Actor-director Leon Dai takes a 180-degree turn from Twenty Something Taipei for the unassuming black-and-white drama No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti. Meaning "cannot live without you", No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti tells the based-on-a-true-story tale of an uneducated man in Kaohsiung who finds himself victim to an impersonal bureaucracy. However, despite that description, this is not really a social drama. The film opens with a television broadcast of the man threatening to jump off a bridge along with a young girl, with the media reporting, the police trying to intervene, and numerous onlookers watching and sometimes commenting cynically. His beef: that life and society have treated him unfairly.
Flash back two months and the same man seems like an altogether different person. Li Wu-Hsiung (Chen Wen-Pin) is an uneducated laborer who works small, sometimes illegal jobs while squatting in an abandoned warehouse on the docks. Living with him is his daughter Mei (Chao Yo-Hsuan), who's similarly uneducated but loves her father nonetheless. Her mother ran off years ago, leaving the father-daughter pair to share a meager, but affectionate existence.
Wu-Hsiung must register their household for Mei to legally to start school, but it turns out that her mother - to whom Wu-Hsiung was never legally married - was really married to another man, meaning they are Mei's legal guardians and not Wu-Hsiung. Urged on by old friend A-Tsai (Lin Chih-Ju), Wu-Hsiung treks to Taipei to see an old classmate who's now a legislator, in hopes of becoming Mei's legal guardian. The legislator offers to help, but refers him to another official in Taipei. He's soon referred back to Kaohsiung, and then to subsequent agencies, with help and hope decreasing with each stop. Fearing that he may lose Mei for good, Wu-Hsiung is driven to desperation, leading to the very event that opens the film.
The audience revisits the scene where Wu-Hsiung threatens to jump to his death along with Mei, but the circumstances surrounding the event have now been fleshed out, and the truths gleamed may not be ones expected. Considerable depth, affection, and understanding have been established by Dai's generous, nonjudgmental direction. Dai has the opportunity to create a film extolling the lower classes and condemning impersonal bureaucracy, but his goal seems simultaneously lesser and greater than those obvious themes. The fault for Wu-Hsiung's plight lies with many, but Dai shows this without overriding the story's most basic emotion: that of a father's fear of losing his daughter.
The film's portryal of bureaucracy is ultimately more about circumstance and misunderstanding rather than outright critique. The outrage towards impersonal government types is present but fleeting; Dai skillfully portrays the reality of the situations without obvious intent or mawkish emotions, with little overt dialogue or music to guide the audience. Nothing about No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti is showy, from the realistic performances and unobtrusive camerawork to the austere black-and-white cinematography. The power of this story is not in its meaning, but in its emotions and its characters, and Dai never leads the audience astray. There's nary a false note in this simple story.
No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti succeeds in its aims handily, and proves moving and thoughtful without resorting to manipulation or announcement of intent. The film requires some patience; at times, Dai's storytelling may appear too slow, but the film never meanders nor loses focus, and when the final payoff arrives, the emotions are acutely and even gratefully felt. Dai's film is a throwback, offering a straightforward story that can be enjoyed and appreciated without necessarily seeking value and meaning in the director's craft or the writer's script. The film succeeds largely because it lacks pretensions - or perhaps hides them so well that audiences may not discern them. The only noticeable pretension in the film may be its English-language title, which is oddly in Spanish. That's not really a flaw at all. (Kozo, reviewed at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, 2009)