Taipei Exchanges ★★

Taipei Exchanges stars one of Taiwan's most promising and popular young actresses, Lunmei Kwai, who I like quite a bit, but it's painful to see her in such a manufactured and saccharin product. Taipei Exchanges has the narrative structure and impact of a pop music promotional video. Everything is so shiny and polished nothing sticks. Everything floats by meaninglessly, accompanied by what sounds like schmaltzy canned piano doodling from someone trained in writing jingles for laundry detergent commercials. In between doodles there will actually be a music video while we watch Lunmei Kwai think about an éclair or something equally fascinating.

Kwai plays Doris who's opened a café with her sister Josie, played by newcomer Zaizai Lin. Lin looks a lot like Kwai except with a curve to her nose, and she looks good in high-top sneakers and tights. We know the type: cute slacker with cool hair and hip t-shirts. Doris is all business and Josie is a dreamer. Josie wins in the end by turning Doris into a dreamer who learns there is more to value in life than making money selling a cup of coffee.

The title, Taipei Exchanges, plays on two aspects of the film. One has to do with the exchange of goods or services and the other is the exchange of stories that often accompany the goods or services exchanged. When Doris first opens the café a bunch of her friends bring her junk from their attics as housewarming gifts. Most of it is recognized as junk and thrown away but a few things that didn't even catch their attention enough to be thrown away turn out to be of interest to some of their customers. And thus begins the shtick. Since they didn't pay for any of the stuff they won't sell it but will take something in exchange for it. The bartering always follows the same routine. The first proposal is rejected as thoughtless and the comeback is appreciated for its sappy wonderfulness, like any good Disney moment.

The film is narrated by an anonymous voice because the characters aren't thick enough to hang a story on. The café used in the film was built specifically for the film, reportedly backed by Taipei's tourism authorities, and is now open for business as a real coffee shop and tourist attraction. Taipei Exchanges is the feature film directing debut of television ad director Ya-chuan Hsiao. That about sums it up.

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