuriating… kinda funny, funny, amazing. And that’s kind of accurate. I’m sure there’s something in our brains, probably a fear response, that tells us that eventually this thing that is making us uncomfortable with its repetition is actually something to be laughed at (again), lest we drive ourselves actually crazy. Whatever it is, it works. Sometimes.
Meeting Dr. Sun really wants that to be true. Or at least, its editor does. Because apparently he left the editing bay after he put together his rough cut and someone walked by and shouted, “It’s perfect!” Every single scene is too long. Every. Damn. One. You could cut at least 10 seconds from the end of every sequence in the film and it would only benefit the film. Most shots go on too long, and every joke definitely goes on too long, but sometimes they become funny again.
Meeting Dr. Sun is a heist movie, of sorts. Some kinds can’t afford to pay their class fees, so they decide to steal a statue and sell it for scrap. But they have to steal it. But because they’re children (end of middle school/beginning of high school (or the Taiwanese equivalent of that), if I had to guess), everything is inherently very silly. As it’s presented, there are no great stakes, and there are no serious dangers. It’s not even really clear what it would mean if the kids didn’t pay their class fees. (Here my American ignorance is probably at issue, though the film’s dialogue makes it seem like it’s not a necessity to get through the year.) The whole thing feels appropriately childish, and on some level the humor actually works like that as well.
Some years ago, I was having dinner with a friend and his extended family. His very young cousin wanted to be the center of attention, and so he said to said to his dad, “Hi mommy!” and everyone laughed. And then he went to every single person around the table (nearly a dozen of us) and said, “Hi mommy!” to all the men and “Hi daddy!” to the women. The first couple of times, it was adorable. By the time he got to me? It was infuriating. But the kid thought he was the cat’s pajamas, and he kept doing it until his dad (thankfully) stopped him. He would have done another round of the table, I’m sure, because he didn’t understand what actually made it funny, just that other people were laughing.
And that’s what the humor in Meeting Mr. Sun is like. I laughed pretty hard on multiple occasions, and some of the people around me laughed so hard I literally (not figuratively) thought they were going to die, but then once I’d moved on, the young kids onscreen wanted to keep doing the joke. They keep pantomiming or dancing or talking or moving or doing any of those other things that kids do, because… they’re kids. What else are they gonna do?
That said, there’s a weird, dark undercurrent about issues of socioeconomic class structures throughout the film. And while it’s always there, it doesn’t come up explicitly until the end, when it hits in a fascinating, mood-wrecking kind of way. And thinking back on the film through that lens, it’s actually pretty seriously depressing; a (very) long sequence involving two characters trying to prove that their family is worse off is played for humor, sort of, but it’s really very sad. At the time, that was in the back of my mind, but it didn’t snap into focus until that moment near the end. But this theme seems so at odds with the comedic intentions of the film. Director Yee wanted us to laugh. But here was this grand theme about poverty and what it forces people to do, even on a small scale. And… we were supposed to laugh at it? I mean, I definitely did.
I’m just not sure how I feel about having done so.