Terrorizers (青春弒戀, Ho Wi Ding, 2021)

A collection of youngsters is drawn into a dangerous web of simmering violence in Ho Wi Ding’s Taipei-set drama, Terrorizers (青春弒戀, qīngchūn shì liàn). The film may share its name with an Edward Yang classic, but it is very clearly society that is the terroriser in this instance from toxic masculinity and social conservatism to youthful isolation, video games, and pornography. The film seems to ask if it’s ever really possible to move on from the past and discovers that it may not be though some may be prepared to help carry your baggage as they travel towards the future so long as they know what’s in it. 

The youngsters are brought together by the ominous presence of Ming Liang (Austin Lin Bo-Hong), an isolated young man who barely speaks and spends all his time playing video games. It’s him we see dressed in full ninja garb attacking a young woman, Yu Fang (Moon Lee), with a katana at the train station only for her boyfriend Xiao Zhang (J.C. Lin Cheng-Hsi) to heroically throw himself in front of her to fight Ming Liang off. 

Later a dejected middle-aged woman Ming Liang befriends ironically tells him that guy who protects his girlfriend is a real man, working the wound of Ming Liang’s bruised masculinity and causing him to double down on his frequent insistence that he can protect women, though later he indeed does on separating precocious teen Kiki (Yao Ai-Ning) from the previously diffident best friend who tried to assault her. Having given up on Yu Fang he begins stalking a woman from her acting class, Monica (Annie Chen Ting-Ni), whose admittedly no good ex boyfriend he later beats up assuming it will buy him white knight credits as a protector in the shadows when in reality he’s a total creep who cloned the key to her apartment and has been hiding in her wardrobe later driven into a frenzy by the irony of watching Yu Fang and Monica, the two women he wanted, deciding they’d rather be with each other. 

Part of Ming Liang’s problem is a sense of parental abandonment, something he shares with Yu Fang whose mother abandoned her when young while her relationship with her father, who has recently remarried, has always been strained. After his parents’ divorce, Ming Liang moved in with Yu Fang’s politician father after being palmed off off by his own, the implication being that he has never really been shown parental love or given any guidance about how to live in the world save that he gleaned from the violent video games he constantly plays along with voyeuristic pornography. 

Yu Fang and Ming Liang are attempting to escape the legacy of parental failure, but Monica is left with a much more recent dilemma in her history as an early cam girl named Missy, a character created by her ex, David, who has since moved on. The more Monica tries to chase her dreams, the more her past comes out to haunt her with creepy men for some reason making a point of telling her they saw her sex tape while on some occasions actually playing it for her on their phone. Hoping to crush her spirit, David tells her that she’ll always be Missy, unable to escape the social stigma of having participated in a pornographic video, while she and Yu Fang are subject to a public shaming when a tape of them goes viral allowing the authorities to all but justify Ming Liang’s attack on Yu Fang on the grounds that she stole his girlfriend and therefore was in the wrong as if such feudalistic behaviour could ever be permissible. 

Yu Fang finds herself terrorised by the media storm of the 24hr news cycle, her new life with Xiao Zhang in jeopardy while she feels ever more isolated realising that her father cares less for her wellbeing than the optics in the light of his ongoing political campaign. Ming Liang meanwhile is forever reminding people that his father is rich and influential as if his misuse of his status is a direct rebellion against it and the parents he feels abandoned him. The fact that the news essentially reframes the slashing incident as a defence of heterosexual love, demonising same sex relationships, only emphasises the tyranny of outdated social prejudice and misogyny as Yu Fang becomes the villain and Ming Liang the victim entirely ignoring his predatory stalking of Monica and otherwise disturbing behaviour. It may not be possible to effectively move on from the past, overcome the legacy of parental abandonment and develop the ability to trust in others, but there may be less destructive ways to take the past with you if only in finding someone willing to share your burden. 

Terrorizers screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © changheFilms 2021

My Best Friend’s Breakfast (我吃了那男孩一整年的早餐, Du Zheng Zhe, 2022)

Teenage romance is always complicated, but it seems wilfully so for the couple at the centre of Du Zheng Zhe’s high school rom-com, My Best Friend’s Breakfast (我吃了那男孩一整年的早餐, wǒ chī le nà nánhái yī zhěng nián de zǎocān). Du’s adaptation of the popular novel by Misa lacks the quirky post-modernism with which Taiwanese romantic comedies have come to be associated save a few fantasy sequences and the heroine’s dialogues with possible versions of her future self, opting instead for a more much more conventional tale of miscommunication and the potential costs of failing to speak one’s true feelings at the right time. 

High schooler Wei-xin (Moon Lee) is in any case sceptical of romance as her parents have recently divorced after years of arguing about money and their conflicting views on success and happiness. Her classmate Yuan-shou (Edison Song Bai-wai), who has an obvious crush on her, convinces Wei-xin to take part in the school concert in exchange for receiving a milk tea every day, while she also makes a habit of eating the breakfasts sent to her best friend, popular girl Qi-ran (Jean Ho), by her various suitors. She then runs into top swimmer You-quan (Eric Chou) who chips in when she’s sort on her pineapple bread snack and starts hanging out with him after witnessing his awkward breakup with an unfaithful girlfriend. 

