Stan Lai's play The Village transcends time and place

A scene from The Village, which follows three families living in a military dependents' village in Chiayi, Taiwan.
A scene from The Village, which follows three families living in a military dependents' village in Chiayi, Taiwan.PHOTO: COURTESY OF ESPLANADE – THEATRES ON THE BAY
The Village revolves around the Zhao, Zhu and Zhou families during the period between 1949 and 2006.
The Village revolves around the Zhao, Zhu and Zhou families during the period between 1949 and 2006.PHOTO: COURTESY OF ESPLANADE – THEATRES ON THE BAY
The three-hour long, Chinese-language epic premiered in 2008, and had successful runs in Singapore in 2009 and 2012.
The three-hour long, Chinese-language epic premiered in 2008, and had successful runs in Singapore in 2009 and 2012.PHOTO: COURTESY OF ESPLANADE – THEATRES ON THE BAY
Stan Lai, the writer and director of The Village.
Stan Lai, the writer and director of The Village.PHOTO: COURTESY OF ESPLANADE – THEATRES ON THE BAY

SINGAPORE - The Village, written and directed by Stan Lai, is a masterful and compassionate production by the Taiwan-based Performance Workshop. It charts the trials and tribulations of three families living in a military dependents' village in Chiayi, Taiwan from 1949 to 2006.

Hundreds of such villages sprang up in Taiwan after communist forces defeated the Kuomintang in 1949. Chinese soldiers and their dependents fled to Taiwan with their leader, Chiang Kai-shek, and moved into makeshift houses thinking that their stay would be temporary. These would become permanent communities - melting pots of dialects and traditions - and it was not till 1987 that they were allowed to return to the mainland.

Lai's three-hour epic, which premiered in 2008 and had successful runs in Singapore in 2009 and 2012, revolves around the Zhao, Zhu and Zhou families. This time round, it was performed at the Esplanade Theatre from May 25 to 27.

The first-generation villagers such as Old Zhao yearn for a home they might never see again, while their children, including Da Niu, harbour dreams of a better life in Taipei or the United States.

The tragedy of Zhao, who dies before he can return to the mainland, is thus distinct from Da Niu's. The latter runs away to seek his fortune in America and is the archetypal immigrant who loses something in his pursuit of elsewheres.

Meanwhile, lurking in the background is the otherworldly Grandma Lu, a kind of walking chronophage or time-eater whose footfalls mark the passage of time.

Lai is well known for combining tragedy and comedy in his plays. In the acclaimed Secret Love In Peach Blossom Land (1986), for example, two different theatre groups - one performing a tragic story of a couple in 1940s China separated by the revolution, the other a period comedy - jostle for room in the same rehearsal space.

This blend of sorrow and laughter has been fine-tuned to perfection in The Village.

What makes us laugh one moment is the same reason why we cry seconds later. We first laugh at the characters, and then, through some devious alchemy, end up crying for them. Lai has mastered the art of manipulating that fine line between bathos and pathos.

Co-written and directed by veteran television producer Wang Wei-chung, The Village moves briskly between scenes in cinematic fashion. As it modulates quickly between gravity and humour, we do not tire of either - there is little time for anything to stew in sentimentality.

Some scenes are powerfully moving. I did not expect to be moved to tears by a man talking about the importance of being happy, or a question as banal as "Did you just come back to have dinner?"

And it is hard not to have goosebumps listening to the villagers sing the opening lines of On Songhua River, the patriotic lament of people in northeast China who lost their homeland after the Japanese invasion in 1931.

The dialogue is clever, although a few scenes seem too pat.

The chance reunion of childhood sweethearts Da Niu and Da Mao in Las Vegas has the air of a soap opera.

Because the rest of the play is so well-crafted, it becomes especially obvious when the writers lapse into corny cliches.

As the play progresses, the silhouette of the village recedes ever farther into the past. Finally, it forms the backdrop to a group photo of the villagers gathered for one last hurrah before it is demolished.

Like Taiwanese auteur Edward Yang's three-hour multi-generational film A One And A Two (2000), The Village is not so much a spectacle as something to be experienced.

Lai's play is not rooted in any one village. It transcends the confines of time and place by speaking, with wit and plenty of heart, to the humanity in all of us.