REVIEW: Riding the Breeze (2014)

A Japanese journalist makes a bicycle journey down the Taiwanese coast in Riding the Breeze, a pleasant, charming, but fairly derivative road movie. Produced in 2014, the film was never going to win awards or significant acclaim, but if these sorts of quiet, amiable character pieces are your thing – and Japanese cinema is littered with them – it is definitely worth your while.

Writer Aiko Kazama (Mei Kurokawa) has been unwillingly transferred to a cycling magazine. Hoping the make the best of an unwanted assignment – reporting on a cyclist meet at Taiwan’s Sun Moon Lake – she successfully pitches a four-day travel diary across the island’s north and western coast from Taipei to Nantou county. She is joined on her assignment by Tonton (Teresa Daley) – a Taiwanese teenager with a striking resemblance to the woman who stole Aiko’s boyfriend – and Yu (River Huang) – an attractive man to whom both women develop an attraction.

Riding the Breeze is part character piece, part travelogue. It is dominated by conversation between the three leads, and by scenes showcasing various tourist spots and scenic points on northern Taiwan. Early scenes, before the characters are established, feel remarkably like a tourism campaign to lure Japanese holidaymakers to their Pacific neighbour.

There is a complex history between Japan and Taiwan that makes this an effective and inspiring combination. Following the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, what was then an island province of China was given to Japan as reparations. It was only following Japan’s defeat in World War II some 50 years later that it was returned to China; then just four years ahead of a communist uprising. The ousted Republic of China government retreated to the comparative safety of Taipei, where they have governed ever since amidst an ongoing diplomatic limbo with the People’s Republic.

Visit Taiwan, however, and the influence of Japan’s colonial rule remains clear. It was Japan that effectively built Taiwan’s infrastructure, and key historical buildings still reveal the French-inspired architecture that was the fashion in Tokyo in the early 20th century. Today relations continue between the two countries in an awkward, largely unofficial fashion, with significant amounts of bilateral tourism.

Of course they are still two distinctly separate countries, and director Kôji Hagiuda exploits this marvellously through miscommunication and language problems. Aiko does not speak Mandarin Chinese and Tonton does not speak Japanese, and they share only very limited English. Of course the viewer, thanks to subtitles, has a perfect translation of both women. Their friendship, rivary, and mutual antagonism is all enhanced and made genuinely funny. Kurokawa plays Aiko with an underlying sense of weariness and disappointment: approaching 30, dumped by her boyfriend, and seeing her dream career get sidelined against her best efforts. Teresa Daley is challenged with balancing Tonton’s childish nature with the film’s need to keep her sympathetic. It is a tricy balancing act that she largely achieves despite some poor behaviour in the script.

Genre stereotypes abound, but to its credit Riding the Breeze navigates them with a minimum of fuss, and supports them with some decent character development. While there is much that is familiar about its set-up and progress, to it credit things do not necessarily wrap up in a manner its audience may expect. This is sweet, heart-warming comfort food in movie form.

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