The agressively wild As We Like It, which sees Taiwanese directors Chen Hung-i and Muni Wei team up, uses William Shakespeare as a toybox to celebrate queer love and desire. Coming two years after Taiwan became the first Asian nation to legalize same sex marriage, the visually playful film bridges many cultural gaps. Based on As You Like It, a divisive work within the canon of Shakespearean comedies, and one without a definitive cinematic adaptation, the movie follows Rosalind (Puff Kuo), who hides out in a forest near her uncle’s court, and disguises herself as a man, “Roosevelt,” to cure Orlando (Aggie Hsieh) from his love for her.
In As We Like It, the focus is shifted slightly. Chen and Muni situate the film in a future Taiwan where queerness has taken over, a utopian fantasyspace with the most eye-popping visual intensity this side of Speed Racer (2008). Taipei is depicted as a high gloss, high-tech world where the only traces of individual expression are graffiti on endless murals. Technology, as well as the body, keeps people in check.
The key choice of the production is to have an entirely female cast, which switches the male-only casting rule of Shakespeare’s time (as depicted/parodied in Shakespeare in Love). This isn’t anything new on stage, where all-female troupes are commonplace. But on screen, where filmmakers have often taken the opportunity to enhance Shakespeare’s poetry or extract the realism, this is a rarity. Think of Orson Welles’ focus on the spikes and pikes and faces of men in his Chimes at Midnight, or the muddy 70mm of Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V. The orientalism of Branagh’s Japanese-set As You Like It (2007) is reversed in As We Like It by Wuni and Chen. Wuni is herself a Shakespeare master, having founded the Wild Sisters Group in 1995, a successful troupe that follows the all-female tradition (the best Shakespeare joke here being the pop music version of the “All the World’s a Stage” monologue that plays over the end credits).
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Chen’s previous film, The Last Painting, a sexually transgressive political thriller, played in IFFR 2017’s relatively obscure “Voices” strand. As We Like It is a crowd pleaser, and its positioning reflects that: in The Big Screen Competition selection, where the most accessible films on the festival lineup can be found; titles that bridge the crossing between national and art house fare.
As You Like It is classified as a “Pastoral Comedy,” and Chen and Muni’s anti-social media message works within that metier. Most of the film’s action takes place within a neighbourhod of Taipaei where phones are not allowed, consciously pushing people to socialise together. If this is the Arden forest of Shakespeare’s play then Chen and Muni make an interesting reversal — the forest as an edenic state which can be attained by the utopian collective-city, and social media-land as the corrupt principality. This is a somewhat corny approach, and one that is overly sentimentalised in the film. It is, cynically, the sort of take on the material that is regular in a high-school Theatre In Education production. But the liberation on screen is nothing if not rousing to watch. As We Like It is only bound to the vague structure of the play and its characters, moreover it is bound to the whims of its filmmakers. As they like it indeed.
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Quotes from the original Shakespeare text appear on screen as intertitles: “If ever — as that ever may be near / You meet in some fresh cheek the power of fancy” (Act 3, Screen 5). Taken out of the sequential moment of their placement in the play, they appear almost as oblique strategies cards. As We Like It’s playfulness follows this threat, with an editing style that is completely frantic and haphazard. Moments of hand-drawn animation fill out the screen, whether it is to make a fight seem larger and full of explosions/impact shots or to capture tiny moments, like when Orlando draws a moustache on her top lip only for it to literally leap off her face. A later sequence has scent transferred into a psychedelic mandala of elephants made from petals crawling through an underwater world — not Proustian memory so much as some other chakra.
The gender-fluid quality of As We Like It fits with a future digital landscape that moves beyond binaries, and also with Shakespeare’s own casual approach to the “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus” comedy sub-genre. This leads, as it must, to a climactic wedding moment where Chen and Muni drop their best grace-note. As We Like It is a film that makes many unique moments out of its childish buffoonery, and it’s lifted, like its characters, into a class of its own.
Ben Flanagan (@manlikeflan) is a film critic and programmer based in London.