Disability and deification: the myth making of 'Reunion'

by on Monday, 03 December 2012 2925 hits Comments
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The story

Reunion (1985)[1] plots the lives of a group of school chums at four points over 30 years. Starring Terry Hu (胡因夢) and Ding Nai-zhu (丁乃竺) - two Taiwanese actors who later transitioned into careers in the spiritual world - Reunion’s plot details the travails of the classmates over the years, reaching a climax when Ding's school for mentally handicapped children faces a crisis.

The first stanza begins in the mountains of rural Taiwan at an elementary school. Scenes of ragamuffins running amok in small town Taiwan are juxtaposed against the pastoral care of Ding, an attractive and kind young teacher who struggles to engender respect and responsibility in her students. The students, oblivious as the young so often are, only realize the extent of Ding's care for them when a dead-snake-in-the-drawer joke backfires. Ding has the bejusus scared out of her and the shame-faced students are resoundingly scolded.

Reconvening nearly ten years later, the second stanza unfolds during high school when the students reunite for a picnic. Ding has married a charming and creative young man and they are very much in love. The students reminisce, skylark and flirt at a riverside BBQ picnic. Then, just as this idyllic scene could get no more so, two rowboats on the lake capsize. Ding's husband gallantly dives in and rescues some students before he tragically drowns, bringing this segment to a grim close.

By the third stanza the students are now navigating the vicissitudes of life in martial law-era Taipei. Stock broker, lawyer, aspiring politician, doctor, chef and lorry driver, their lives have all taken different paths, something they discover upon reuniting for classmate and TV current affairs host Hu's wedding. Drunken melodrama and stifled emotions aside, this section is most notable for the group's reconnection with Ding. Now a widower and retired from teaching, Ding has taken to caring for mentally handicapped children in her house, something that shocks her former students.

Another ten years later and the gang are together yet again – this time banding together to help Ding. She has expanded her operation to help handicapped children, but with more children to care for come even greater problems. Landlords are unsympathetic and local groups protest the location of a “白癡中心 (idiot centre)” in the neighbourhood as it will ruin the ambience and negatively influence their own children. Against these exaggerated fears, the handicapped children are shown at work in the garden where they cooperate and learn at their own pace. Ultimately through the cooperation of the friends with Ding and the television special produced by Hu, the locals are shown to be accepting of the handicapped children.

The message

Reunion is notable for two features: the depiction of attitudes towards handicapped people and the beatification of Ding and Hu, something all the more remarkable given the direction that their careers took afterwards.

While the plight of the handicapped children cared for Ding is never far from the surface, the melodrama of Hu and her classmates tends to dominate the story. That said, the process of acceptance of the handicapped children, first by Ding’s former students and then by society, is interesting. The children are shown to be capable and loving, and while the story telling is at times overwrought, the humanity of these children is obvious. For that, the filmmakers deserve praise. Ding and Hu are able to engender emotional transformation of the humans around them, continuing the maturation process first evident in elementary school.

While Hu retired from the entertainment industry shortly after Reunion was filmed, Ding, husband of the noted Taiwanese-American playwright Stan Lai (賴聲川) remained more closely linked. In 1989 Ding hosted a TV show called 心靈之旅 (Journey of the Soul) and has become a proponent of Tibetan Buddhism, translating and promoting books by various lamas and hosting Tibetan Buddhist dignitaries when they passed through Taiwan.

Since leaving the entertainment industry in 1988, Hu has remained in the limelight through her roles as an anti-nuclear campaigner, author and translator of spiritual texts, and, recently, as a teacher of evolutionary astrology. Her books continue to be published in both China and Taiwan, where she is considered to be one of the key figures in the 'new age' spiritual scene[2]. While Hu acknowledges the utility of this term, it is not one that she is willing to label herself with. Rather, Hu considers her recent work to be psychological in nature. Regardless of how she classifies herself, Hu, along with Ding, is a notable and influential spiritual figure in contemporary Taiwan and her depiction in Reunion is just one phase of her spiritual development.

During the later parts of Reunion, Hu and Ding marshal their former classmates/pupils to help Ding’s centre for handicapped children. Through their combined efforts, the handicapped children find a better home and the students understand the strength of the friendship. Hu and Ding are integral in this process, and their stoical approach to the situation contrasts with the neuroses and agitation of those around them. Hu and Ding remain equanimous throughout, providing the example of how to transcend the mundanity of careerism and material success to benefit those less fortunate. Ding (a widow) and Hu (a divorcee) step beyond their marital status to provide a moral beacon for their classmates and students. They are inspiring to others, just as they are seemingly inspired by a deeper calling.

The idealized versions of Ding and Hu portrayed in Reunion are fascinating examples of if not life imitating art, then of art providing a template for future life choices. In the context of their current careers in Taiwan’s spiritual world, Hu and Ding might look back at the film with a smile. The everyday spirituality embodied in Reunion proved to be not dissimilar to the images projected throughout their later career choices.

 


[2] For more on the ‘new age’ in China and Taiwan see these articles by Paul Farrelly:

- China new age store

- Taiwan new age store

Last modified on Wednesday, 08 January 2014 17:34
Paul Farrelly (范寶文)

Paul is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University in Canberra. His primary research interests are new religious movements and religious innovation in China and Taiwan.

Website: twitter.com/paul_farrelly

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