I'm not going to pretend to be a huge fan of Cheer Chen. In fact, I know very little about her music, but do own copy of her book "不在他方Placeless Place", where her honest and philosophical writing style sparked my interest. So on my recent travels to Taiwan, I decided to give her exhibit a whirl, entering with no prior knowledge of its theme or background and just an open mind.
Design feature of the Chinese word 'Wo' meaning 'Me' at the start of the exhibit.
So the exhibit was split into five different rooms, each with its own special theme and activities that viewers could partake in. Participants in the exhibition were interestingly enough encouraged to take photos throughout, which to me reflected Cheer's generosity in sharing her ideas and a part of herself with viewers.
The five rooms:
A. The Dark Room
B. The eye of memory
C.Amusement park of montage
D. The moving room
E.The flight of those who fail
F. Something for you to take away
A. The Dark Room
Designed and arranged in the setting of a photography darkroom, the room was lined wall-to-wall with Cheer's memories from her school days up until her career as an artist. Included were her grade reports from high school up until University, some of her essays. her uniform shirt with a scrawled message of greeting from a friend, a thick book of newspaper clippings of her appearances in the media, and an assortment of music-listening devices, cameras and pagers which had accompanied her throughout the days of her past.
After carefully browsing through each and every item in the room,trying to remember each item and piece together Cheer's story in my head, one thing became apparent to me, which was that although one would have though that I would feel detached from this person who has all her artefacts framed in glass cases for hundreds of viewers to peruse, that was not the feeling I got from this room at all. Cheer's grades were good, but not spectacular. Her journal entries which were shared had a comment written on it by her teacher, telling her to go make more friends as she was too introverted and perceived as unhappy. The uniform shirt which had greetings scrawled onto it did not say anything deep or meaningful, but were just a string of words hastily printed, locking into them a raw feeling of euphoria, youth, and now nostalgia. As I write this, I now understand why Cheer decided to design this room as a dark room, as it is a place filled with her memories, each like a photograph in its raw, unfiltered state. Cheer did not wish to glorify her personal history, but instead used it as a tool to encourage viewers to reflect upon their own related memories. As I went through the pictures and artefacts, I too remembered the countless moments of dismay at the assortment of letters on my report cards, teachers remarking about my 'potential' but trying to pull me out of my introverted state, my bunch of broken mp3s that lie in a basket back home as a reminder of my passion for music. Is there anything you can recall?
B. The eye of memory
Upon stepping into the second room titled "The eye of memory", I was automatically transported into an alternate reality where time and space seemed to not exist. There was a table and chair suspended in the air, moving, greek mythology-inspired animations which drifted lazily across the walls, and a microphone with a wall full of words transcribed by Cheer Chen herself. Simple instructions were written here and there, with a music stand placed next to the microphone with a single sheet of paper instructing one to read the words off the wall.
As one spoke and read the words, the words would begin to shine brightly, spinning off surreal flashes of white light which transformed into a binary code of some sort, dancing across the walls and disappearing into a treasure chest.
Another object in the room which fascinated me to no end was a table suspended in mid-air which appeared to be completely blank. However, as soon as you ran your and across it, touching certain objects, reels of holographic film and polaroids of Cheer would appear on the table top, revealing to the viewer the memories Cheer might associate with these objects.
The last object in the room which fascinated me was the back wall which was adorned with intricate, mythology-inspired illustrations which I can only guess that Cheer drew herself. Observing the roman sundials as the story moves from day to night, the animation to me was an abstract, yet beautiful insight into Chen's mind, full of whimsy and myths that perhaps are her way of explaining the passage of time, navigating for her the realms of space. Watch the animation below!
Although I don't claim to be an expert on reviewing musicals, and especially not Chinese musicals, I decided to review the musical version of Jimi's "Turn Left, Turn Right" (or "Love, Regret" as they call it) as a way of memorialising the experience, much like how I write reviews for my favourite albums or movies. As I had never seen a Chinese musical before, I didn't know what to expect, but was in extreme anticipation mode about seeing the talented performers Waa Wei, Wang Dawen and Joanna Wang performing and interacting on stage together. Furthermore, it seems that the producer and composer for many of the songs within the musical was none other than George Chen, renowned producer and cult favourite within the Taiwanese music industry for his elegantly crafted works. What could go wrong?
The storyline of the musical differed a little from Jimi's original story, adding characters and making it so that Mr. Regret and Ms. Leaving (Wang Dawen and Waa Wei respectively) were brought together both in real life, and simultaneously by the will of a shoddy yet likeable bunch of muso misfits including a film director, a rock singer, and a writer (played by Cui Tai Hao, Yang Deng Jun and Yao Jen Chang) who do nothing but sit in Jimmy's Cafe all day and mooch off its friendly and motherly owner (Liang Xiao Heng) and assistant Ms. Weather (Datian). Joanna wang comes into the picture as the woman who is looking for her cat, who drifts in and out of the picture from time to time. Also present in the musical are a cat who is actually a human (played by Pan Zhiyuan) and a bird (played by Li Man) who ironically are a couple and often narrate the storyline or interject with their philosophical thoughts on life and love. Through several missed opportunities, Mr. Regret and Ms. Leaving repeatedly try to find each other but find their paths to be parallel each time until finally they decide to let go of each other, bringing them back together.
With any medium of the arts, be it movies, music or musicals, one of the main criteria I go off is the degree of immersion the work of art brings to me. In other words, a work of art (or musical in this case) to me is one that embraces me into their world and allows me to transcend time and space to enter a dimension of timelessness, where all that matters is the story in front of me. In other words, the overall criteria for me is whether I was fully engaged with the storyline of the musical.
