Director: Ho Chao-ti
This intimate documentary about two girls from Haulien County in Taiwan is sobering viewing, but it seems an ill fit in the Queer East Film Festival where sexuality is often at the core of the movies in its programme. One of the girls in Turning 18 has same sex desire, but this is only tangential to a story of hardship and neglect.
15-year-old Chen has returned to her mother’s house after being in care in an orphanage. Her mother drinks and the early scenes are hard to watch as Chen tries to broach her mother’s alcoholism. Living in the house too are Chen’s brothers and sisters, and, we discover later, extended family members who her mother is looking after. Despite the trouble at home Chen is a positive force in the family, and gains confidence when she returns to college.
The other girl in Ho Chao-ti’s film is Pei, who has left home to live with her boyfriend, Wei, and his parents. They seem happy enough, but bored in their room. She, like Chen, also goes back to college, but is less successful than the other girl. However, when Pei gets pregnant this appears to end her move back into education and instead she remains in her room, with Wei watching movies on his laptop.
Over the course of 90-minutes, we follow the lives of these two female teenagers as they approach their 18th birthdays and there are only a few shards of sunshine in their dark days. Pei gives birth to a beautiful baby, while Chen develops a relationship with a girl – though she’s resolutely called her ‘boyfriend’ – who she has met on the sports field.
Interspersed in these lives Ho Chao-ti slots old news broadcasts about how the Haulien region is being modernised and how the indigenous people of the area have a lot to be thankful for as quarries and mines bring industry there. For a Western audience there perhaps needs to be more history here in order that the viewer can see how these so-called improvements have ruined people’s lives and erased ancient communities. More than a film about same-sex desire, Turning 18 is concerned with the erosion of a way of life.
That so much has happened to these two young women before they have reached the age of 18 is disturbing, and watching the film is an uncomfortable experience, but thankfully Chen’s optimism makes this a little easier. Hopefully, as Pei and Chen reach their 20s life will be kinder to them, but it’s unclear whether Ho Chao-ti is still documenting their lives for us to see.