Looking for love in all the wrong places, a Taipei career woman suddenly decides to give up her life and place a personal ad stating that she’s looking for a husband, “Who knows, maybe I’ll find happiness” she unconvincingly explains. Chen Kuo-fu’s sophisticated dramedy The Personals (徵婚啓事, Zhēnghūn Qǐ Shì) sends its heroine on a dating odyssey through the contemporary capital but is at heart the story of a woman learning to see herself while grieving a failed relationship and the married ex who won’t return her calls.
Tu Chia-wen (Rene Liu Ruo-ying) was a successful eye doctor at a Taipei hospital, explaining to a patient that some people lose the ability to produce enough tears after the age of 30, but abruptly quits her job later claiming that she wanted sever connections with her past which is another reason why she’s decided to place an ad rather than asking friends to set her up with eligible bachelors. Implicitly, it also seems that Chia-wen feels her status as a doctor may be intimidating to some men in the still patriarchal society, if also a clue to her true identity which she has otherwise chosen to keep hidden going instead by the name of Miss “Wu” which just happens to be the name of her lover’s wife.
Of course, it’s illogical to use a false identity if your end goal is finding a life partner, a factor which later feeds in to Chia-wen’s half-hearted conclusion that it isn’t the fault of the men she’s been meeting that they didn’t hit it off but her own in that she’s so far failed to fully “open up” to any of them. Despite newspaper personal ads not featuring photos, Chia-wen receives 100 messages in the three days after her details are posted from a varied cross section of applicants some more suitable than others. One gentleman who unconvincingly claims to be in his 30s reels off his CV as if he were introducing himself at a job interview while wearing a cheerful farmer-style straw hat. A factory worker chews betel nut and smokes tobacco at the same time while exposing an insecurity over his financial situation in complaining that modern women are too materialistic. One suitor is a woman who struggles to explain her gender and sexual identity with the terminology of the time causing Chia-Wen a degree of consternation. Another potential date is a shoe fetishist with a large suitcase intent on some kind of cinderella role-play closely followed by an executive who enthusiastically explains his only hobby outside of drinking is an encyclopaedic knowledge of S&M porn, while a son brings his father as a potential match because his mum’s “gone abroad” and in a heartbreaking moment a worried mother tries to negotiate on behalf of her son who appears to have learning difficulties and might not be sure what’s going on, hoping to find someone to look after him when she’s gone.
It may be a biased sample, but it doesn’t speak well for the men of Taipei and that’s without even getting into the guy trying to recruit Chia-wen as a high class call girl, the obvious married man after no strings sex, or the salesman trying to peddle women’s self defence equipment with a case full of tasers and pepper spray. Chia-wen pours out her frustrations in daily calls to her ex’s answering machine, leaving long messages she knows he won’t reply to but somehow it makes her feel close to him. Gradually through her monologues we begin to piece together the trauma that she’s struggling to accommodate while a late and unexpected twist keys us in to the cosmic tragedy of her frustrated romance. “Choose what you can endure” she’s advised by a professor friend who confesses to her that he’s chosen to suppress his homosexuality out of a desire for a “normal” life as a husband and father hinting at the still conservative nature of the contemporary society.
It’s not until she’s caught off guard by a potential match seeing through her ruse that Chia-wen begins to reconsider her experiment, eventually captivated by a sensitive young man who’s not long come out of prison but has an endearingly awkward smile that reminds her of her own. She meets each of the men in the same cafe where she had her first date with her former lover, taking on a slightly different character as she attempts to interview them about their lives, getting to know their hopes and desires often tinged with a note of loneliness or despair. They seldom seem very interested in her, but instantly propose marriage or at least some sort of serious courtship without even finding out about her hopes and aspirations in life. Chia-wen’s often comical encounters from the teenage boys trying their luck to the old men taking their last chance each expose something of contemporary gender dynamics as well as hinting at increasing urban loneliness and romantic desperation but in the end it’s herself Chia-wen must face in learning to let go of past trauma in order to give herself permission to move on in her ever evolving quest for love.
The Personals streams in the UK 25th to 31st October as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.
Trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)