William Shakespeare has inspired filmmakers since the very origins of the form. Starting with Dixon and Dando’s King John in 1899, there have been in excess of 400 films produced that are either adapted from or inspired by Shakespeare’s work. While the majority of them have shared Shakespeare’s English language, a surprising number have been produced in foreign countries including Russia, India, and Japan. One of the latest is Taiwanese: Chen Hung-i and Muni Wei’s As We Like It, which gives the playwright’s As You Like It one of its most inventive ever takes.
In the near future, the corporate heiress Rosalind (Puff Kuo) searches for his missing father in the Forest of Arden, a bohemian “no-Internet” enclave inside Taipei’s fashionable Ximending district. She is soon pursued by the love-struck Orlando (Aggie Hsieh) and, in a playful attempt to test his intentions, disguises herself as a boy named Roosevelt. Her ruse may backfire, however, as Orlando begins to fall for “Roosevelt” instead.
Okay, deep breath: As We Like It is a queer, all-female, Taiwanese, light cyberpunk, semi-animated interpretation of Shakespeare’s play. Not only is it one of the strongest features I have seen from 2021, it is far and away the most unexpected and wildly creative. It is an artefact palpably created with joy, and that giddy happiness is enormously infectious. While it occupies a particularly small niche, it works that to powerfully to its own benefit. Even if you are not a simultaneous fan of LGBTQIA+ culture, Elizabethan theatre, and North Asian cinema, in all likelihood the relatively unique nature of the project will make it one of the most memorable films of your year.
The film’s origins lie in co-director Muni Wei – who makes her directorial debut here. Since 1995 she has been the founder and artistic director of the Shakespeare’s Wild Sisters group, one of numerous all-female performing companies around the world. Shakespeare’s works were originally performed in a place and time where women were forbidden to act on the stage, and so these modern all-female companies work as an active resistance to that patriarchal history and allow a hugely rewarding exploration of those former male-only roles through a female gaze. To bring her feminist vision of Shakespeare to the screen, Muni has worked hand-in-hand with filmmaker Chen Hung-i – whose flawed The Last Painting (2017) boasted a particularly beautiful aesthetic. In combination they create a film that looks and plays wonderfully. By-and-large it is cinema-as-confection, but what a pleasant confection it turns out to be.
More than anything there is a rich sense of play. Half of the cast are women playing women; the other half women playing men. Once the narrative begins to embrace the idea of women playing women playing men in romance with women playing men falling in love with men despite a preference for women, it creates a sublime blend of genders and sexualities. The romances are comparatively chaste, but the light sexual references and jokes absolutely sparkle across the surface. The self-aware performances only boost this feeling. There is a deliberate theatricality, which cleverly side-steps any issues with realism getting in the way of the fun. The science fiction elements, which are relatively minor, smartly cut out any plot problems caused by contemporary technology intruding on an early 17th century narrative. The play’s religious elements have been gently flipped too, passing out Shakespeare’s Christianity for more Chinese cultural influences.
Muni and Chen embrace a wide range of avenues in exploring the creative possibilities: famous soliloquies become Mando-pop ballads, action sequences boast videogame visuals, and key moments appear in sudden bursts of colourful animation. Beneath all of this glorious whimsy there is a strong feminist focus, and a firm separation of ideas of gender and romantic love. As We Like It is funny, bold, and utterly charming. Beyond Taiwan its release is likely to struggle outside of festivals, but it absolutely deserves the exposure. It is a winning combination of genre and tone. It is a one-of-a-kind, utterly brilliant success.