A brief note of social commentary is introduced as the pair bond over their stigmatised familial circumstances, Wei-xin fearing You-quan will look down on her when she explains her parents are divorced while he reveals he feared the same because his father has passed away and his mother is working in the US while he lives in one of the school dorms. The problem is, however, the central miscommunication in their by-proxy courtship in which You-quan starts sending breakfasts to Qi-ran which are obviously intended for Wei-xin though she remains oblivious both of You-quan’s feelings and those of Yuan-shuo. Assuming that You-quan is interested in Qi-ran she keeps quiet, as does he and everyone else giving rise to a lot of totally unnnecessary emotional suffering for all involved. 

Then again Wei-xin’s romantic predicament pushes her into an intense contemplation of her future, engaging in conversation with possible versions of herself in 15 years’ time firstly as a lonely, overweight woman who lives only to eat, and then as a cool and super-confident musician, each of them helping her figure out her feelings and what to do about them. Meanwhile, her youthful romance is contrasted with her parents’ failed relationship which apparently began when they were both carefree teens with no responsibilities and eventually broke down when faced with the realities of supporting each other as a family. While Wei-xin’s musician father has continued to follow his dreams even if they never payoff, her mother has become an unhappy workaholic desperate to work herself out of debt but also perhaps resentful in having given up on love for the illusion of financial security. 

What Wei-xin learns is that it’s better to be bold and have no regrets than risk becoming the version of her future self who is embittered and resentful that she never told her teenage crush how she felt. These teens do at least seem to have a fairly mature attitude to romantic disappointment, taking rejection with good grace and resolving not to let the awkwardness of a failed romantic confession ruin a friendship. One unexpectedly compassionate teen receives a declaration of love from a same sex crush in the midst of wailing about their own romantic heartbreak and though they do not return their feelings immediately embraces them in empathising with their emotional pain while another reflects on a bad breakup and traumatic incident to work on themselves and gain inner confidence before winning back their former love. 

Given all that the idealism of the film’s conclusion may sit a little oddly if perfectly positioned to appeal to a teen audience with an archetypal romantic moment, but is to a degree earned in teen’s path towards emotional honesty and the necessity of being brave enough to accept the risk of heartbreak in chasing their romantic destiny. Perhaps free breakfast delivered to your best friend by proxy is as a good a way to say I love you as any other. 

My Best Friend’s Breakfast screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Images: © 2022, SKY FILMS Entertainment Co., Ltd., all rights reserved.

I WeirDO (怪胎, Liao Ming-Yi, 2020) [Fantasia 2020]

Being in love can be a little like a sickness, but what happens when the spell wears off? A meditation on fatal attraction syndrome and the duplicitous delusions of “normality’, Liao Ming-Yi’s charming romance I WeirDo (怪胎, Guàitāi) arrives at the most opportune moment in which we’re all “weirdos” now, stuck at home obsessively washing our hands and dutifully remaining “alert” as we disinfect everything we see. Liao’s PPE-clad heroes find love in shared anxiety, but happiness is the enemy of fear and the things that brought you together may in the end drive you apart.

Chen Po-ching (Austin Lin Bo-hong) is somehow able to afford a spacious two-level home working as a full-time literary translator despite the fact it takes him ages because he’s unable to type. A sufferer of severe OCD, he lives by strict routine and is deathly afraid of germs. For most of his life he simply remains at home, but on the 15th of every month he dons full body PPE and braves the outside to pay his bills, do his shopping, and visit a doctor he hopes can help him beat the condition but only gives him mysterious medication which doesn’t seem to make much difference. His life changes one particular 15th when he spots a woman dressed much like himself who is also headed to the supermarket where she shoplifts a bar of chocolate and buys up the remaining stocks of his favourite disinfectant. Chen Ching (Nikki Hsieh Hsin-Ying), as she later gives her name, approaches him to make sure he’s not going to dob her in about the chocolate which she doesn’t even like, it’s just a compulsion. She suffers from OCD too along with a skin allergy that means she’s not supposed to spend a lot of time outdoors. 

Love eventually blossoms. Ching opens up Po-ching’s world, conspiratorially involving him in her shoplifting and inviting him to visit her at work as a life model for a drawing class where she’s asked to pose like a fallen angel with broken wings. They go on weird “dates” taking germ challenges like eating at tiny eateries with questionable hygiene standards and picking up rubbish before Po-ching realises that going “out” so much is placing a strain on Ching’s health so he proposes she move in with him. Luckily she’s an ace typist so she can help with his work as well as the intensive cleaning regime he already has in place. What they’ve made is a blissful world of two, isolated from the confusing pollution of regular society. But paradise can also be a cage, and it’s natural enough to long for freedom. Before long a problematic pigeon and a loitering lizard have them each pondering life in the outside.  

