Betel Nut Girl

Betel Nut Girl

Genre/Year: Romance/political drama, 2013

Producer/director: Craig Addison

Writers: Craig Addison and Tony Urgo

Cast: Frank Bren (Sensitive New Age Killer, dir. Mark Savage), Paul Sheehan (Far Away Eyes, dir. Stanley J. Orzel), introducing Anne Shie.

Synopsis: The fate of three people – an “old China hand” (Jack), a Taiwanese girl from the wrong side of town (Sung-nee) and an American engineer (Marty) – intersect in the days before a cross-strait political crisis threatens to engulf Taiwan.

Jack, a crusty expatriate who’s spent most of his adult life in Asia – and more recently Taiwan – has a love-hate relationship with communist ruled mainland China. He speaks the language and has studied Chinese literature and culture, but the communist rulers in Beijing are a dark force Jack has been running away from.

Taiwan girl-next-door Sung-nee (later Sunny) lives with her grandfather, who sells pineapples from a street stall. They live a modest existence, but Sunny harbors a secret. She’s taken a job as a betel nut girl – it pays well and she’s trying to help support grandpa’s meager wages, but it isn’t the type of job a girl-next-door does. Some even say it’s borderline prostitution with scantily clad women hawking the tobacco-like substance to a mostly male clientele.

Marty Saunders, a twenty-something process engineer from Silicon Valley, gets a work assignment to a client’s facility in Taiwan’s own technology park in Hsinchu, south of Taipei. The ambitious Marty views the trip as an unnecessary detour in his head office career path. At the same time, he feels trapped in his comfortable, but familiar existence where his future seems predetermined.

After Marty is dropped at the wrong hotel by his cab driver, he runs into Jack, who apparently needs a favor from Marty as much as Marty needs his help. He directs Marty to a nearby betel nut store, where Sung-nee has started her evening shift in the “fishbowl” shop that’s designed to attract male customers. But by now Marty’s tired and wants to get to his hotel – so he’s not paying attention to the girl behind the counter.

Later in his hotel, Marty gets a surprise call from Jack. He’s bored being alone in the hotel so grabs the opportunity to have Jack as a drinking buddy – even one old enough to be his grandfather. Over beers at a local pub Marty learns a bit more about Jack and how he ended up in Taiwan, via Hong Kong and a dozen other places before it. Likewise for Jack, who hears Marty’s story (“career, family, golf”) and starts to take a liking to the young engineer.

Back at the office, Marty solves the technical problem he came to Taiwan to fix and is eager to get back home – but bad news comes in a phone call from head office. The Taiwan client will order more machines and they want Marty to stay longer to smooth out any technical hitches in the process. At first Marty is not impressed, but he soon realizes there’s an upside to his situation. He heads back to the betel nut store to see Sung-nee, who he now calls “Sunny.” Via sketchpad communication, he arranges up a date with her for the coming weekend. Marty and Sunny hit it off on a bike trip to a coastal fishing village. They have a great day together, but on their return, when Marty offers to take Sunny directly home, she insists she be left off at the betel nut shop. Marty finds this odd but shrugs it off.

Curious about the betel nut girl culture of Taiwan, Marty turns up at Jack’s place to find out more, but finds the expat hung over from a drinking binge at home. As he sobers up, Jack reveals more of his past to Marty, including a lost love – Mei, a Chinese student who went missing during the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing in 1989. This brings back painful memories for Jack, who keeps a framed photo of Mei as one of his few connections to a past he’d rather forget. When the conversation with Marty turns to betel nuts, Jack’s finally figures out that Marty likes Sunny and he suggests he take her on a weekend trip to Taipei. Jack writes down in Chinese the address of a place Marty should take Sunny after their day of sightseeing.

Sunny is ready for a trip to Taipei, and the time they spend there reinforces their relationship. Marty is delighted and flattered to discover Sunny has learned some English to better communicate with him. After a visit to a famous temple where Sunny teaches Marty the art of joss sticks, they discover the mysterious address from Jack is a popular Taiwan love hotel. Marty think he’s blown it, but to his delight, Sunny is up for the adventure.

After this deepening of their relationship, Marty really wants to know more about Sunny. He insists on escorting her home after the Taipei date, but she rebuffs him for fear that grandpa will find out about the relationship. They argue and Sunny walks away. Immediately remorseful and against his better judgment, Marty follows Sunny. But he doesn’t anticipate an apparently jealous boy neighbor who roughs him up in Sunny’s neighborhood. Rescued by Sunny, Marty inadvertently embarrasses Sunny in front of her grandfather, who hears the ruckus from his nearby pineapple stall. Worse, the jealous boy reveals Sunny’s secret – that she works as a betel nut girl and is dating a “foreign devil.”

The next morning Marty walks into a whirlwind of activity. National events have accelerated during the happy trip to Taipei. The Taiwan president is pushing for unification with China and this prompts street violence as pro- and anti-China factions clash. Marty’s foreign assignment is cut short and his company orders him home on the next available flight. Conflicted and indecisive about his relationship with Sunny, he lets fate and circumstance determine his future. A short time ago he couldn’t wait to go home, but now doesn’t know how to feel about it

Marty and Jack commiserate on his last night in Taiwan. Jack has decided to go back to Hong Kong. Never the most open of individuals, his goodbye with Marty is heartfelt but awkward.
Still without closure, Marty leaves one of his sketch drawings on the window of the betel nut shop – a last goodbye to Sunny before he leaves Taiwan. He leaves another sketch of Jack on his front door – a gesture that touch Jack’s heart in way’s Marty will never know.

At grandpa’s request, Sunny gives up work as a betel nut girl and takes up university study for a better future. Marty is never far from her thoughts. She pens a letter to him, in Chinese, hoping he might grasp its meaning. Sunny’s letter to Marty triggers a life changing decision – he will head back to Taiwan to try and reunite with her. He plans the trip via Hong Kong to see Jack at the airport – again to seek advice from the “old China hand” who has become a good friend.

Against Jack’s advice, Marty boards the plane for Taiwan – which is being torn apart by political strife over the reunification with China. Jack fears the same fate for Marty that befell Mei 25 years earlier in Beijing – that his young engineer friend may become the victim of China-related political violence.

© 2013 Dragon Horse Films Ltd.

 

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