And my answer to that question is both yes and no. Dawen, Waa and Joanna have been artists that I've admired for a long time, and it would be extremely easy for me to fall into the trap of viewing them not as their characters, but as their real-life selves. However, apart from the initial exhilaration of seeing them all on stage together, all preconceptions of what I knew about their real lives, their music, their ideas faded away, allowing me to entirely engage with these characters they had breathed life into. Dawen's musical theatre background certainly did not let him down as he convincingly played the friendly, yet lonely and downtrodden violinist Mr. Regret; stringing my heart along with every note he sang and every word he said. The versatile Waa, who played Miss Leaving was equally convincing in her role as the quiet translator who lived in a world of her own; a girl with unique perspectives and a fervent, yet subtle desire to meet someone who could truly understand her innermost thoughts and feelings. Both played their characters so well that to me it was just as if I was in their heads, and could completely relate to what they were feeling; their shy giddiness upon first meeting, their bittersweet yearning to see each other again, and their unspeakable happiness upon finally meeting again. Wei and Wang had an undeniable stage chemistry that I felt came not from their own personalities, but instead from the pair's intense dedication to their roles. In those three hours, as I listened to Wang and Wei's vocals fuse in sweet harmony, I did not doubt even once that Mr Regret and Miss Leaving were indeed soulmates.
Joanna also played her part as C, or the crazy cat lady (as I like to call it) superbly, but unlike with Dawen and Waa who changed themselves to fit the role, it seems that the role fit Joanna's personality perfectly. Although a side character who intermittently appears throughout the musical without rhyme or reason for the most part (I later found that she was supposed to be a woman who had lost her memory, and was instead looking for her lover), Joanna played her role so effortlessly that no one would even think to ask about the importance of her presence, slipping herself so seamlessly in and out of scenes with little fuss or overdramaticism, yet commanding all the attention in the room each time she opened her mouth. I later found out after reading up on the musical, that the cat she was looking for was instead not a cat, but instead a lost lover, symbolising a type of love that trails aimlessly with no rhyme or reason as opposed to Mr. Regret and Ms. Leaving's 'Left-Right' love story.
Vocal-wise, Waa, Dawen and Joanna's vocals were in tip-top condition, nailing all the harmonies and really singing their way into my heart. However, I felt there was a real difference in quality of the vocals of the chorus group, whose voices did not mesh in unison, and kind of detracted from the 'wow' factor of the musical.
The other cast members were enthusiastic in their reprisal of their roles; with special commendation especially going to Jimmy Cafe's lady boss S played by Liang Xiao Heng and her lovelorn shop assistant Ms. Weather played by Datian. S was the quintessential 'Lao Ban Niang'; humorous, tough on the outside but with a kind heart and a ear open to anyone who might need it. Datian had a strong set of vocals and was for me an integral character which linked all the various stories into a more cohesive whole, by skilfully being the person to befriend Waa's character, acting the part of the lovelorn fool pining for a lover in New York, while encouraging and partaking in the coffeeshop banter with the other characters.
The whimsical props, costumes and the simple yet beautiful songs composed by George Chen, and even Sodagreen's Wu Tsing Feng in part were for the most part a pleasure to listen to, and truly buoyed the musical along in terms of reading an eclectic, vintage yet whimsical theme and atmosphere. A nice of mix musical theatre stuff, with a little rock and bossa nova thrown in for good measure had my ears perking up at every listen. My favourites were the ones written by Qing Feng, especially "But dreams will only go farther" and "Curious City". Although I have to say I was a little disappointed in the arrangement and production quality as I had hoped for something a little more well executed and extravagant, it was still pretty good and did a solid job of conveying what the character's lines couldn't.
However, there were also parts of the musical which to me were less immersive, and were mainly the parts featuring the trio of misfit musos, played by Yang Deng Jun, Cui Tai Hao and Yao Jen Chang. Although they tried their best, cracking jokes and providing the audience with comic relief over their jolly antics, their performances to me were of mediocre quality, and failed in truly immersing me in their part of the storyline. I found the three of them to be lacking in personality; for example, the rocker played by Yao Jen Chang had a nice voice, but he was in no way a rocker. He didn't have the voice for it, and he most certainly didn't have the attitude for it. So although these three characters were the main link joining the inception-like happenings between Mr Regret and Miss Leaving's real-life love story and their scripted one, their lacklustre performance really blurred the lines for me, leaving me to pick up the pieces of the puzzle for myself.
Furthermore, another issue I had with the musical was that it was too focused on character development and ignored the importance of clarity in the storyline. There were inherent complexities that made storytelling more difficult, due to the extra layers that were added to the plot involving side stories between Joanna's cat lady C. and the Rocker Y., Ms Weather pining for a lover in the States while amateur director K. fawned over her, the random love story between a cat who is actually a man and a bird (there is ABSOLUTELY no way I would have known this without further research into the characters), and the alternate reality concept of Mr Regret and Miss Leaving's story being retold in reality as the artistic trio reviewed their scripted version of it. Although I was able to appreciate each of these little stories on their own, I nevertheless found it hard to put all these stories together in a cohesive whole, other than trying to put together scraps and bits of pithy lines uttered by the characters to link all these stories of love and loss together. Personally, I would have liked for the story to be more simple and streamlined, as I feel although the musical is strong in terms of its free-flowing artistic direction, it lacks in clarity by trying to use whimsy as an excuse for all the loose ends within the musical.
All in all, I was nevertheless still able to appreciate the sweet story and enjoyed myself, even gaining a few pithy sayings about love and loss from watching the musical. I came out of it better than when I went in, so despite the downsides, "Turn Left, Turn Right" was a pleasure to watch and was a welcome escape from the mundane issues of daily life.
Photos taken from Mr Wing Theatre's Facebook Page.
Hasty pictures taken during the performance...