Review: Taiwanese Shakespeare Adaptation “As We Like It” Subverts Traditional Theatrical Gender-Bending

by Jamin Shih

Photo Credit: 揭大歡喜/Facebook

This article originally appeared in Cinema Escapist, a publication that explores the sociopolitical context behind international films and TV shows.

THOUGH FILM adaptations of William Shakespeare’s tragedies—like Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, or Hamlet—may be more common, Shakespeare’s comedies have also proved influential in Asian cinema, for example with  Korea’s 2008 Frivolous Wife.

2021 Taiwanese movie As We Like It, is the newest Shakespeare-inspired Asian film. In many ways, the marriage of William Shakespeare’s gender-bending pastoral comedies and the whimsical antics of Taiwanese dramas is a match made in As We Like It’s heaven-on-earth.

Adaptational Adjustments

AS WE LIKE IT (揭大歡喜), a retelling of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, focuses on a young woman named Rosalind who is looking for her missing father. With only a few weeks before he is officially pronounced dead, Rosalind must find him quickly or risk ownership of the family company—which is building a paradise-on-earth free from modern telecommunications in Ximending, Taiwan—formally defaulting to her uncle.

Photo credit: 揭大歡喜/Facebook

While searching for her father, Rosalind and her cousin Celia travel to this wifi-free zone. There, they encounter Orlando, who instantly falls in love with Rosalind. Suspicious of his affections, Rosalind disguises herself as a man named Roosevelt and convinces Orlando to help her find her father.

On their hunt for her father, “Roosevelt” and Orlando undergo a series of whimsical trials that highlight their budding romantic tension. Meanwhile, a supporting cast of quirky friends and relatives find themselves in surprising romantic pairings of their own. Orlando’s stoic older brother Oliver’s newfound affections for Celia, for instance, serve as the catalyst for a major character transformation. On the other hand, the blossoming romance between hotel owner Silver and the larger-than-life Touchstone are welcome moments of comic relief.

While the film is faithful to the broad strokes of Shakespeare’s play, As We Like It is not afraid of changing things up in small and big ways. Jaques, an ally of Rosalind in the original play, is nowhere to be seen in this adaptation; Instead, the film’s soundtrack takes on his role as a mouthpiece for some of Shakespeare’s iconic lines. During pivotal scenes throughout the film, the soundtrack saunters in with Taiwanese jazz lounge-esque renditions of Jaques’ monologues, such as his famous “All the World’s a Stage” speech. It is an exciting use of a change in medium that effectively trims the play’s large cast and finds creative ways to repurpose their roles.

Embracing a Non-Binary World

ONE OF THE most striking decisions that directors Hung-i Chen and Muni Wei made with As We Like It was casting the entire film with only women. This is explicitly a response to traditional Shakespearean theatre, which excluded women and featured all-male casts who played any female characters as well. Because of this change, many of As We Like It’s actresses play male characters, complete with prosthetic facial hair and androgynous styling. Playing with gender in this way serves as both a loving nod towards the history of gender-bending frequently seen in theater, as well as a pointed critique at theater’s historical marginalization of women.

Photo credit: 揭大歡喜/Facebook

In an interview for the International Film Festival Rotterdam, Wei explains that in a Taiwanese context, plays in which women play men on stage were not considered strange. This change, then, smoothly melds a gendered critique of the source material with the cultural sensibilities of the adapting country. In Taiwanese opera, the majority of roles are played by actresses, regardless of the gender of the character; the gender ratio within such works can exceed 10:1. Because of this, Taiwanese opera relies on “stylized movements and gestures as the primary feature for differentiating female- and male-role types.” This theatrical gendering not only serves to inform the acting choices of As We Like It’s all-woman cast—watching an opera also explicitly inspires Rosalind’s idea to play Roosevelt.

While many movie adaptations of Shakespeare use film’s generally more realistic aesthetic to simply cast characters with same-gender performers, As We Like It seems to delight in the queer possibilities of subverting traditional theatrical gender-bending. It is genuinely exciting to step into the film’s palpably queer world, where actresses are allowed to play leading romantic roles opposite of each other, and passing extras embody a sapphic joy.

The Shakespearean gender-bending does elicit some moments of internal panic for some of the film’s characters, as they grapple with whether they might not be as straight as they once assumed. But while the movie follows the original play’s quite heteronormative ending, its characters come to the realization that gender ought not to be a barrier in the pursuit of love. In this way, the LGBTQ+ readings of the film’s romances are very much an intentional part of its fabric. The film is also inclusive of transgender women as well, featuring two trans actresses in its all-woman cast. Chen and Wei are explicitly interested in deconstructing a binary conception of gender and sexuality. Rather than using the diegetic heterosexuality of the characters as a way to distance themselves from Taiwan’s LGBTQ+ community, As We Like It embraces queerness.

Thematic Missteps

THERE ARE, however, a few changes to the source material that subtly undermine the film’s feminist and pro-LGBTQ+ themes. Charles, a wrestler that is a minor source of early conflict in the play, bizarrely takes on the role of the film’s final climactic villain. In this adaptation, Charles pines for his boss Oliver, and is jealous of Oliver’s budding relationship with Celia. Celia ultimately defeats him by forcing him to confront the fact that, unlike her, he will not be able to conceive Oliver’s biological children.

Photo credit: 揭大歡喜/Facebook

This is a strange change that not only unnecessarily muddles the film’s final act with additional action sequences, but also dilutes its otherwise progressive tone. The characterization of Charles as a surprise gay final villain frames the film’s only named canonically LGBTQ+ character as evil explicitly because of unrequited queer love, and a presumed failure of biological kinship. In a film where every other antagonist is quickly redeemed and the entire main cast enters heterosexual marriages in its final scenes, the promotion of Charles to a more prominent antagonist and confirmation of his sexuality feels counter to As We Like It’s otherwise subversive feminist and pro-LGBTQ+ take on Shakespeare.

Despite these thematic missteps, As We Like It is a whimsically Taiwanese take on Shakespeare with a contemporary perspective on a freer LGBTQ+ future. As Taiwanese LGBTQ+ activists push to expand Taiwan’s 2019 wins for same-sex marriage and adoption to include non-citizens and non-biological parents, the film’s idyllically queer world is a welcome aspirational vision. Its fairytale-esque heaven-on-earth setting offers a glimpse at what a world outside of a binary conception of gender, sexuality, and even technological advancement might look like. With these interesting themes and joyous atmosphere, there is much to like about As We Like It.