Writers: Hui-Ling Chen, Hua-Chien Hsu, Juliana Hsu, Bai Rong Hua and Yu-Lin Wang
Director: Yu-lin Wang
History is littered with reluctant or unexpected monarchs cast into the line of succession to replace their elder brothers; Henry VIII’s and Charles I’s older siblings Arthur and Henry both died young, while George VI famously replaced his abdicating brother Edward VIII. In Alifu, the Prince/ss, the reluctant protagonist must live up to the memory of his brother by giving up not only his freedom in Taiwan but also his hopes of becoming a woman when his father tries to make him tribal chief.
Following three stories in modern day Taiwan, Alifu lives with flatmate Lei Peizhan while working at a salon. By night he spends time in the city’s drag bar run by Sherry who must tell her plumber friend Wu that she has pancreatic cancer, while friend and office worker Chris hides a double life from his piano teacher girlfriend Angie. A shock visit from Alifu’s unsuspecting father, creates a chance for everyone to reflect on their experiences.
Yu-lin Wang’s film investigates the clash between old and new in Taiwan as traditional values, social structures and family expectations are confronted by several alternative lifestyles. Showing as part of the Queer East Festival, Alifu, the Prince/ss explores the challenges of individualism in the face of overwhelming pressures to conform to predetermined notions of identity and sexuality.
The episodic nature of Wang’s movie, which runs for 95-minutes, makes it feel much longer, cutting between the different scenarios as the storylines take on an overly protracted feel. It focuses only lightly on plot and instead attempts to represent the emotional complexity of LGBTQ+ experiences on screen. And in that sense, the film is a successful exploration of that diversity, bringing a vibrancy in particular to Sherry’s bar as well as the intimacy between the characters.
But the patchy nature of Wang’s film as it flits between the narratives divests each scenario of its own specific impact and that of the overall effect of the anthology story. Part of the problem is five writers unsure of how to fit these narratives together, so while the film is named for Alifu, there is competition rather than complementarity between the surrounding stories that confuses the viewer.
Utjung Tjakivalid is very affecting as Alifu, a tender soul trying to find his own path while feeling the pressure of transitioning, although we never delve deeply enough into the appeal of the city. Jen-Shuo Cheng and Angie Wang have the most touching story as Chris and Angie which demands more screentime as they both comes to terms with Chris’s second job, while Bamboo Chu-Sheng Chen and Pong Fong Wu as Sherry and Wu add gravitas with their terminal cancer storyline.
Sometimes Alifu, the Prince/ss wants to be a story about the freedom of the kaleidoscopic city, sometimes a tale of the overwhelming force of heritage and family, at others a tribute to youth and the destruction of self-knowledge, but Wang’s piecemeal film manages to be all and none of these things, no strand lingering long enough to quite fulfil its promise. The message, then, is live your double life while you can because you will conform in the end.