New York Asian Film Festival ‣ 揭大歡喜

The 20th Anniversary New York Asian Film Festival takes place August 6–22 with both virtual and in-person screenings. Go to nyaff.org for more details.

At this point in human history, there are probably three times as many adaptations, variations and invocations of the works of William Shakespeare as there are plays he actually wrote. It’s a testament to his staying power that even hundreds of years later there are still new iterations to be mined from his stories.

Of course, it helps if you go with one of his lesser celebrated properties instead of trying to figure out the umpteenth version of Macbeth.

All of this to say As We Like It provides a version of Shakespeare with enough new and different twists to prove a worthy adaptation.

The business machinations underlying the basic plot really couldn’t matter less, but let’s try and suss it out anyway… Famed business mogul The Duke (Den Chiu Yun) has seemingly vanished from the business world, leaving his empire to Orlando (Aggie Hsieh). This makes Orlando the target of The Duke’s brother, a rival businessman known as The Chairman (Lai Pei Xia), who seeks to take The Duke’s assets for his own.

(Feel free to remember none of this)

The Duke’s daughter Rosalind (Puff Kao) and The Chairman’s daughter Celia (Camille Chalons) have more important things than money on their mind; namely, love. Celia has designs on Mr. Oliver, the right hand man of The Chairman, while Rosiland has fallen head over heels for Orlando, and deigns to seduce him in that most classically Shakespearian of ways, which is to say she disguises herself as a man named Roosevelt and leads him on an elaborate quest to meet the reclusive Duke via a series of quests designed to make them fall in love.

Look… I don’t know if I got any of that right, but again… not sure if it really matters.

So far, so Shakespeare…. so, one might ask, where does the reinvention come in?

Well, for starters, though it’s not explicitly stated onscreen, the film very much appears to take place in the near future… or at least a version of the present where Internet Free Zones and holographic billboards are fairly common.

And there is, of course, the flamboyant filmmaking style favored by co-directors Chen Hung-I and Muni Wei, which delights in throwing in everything from animation to fourth wall breaks to elaborate special effects courtesy of Tracking Troop LTD and Moonshine.

But the key aspect that gives this movie it’s particular sense of innovation is that almost every single role in the film, both coded male and coded female, are played by women.

It’s the futuristic queer, genderfluid Shakespeare movie of your dreams!

And if the convolutions of the screenplay by Hung-I, Wei, and Sung Kuo Chen) make your head spin, my advice would be focus less on the whats and the whys and more on the chemistry between Puff Kao and Hsieh, who might not generate that much in the way of actual heat, but have an electric, playful rapport that makes their every moment together a delight.

(For genuinely sexy chemistry, one has to look towards Camille Chalons and Jo’elle Lu as Celia and Oliver… they get much less screen time together than our main duo, but they make it count)

Of course, this being Shakespeare and all there’s romantic pairs all down the line, and all of them have something to offer the viewer: one wishes there was more of Silver and Sir Gold, an older couple that really only get maybe five minutes of screen time but are so sweet and adorable together that you want to just follow them around for the rest of the film, watching them flirt and frolic till the camera runs out of film.

The movie is never less than gorgeous to look at, thanks to the cinematography by Yu Jing Ping, and the art direction by Liang Shuo Lin (with collaborating artist Chiang Chih-Wei). The production design by Huang Mei Ching creates a day-glo, sugary sweet future aesthetic, like a robot covered in cotton candy, that works as a visual match to the frothy, anything goes tone.

The end credits start with a dedication that perhaps deserves to be recounted in full:

“This film is dedicated to Shakespeare but also the patriarchy which would not allow female actors upon the stage.”

Perhaps the casting is a small change, in the cosmic scheme of things; it’s hard to imagine that it hasn’t been done somewhere else before. But making a statement means nothing if the work itself doesn’t succeed on its own merits. As We Like It has the agenda, yes. But it’s also got the quality to back it up.

And that’s all she wrote.


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