LOVE BOAT: TAIWANDirected by Valerie Soe
Official Selection, 2019 CAAMFest
Audience Award, 2019 Urban Nomad Film Festival
None of its participants remember what it’s officially called. “Overseas Chinese” something? Might it have the word “compatriot” in it? Everyone knows what they’re not supposed to call it. “Love Boat” was the nickname that stuck, the moniker that came to define and perhaps undo the Taiwan government’s legendary summer camp for overseas Chinese. Officially designed as a soft power program to teach Chinese culture and language to diasporic youth and also to promote the notion of the Republic of China on Taiwan, the program became notorious instead as a month-and-a-half incubator for hookups and delinquency.
But rather than stick to the salacious, legendary director Valerie Soe, herself a Love Boat alum from 1982, recalls broader definitions of love. There is the self-love of discovering a diasporic identity by partying with other Chinese youth from around the world and finally finding a place where they didn’t stick out in the streets. It’s also the love for Taiwanese culture on their own terms, coming to appreciate food, landmarks, and people independently of their parents. And however circuitously, the program translated into a lifelong love for Taiwan, through the universal diasporic language of clubbing rather than through the classroom or countless military demonstrations.
The documentary’s archival videos and photographs represent a joyous, alternative history of Taiwan and Chinese America, one seen from the awkwardly created category of “overseas Chinese” borne out of propaganda and adolescent desires to fit in. Perhaps the most endearing example yet of Asian American cinema’s “returnee” subgenre (see: First Person Plural, Seoul Searching, A Great Wall), LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN has the laughs of a fish-out-of-water comedy and the feels of a homecoming dance.