Feature Documentary Reviews

See You White House (2021) – 1.5 stars

Director: Chien-Cheng Lee

Running time: 1hr 33mins

Superannuated Simpsons obsessives like me may recall the horror of Aunts Patty and Selma presenting a slideshow of their holiday to the Yucatan. With photos seemingly taken every few seconds and not a single one left out of the presentation, it was the epitome of over-detailed boredom. I was reminded of it as I once again checked the time-bar on See You White House and realised that somehow, I was only 10 minutes closer to the end, even though it seemed like days.

Documentarian Chien-Cheng Lee falls into the same trap as the Bouvier sisters: he records everything and then makes us sit through it. [Chien-Cheng Lee did something similar in previous effort Film-Wen – but possibly due to co-director Yang Chi-Sheng, that was mercifully about 40 minutes shorter.] So, in See You White House, we have endless time wasted on non-essential material such as asking for directions, people saying they look different from when they were younger, and advice on how to take dried bamboo shoots to the US (and whether or not you can get lard there because the shoots only taste good with lard). Some of this padding can be excused as providing personal colour. But much of it just consists of establishing shots. These can be useful, vital indeed, in any film and particularly in documentaries. But here they seem to account for the best part of an hour, thereby making a 90-minute doc feel more drawn-out than Ben Hur.

Anyway, lest I fall into the same dreary rut, let’s get to the point. The titular ‘White House’ is a building that’s now part of an elementary school in Shuilin, in rural south-west Taiwan. But it was built in 1968 as the US Naval Metabolic Ward and functioned as such until 1975. It seems to have been a base for research into nutrition and child development, funded handsomely as part of US aid to Taiwan. Elderly people in the area recall special milk being delivered to pregnant mothers in the area and infant boys being taken to live in the unit, where they would be regularly tested for physical and mental development.

The film opens with a gathering of former staff at the building. For many, it’s their first time back there and some haven’t met for over 40 years. There’s lots of greetings and reminiscences. We learn that film-maker Lee’s dad worked there and that Lee used to know the nurses as the “kind Aunties”. But underlying all this is a sense that not everything is known about what went on in the “The US White House”, as locals called it. What was special about the “US-aid milk”, which people were told would make them “healthier and smarter”? What was the impact on boys raised in the ward? Why only boys? Why is there no documentary evidence of the project, not even in Taiwan’s national archives?

My initial expectation was that all this would lead to some damning discoveries or shocking revelations. But given the glacial pace of proceedings, by the time a former child inpatient declares: “I’m now 47 and there’s nothing wrong with me”, I’d revised my prediction all the way down to not expecting anything at all. And so it continues, with various people who’ve grown older remarking to each other how funny it is that they all look older. Excitement arrives at last in the form of a trip to the US to visit Johns Hopkins University. Here we meet another former staff member, possibly (I’m not 100% sure) Lee’s uncle, who apparently was offered an opportunity to study there and never returned. It also turns out that the JHU archives actually have material concerning the Shuilin project, including numerous slide photos as well as film footage. But all we really learn of substance is that Shuilin was chosen because, as a rural area, there was an above average number of pregnant mums and below average level of nutrition. And Taiwan itself had become a centre of US medical expertise due to being one of the main evacuation points for Vietnam War casualties.

The film abruptly returns to Taiwan and shuffles slowly towards some sort of conclusion, which is presaged by a voice-over from Lee: “After four years of shooting, my dad and the aunties have remained in close contact after half a century apart”. “We have a clearer picture,” he says, of what happened at the US Naval Metabolic Ward, even though many files are still locked away at JHU in the US. And he closes by saying that the building, now the elementary school library, became an official historic building in 2020, “leaving a testimony for the youth of the Taiwanese of my father’s generation”.

I see what’s happened here. I’ve reviewed a movie in which nothing really happens but we see all of it not happening by showing you everything that didn’t happen. Sorry about that. But it’s sort of fitting. Near the end of the credits, we see mention given to the editor of the “15-minute version”. Now they tell me! Sadly, I haven’t been able to view said abridgement, so I don’t know if it’s just a sort of promo, to drum up support for the full thing, or if it’s an actual effort to tell the story in a more accessible manner. But in that spirit of providing a shorter version, I’ll give you my Tl;Dr review: This is a film in which a bunch of people are reunited and share memories of a time they worked together many decades ago. While the project on which they worked was a bit strange, there was nothing especially remarkable about it. So, what we’re seeing is essentially a private slideshow, doubtless of great interest and sentimental value to those it concerns, but frankly boring and irrelevant to almost anyone else.

Although, at its best, the film demonstrates the enduring power of friendship and the human instinct for nostalgia, it never really transcends its very specific setting. By contrast, a documentary that’s even more personal than this one, When All That’s Left Is Love, achieves a wider appeal by being assembled with much greater care and craft.

At the same time, its pacing is a problem. So much so that one of its chief positives almost counts against it. The music, by Yi-Tsang Li, is very pleasingly elegiac. But because it sounds like the sort of music you expect at the end of a film, it raises false hopes from the moment it first appears.

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