Opening in a boxy, claustrophobic square, Liao eventually swaps narrators and switches to a comparatively open widescreen as horizons quite literally expand, a development which introduces, ironically, a new but distinctly unhelpful anxiety into a relationship both apparently hoped would be unchanging. The couple’s OCD struggles become a stand-in for the giddy obsession of new love as they cocoon themselves happily within their romantic bubble only for the magic to inevitably begin wearing off. Despite all they have in common, the pair have an ideological mismatch. She actively craves their difference, believing OCD is a gift that allows them to lead unique lives, but he secretly yearns for “normality”, to be cured and become a “normal” person living a “normal” life. She’s for staying in, he’s for going out. “Why do we have to be the weirdos?” Ching asks Po-ching seconds after revealing suicidal tendencies. He tells her he’s never given it too much thought. His OCD simply is, it can’t be changed, so he just accepted it. But change, which is of course what they most fear, eventually comes, paradoxically because when you’re “happy” and you feel accepted perhaps you don’t need so much obsessive control over your life. 

Liao undercuts the darker side of a life ruled by intense anxiety through whimsical production design adding a touch of fairytale glamour to the sad romance of the two similarly named protagonists falling in love in an uncertain world. Shot entirely on iPhone, the cinematography is unexpectedly rich and innovative, handsome even in its immediacy and like the protagonists embracing its limitations with wit and charm. Perfectly tailored for the post-corona world, I WeirDo wants to ask us if love can survive our fear of change or if our intense need for control over our lives robs us of the ability to live, if being “normal” is worth the price of love, and if there’s really anything wrong with being a “weirdo” especially if you find someone to be a weirdo with. Po-ching and Ching are still figuring it out, but aren’t we all even in these admittedly strange times? 

I WeirDO streamed as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Someone in the Clouds (真愛神出來, Gary Tseng & Mitch Lin, 2019)

“True love is your own choice, you have to love unconditionally” the cynical fortuneteller at the centre of Someone in the Clouds (真愛神出來, zhēn’ài shén chūlái) is told by Venus herself during an impromptu intervention. Is love fated or a matter of choice? Both, it would seem. At least, that special person might be out there, but you won’t know unless you fully commit. Another in the ongoing series of charming romantic comedies from Taiwan, Someone in the Clouds tackles the divination of love in more ways than one as its romance-averse heroine is forced to look at love from all angles. 

The daughter of a fortune telling family, Hsaio-Pei (Jian Man-shu) makes a living as a tarot reader mostly offering romantic advice to women suffering in love while she herself does not really believe in “the one”. Hsiao-Pei’s cynical, flighty mother declares that the most loveable love letter is a credit card and has been in a constant cycle of failed relationships since divorcing Hsaio-Pei’s father for the crime of working too much. In any case, the drama begins when Hsiao-Pei is spotted by in the subway by cocksure student Chiung-nan (Austin Lin Bo-hong) who tracks her down, walks into her uni tarot club, and wields the cards asking for a date. Not given much opportunity to refuse, Hsiao-Pei goes with it and the two have a beautiful, adolescent romance only for petty insecurities to end up getting in the way. 

According to Venus, all romances begin with “coincidence” but there is no “coincidence” in love. The goddess can guide the way, but the truth, apparently, is that true love is a free choice which is why Venus finds Hsiao-Pei’s mother so particularly annoying seeing as she always backs off when the going gets tough. Thus, Venus guides Chiung-nan to the tarot club for the meet cute, but Hsiao-Pei has to agree to the match. Venus’ parting wisdom is that true love, in a sense, is actually self love in that once you’re happy in yourself and can love unconditionally without expecting anything in return you will find “true love” without even realising it. 

Yet Hsiao-Pei’s path towards such a realisation requires a fair amount of intervention from the increasingly exasperated goddess. A moment of jealousy about some texts from an old girlfriend threatens to bring the whole thing crashing down while Hsiao-Pei relives her climactic moments Sliding Doors style trying to decide what might have been if different things had been said or done. Meanwhile, she continues reading the future for others and “punishing” Chiung-nan by punishing herself in a grim mirror of Venus’ central philosophy. 

Alternatively, as her grandpa claims, all you need to do to be happy is be kind and generous in the knowledge that life is short. This is a life lesson he imparts to Chiung-nan’s buxom cousin, a super popular online glamour model currently engaged to a wealthy Singaporean air steward who was originally taken by the idea of annoying his conservative parents with a surprise marriage to a modern girl but is now waking up to the major implications of his reckless decision. More words of wisdom come from Hsiao-Pei’s friend Panhai who takes a cheating ex back because she feels he needs her, replying to Hsiao-Pei’s criticism that need is not love with the reasoning that not everyone can tell the difference. 

True love is, according to the goddess at least, as simple as deciding to be happy. She can point the way, but in the end it’s up to the individual to claim their right to happiness or dwell in cynical misery for evermore. A whimsical coming-of-age romance, Someone in the Clouds finds that love is fate and free will in equal measure in which there are no “coincidences” only brief moments of transition standing in for destiny. What Hsiao-pei learns is that in order to achieve romantic happiness she’ll have to put her cards on the table for someone else to read while resolving to accept another interpretation in order to make a “free” choice with the spirit of kindness and generosity which allows her to forgive both herself and others. 

Someone in the Clouds was screened as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese subtitles only)