History repeats itself for a former gangster recently released from prison in Johnny Chiang’s melancholy neo-noir, Lost in Forest (山中森林, Shān Zhōng Senlín). Set in a neon-lit Taipei, Chiang’s moody crime drama finds its hero displaced in the modern society unable to look either forward or back while meditating on all he’s lost and another less corrupt vision of his home city as symbolised by his late father’s missing sausage bike and the changing back streets where it was once parked.
This Taipei is however a less wholesome place as suggested by Chiang’s frequent cuts to Christian churches and the giant neon crosses that sit above them as if looming in judgement on the chaos below. 12 years previously, Sheng (Lee Kang-sheng) opened fire on rival gang members who’d kidnapped his best friend and comrade Seagull (Angus Hsieh) who has now taken over the outfit while he’s been inside. Customarily, Seagull should have had someone come to meet him on his release, but Sheng exits the prison alone and is given a lift back into the city by the entourage collecting his prison buddy Ji despite the fact they are headed to an entirely different part of the country. Without a phone and not knowing where the gang even is anymore, all Sheng can do is hole up in a hotel until he finds out what’s going on. All of which suggests that despite his sacrifice, Seagull may not be particularly glad to reunite with him.
The conflict exists on three levels. Sheng must necessarily doubt his old friend Seagull, especially on realising that his new business model involves exploiting vulnerable women by pressing them into debt via high interest loans and then forcing them into sex work, while simultaneously worried about his guys who claim they have not been well treated while Sheng was away. But then it also becomes clear that much like many contemporary Taiwanese crime dramas, the real villain is institutional corruption as Seagull’s alliances with corrupt politicians and shady businessmen continue to destabilise the underground society thanks to the machinations of anarchic street punk Monkey (Sean Huang) who engineers a gang war by giving the businessman’s son a kicking as leverage in a dodgy land deal.
On the one hand, Sheng watches history repeat itself as a handsome foot soldier, Chenghao (Prince Chiu), vacillates over leaving the gang for his respectable girlfriend Alice (Puff Kuo), while on the other Sheng becomes attached to sex worker Jing (Lee Chien-na), one of Seagull’s exploited women working for him to pay for her father’s medical bills. Sheng’s former lover tells him that if he really cared about her, he shouldn’t have sacrificed himself for Seagull just as Chenghao shouldn’t put himself in harm’s way out of a pointless sense of loyalty for a gang that has no real loyalty to him. Before his release, the prison warden had advised Sheng not to let his sense of loyalty get the best of him, but as he says Sheng no longer has much of anything else. His parents died while he was inside, the woman he loved married someone else, and Seagull can’t even remember what he did with Sheng’s dad’s sausage bike which is his only path back to a more wholesome existence.
In a certain sense he’s powerless, unable to escape the inexorable pull of gangland karma until finally forced to reckon with the destabilising force that is Monkey to restore some kind of order and undermine the system of corruption that has arisen between underworld thuggery, local politics, and big business. The warden had also pointed at the fish in his tank and asked Sheng if it was happier in there or back in the sea but Sheng had merely said that it’s up to the fish to decide, hinting that in a certain sense it’s all the same and it’s just that one prison is bigger than another. At least the fish gets fed and is kept safe from predators even in its lonely isolation, which might be more than can be said for Sheng who can never truly escape his past even as he tries to free Chenghao and Jing from a similar fate. A melancholy mood piece, Chiang shoots night-time Taipei as a land of neon emptiness set against a classic jazz score that echoes Sheng’s deadpan ennui in a modern world of electronic smoke and rueful nihilism in which there is no escape from karmic retribution.
Lost in Forest screens in Chicago April 16 as part of the 16th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.
Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)