Movies about women who fly off to foreign climes to reboot their lives are a thriving subgenre, though the heroines are mostly from well-off countries, Japan included. Women from the more troubled parts of the world may also cross borders to start new lives, but their motives are less often self-discovery than self-preservation.
So it’s not easy, initially, to work up much sympathy for Aiko (Mei Kurokawa), the 26-year-old heroine of Koji Hagiuda’s travelogue-cum-drama “Nanpu (Riding the Breeze).” True, her boyfriend has just dumped her for a younger woman and she has been transferred from the job she loved — editor of a fashion magazine — to a special projects post she considers to be a step down. Then, after she arrives in Taiwan to cover a cycling event, a Chinese-speaking former colleague, who she had counted on for help, begs off, pleading pregnancy. What’s a girl to do?
The resourceful Aiko decides to cycle the island herself to reach the event’s starting line, but entering a bike store to rent a bike, she finds the spitting image of her ex-boyfriend’s new lover in Tong Tong (Theresa Daley), a pretty 16-year-old who dreams of becoming a fashion model. When Tong Tong volunteers to become her guide — with the secret aim of traveling to a model audition (and lies about her age to boot) — Aiko declines at first, but, after a rocky start, gives in. Together they begin an adventure that will have life-changing consequences for both of them.
Which is par-for-the-genre course, since travel in these films is never just about enjoying the scenery. At the same time, the heroines ride through some of the lovelier parts of island on their momentous journey, which are helpfully captioned for future touristic reference. My image of Taiwan was shaped by movies set in and around crowded, steamy Taipei, and the film’s shots of Tong Tong and Aiko zipping past various landmarks (Hoek Lighthouse, Longteng Bridge, Lugang Mazu Temple, Sun Moon Lake) and along the idyllic Shinpei cycling road were something of a revelation — I started taking notes for my own future cycling trip.
This, of course, is the intention of the film’s Taiwanese sponsors, with cameraman Yuichi Nagata superbly capturing both the beauty of the route and the freedom of the road, though Aiko enjoys it better after she exchanges her mamachari (shopping bike) for a faster, lighter cross bike.
The drama, supplied by writer Mika Ogata’s original script, is a trifle, with Aiko and Tong Tong comically slanging each other, though the former’s English and Mandarin are as rudimentary as the latter’s Japanese. When Tong Tong chases after a good-looking guy on a bike, Aiko takes off in hot pursuit and ends up sailing over an embankment and crumpling her front wheel (if not her helmetless head). Fortunately, the guy, Yu (River Huang), comes to her aid and agrees to be Aiko and Tong Tong’s guide, though he balks at becoming the latest object of their rivalry. Who will end up pairing off with whom?
My interest in this question was mild, to say the least, though the personal dynamic between the two feuding heroines is out of the ordinary. In Japanese films about crossing cultures, the non-Japanese characters may become love objects for the Japanese principals, but they are also typically framed as exotic Others. Aiko is hardly a model cultural ambassador — she rattles away in Japanese whether or not her Taiwanese listeners understand a word — but she also treats Tong Tong as an equal, or rather, an obnoxious younger sister.
This indirectly reflects Japan’s historical relationship with Taiwan, which includes decades of colonialism, but has nonetheless been warmer than ties with the country’s other Asian neighbors: China and the two Koreas. Daley, a rising talent in Taiwanese TV dramas and films, breaks down barriers with blithe insolence as Tong Tong. Not that Kurokawa, whose many credits include the new Yosuke Fujita comedy “Fukufukuso no Fuku-chan (Fuku-chan of Fukufuku Flats),” puts on an air of cultural superiority as Aiko (though the character is something of an airhead).
As a movie, “Riding the Breeze” is pleasantly forgettable. As an illustration of why Taiwan has been called a cyclist’s paradise, it’s a success. I’m already Googling the Chinese for “flat tire.”