The fact that Taipei Exchanges comes equipped with the clout of a producer credit from Hsou Hsiao-Hsen is somewhat misleading. After all, the warm and breezy Taipei Exchanges has far more in common with 21st century American indie quirk than Hou’s weighty, deliberately paced dramas.
The admittedly modest but clever premise is as follows; two sisters, Doris and Josie, establish a cafe that doubles as a haven for numerous pre-owned artefacts, or as one character terms them affectionately, “junk”.
If customers want to take home an item, they must offer something else in exchange. This could be another object, perhaps a guitar for a rocking horse, or the performance of a menial task, such as unblocking a drain or painting a wall, or even something more creative, like singing a song or recounting a story. This bartering gimmick unexpectedly attracts a burgeoning clientele.
The predominance of high-key lighting and its solitary cafe setting ensures that Taipei Exchanges feels more like a sitcom than a fully fledged film. Even at a paltry eighty-two minutes, the narrative struggles to avoid repeating itself. By the second slow-motion coffee making montage set to a cloying piano score, I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching an unduly prolonged Moccona commercial. Hsiao Ya-Chuan tries his hand at a number of creative formal devices to spice up the proceedings, the results of which are varied. The occasional narration from an anonymous omniscient figure is superfluous and distracting (though it must be said that narration in any form is a tough sell for me personally), and intermittent interview sequences could have easily been excised.
Yet, in spite of these glaring pitfalls, there’s something disarmingly innocent about Taipei Exchanges. The film consistently retained my attention, thanks to its central motif of bartering developing across the film in unexpectedly substantive – if didactic – ways. Even if it has already begun to trickle from my memory, Taipei Surprises is a mildly enchanting sojourn, best enjoyed on a lazy afternoon with a hot coffee in hand.
*** (THREE STARS OUT OF FIVE)
Taipei Exchanges and many other films are now streaming as part of the Taiwan Film Festival.