Thoughts on I Didn’t Dare to Tell You (Bugan Genni Jiang / 不敢跟你講 1969)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2018 Taiwan International Documentary Festival.

I Didn’t Dare to Tell You (Bugan Genni Jiang / 不敢跟你講 1969), the debut of Taiwanese director Mou Tun-fei, was never theatrically released. No one’s sure whether this is because it was banned—but on what grounds?—or because the indie production team ran out of cash for distribution. After restoration and digital conversion by the Taiwan Film Institute, and despite apparently missing its eighth reel, it was finally screened during this year’s festival. The screening I attended was only the second in its history.

So, how is it? It was interesting to see the old-style titles and subtitles that run from right to left, the traditional direction for Chinese script. The subtitles also had punctuation and almost-grammatical English translation. And despite the restoration, the film still had a grainy quality that imbued everything with a tinge of nostalgia.

But the film itself is a disaster. Chuang Da-yuan (Yu Jiansheng, who won a Golden Horse Award for this) is the son of a single father deep in gambling debt. To afford Da-yuan’s future junior high tuition (junior high wasn’t compulsory then), he works construction overtime and grows ill, suggested by constant coughing. Da-yuan learns of the debt surreptitiously and decides to take a night job at the newspaper printer’s, but this makes him sleepy in class and draws the attention of his teacher (the stunning Grace Gua Ah-leh, later a major star). Things come to a head, the elder Chuang kicks out Da-yuan for working instead of studying and making meaningless his slow death-by-work, Da-yuan’s best friend comes to explain things, they all track Da-yuan to a migrant workers’ camp, and he ends up going to junior high after all.

This is a no-holds-barred melodrama, with artificially heightened situational tension, refusal to communicate, sweeping music, not one but two freeze-frame endings, and a serious disregard for plot holes. A subplot involving the teacher and her artist boyfriend (Mou) hints at a critique of prevailing authoritarian pedagogy, but it’s sidelined by the socioeconomic critique of child labor—a critique that’s in turn undercut by gambling as the source of debt. The fact that I couldn’t tell where the missing reel belonged speaks ill of the narrative, and the film is further marred by rough editing and sound editing. The film is of mere historical import.

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