Unique to Taiwanese culture, "night markets" are evening carnivals of food and frolic, strolling and sightseeing — and all across this island nation night markets rule.
Families come to nosh or nibble, college students come to shop for cheap clothes and snap up new DVDs — sometimes pirated — and foreigners come to see Taiwan up close and personal.
Italy is Italy, the Greek island are the Greek islands, but there is nothing quite like Taiwan's famous — and infamous — night markets.
Now an enterprising film director in Taipei, Tien-Lun Yeh, 36, and his screenwriter sister, Tan-Ching Yeh, 34, have cobbled together a street-smart and savvy feature filmed titled "Night Market Hero." The film was released earlier this year and did boffo box office in free and democratic Taiwan, now hitting 17 cities in communist China, where Chinese audiences are eating up the free-wheeling Taiwanese way of life that they are denied in the land of Mao.
Think "Cinema Paradiso" in Taiwanese form. Think Francois Truffaut on an Asian holiday. Think that you too could become a night market hero, if your very life depended on it. It's that kind of film.
"Night Market Hero" is titled "Fried Chicken Hero" in Mandarin — 雞排英雄 — and that's because the two-hour film pits two competing food camps against each other in a battle of the
night markets: the fried chicken chefs and the fried steak chefs.
There's also some trouble with the local mafia boys, lots of romantic scenes of love and angst, and touching scenes of family strife and family reconciliation between the generations. And don't worry about the language of the film — it's shot in both the Chinese and Taiwanese languages — with English subtitles on its DVD that are very well written.
"The movie is a quaint and somewhat predictable melodrama, yet it brought me to tears on several occasions," said one critic. "Not just tears around my eyes, but tears that actually streamed down my cheeks and to the corner of my lips that I could taste their saltiness."
You don't have to be Taiwanese to enjoy "Night Market Hero." Even the Chinese in Beijing and Shanghai are rushing to see this scrappy little film from across the seas.
The story goes like this: set in a fictional Taiwanese night market called "888" — a lucky number among superstitious Taiwanese folk — the family film focuses on a night market's hardworking food vendors, whose livelihood depends on their business savvy, as well as the local delicacies they sell.
Enter the gangster element and plans of a Taipei construction boss to buy the land the night market is on and throw the vendors away, and you've got a good versus evil film that speaks directly to local audiences in Asia.
The film is also winning hearts and minds — and plaudits — in Japan and North America.
Welcome to the New Taiwanese Cinema of 2011 and beyond, which translates well overseas as well. Ang Lee will be proud to see what his countrymen are achieving now in cinema.
"Every night the night market merchants come out to make a living, smile and laugh as they tend to the needs of their customers," gushed a Taiwanese critic who now lives in North America. "But behind every stall, behind every stand, is a story of hardship, of real life, of pains and sufferings, of family and complex pasts. These people are all brought together by the foods they sell, by the customers they can attract, and by the fact that every one is simply trying to make a living from what they can do best — whether it is frying chicken steak, cooking beef steak, selling bubble tea or pirated DVDs."
"The night market embodies a colourful and central part of Taiwanese food culture and community life," she added. "And the street vendors, with their strong work ethic and dedication, with their sweat and bare hands, keep the many memories alive. The sight and sounds of food and games bring people together, and can also bring people back to their childhoods years, filling not only empty stomachs but also contented hearts with feelings of nostalgia and longing."
"Old songs from my own childhood, and the comic use of the Taiwanese language and cute hand-puppets (another important part of local life for many there) all touched a part of me, and made me realize that even after so many years of living away from my homeland, I am still very much very fond of Tawian, my Taiwan, and its people — and of course, the many mouth-watering delicacies there."
"Night Market Hero" is that kind of movie. I've seen it five times already, in just a week and I can't get enough of it. I hope it makes it to the North American market, too.