The Scoundrels (狂徒, Hung Tzu-hsuan, 2018)

The Scoundrels posterTaiwanese cinema has, of late, been most closely associated with whimsical romantic comedies and maudlin melodrama but a return to action could very much be on the cards if The Scoundrels (狂徒, Kuáng Tú) is anything to go by. A tensely plotted neo-noir, the debut feature from Hung Tzu-Hsuan takes its cues from classic Hong Kong heroic bloodshed and contemporary Korean crime thrillers as its conflicted hero battles himself in other forms, unwittingly taking the fall for the “Raincoat Robber” all while trying to reclaim his sense of self approval.

Ruining himself through a senseless act of self destructive violence, Ray (J.C. Lin Cheng-Hsi) lost his top basketball career along with the fame and fortune that went with it and now makes a living on the fringes of the crime world tagging luxury cars with GPS trackers so the thugs can pick them up later. His life takes an abrupt turn for the worse when he is about to tag the car belonging to the elusive “Raincoat Robber” (Chris Wu Kang-Ren) who takes him hostage at gunpoint and gets him to call an ambulance for the injured woman (Nikki Hsieh Hsin-Ying) lying in the back before abandoning her on the roadside and driving off.

Despite his obvious fear, Ray finds himself warming to the strangely jovial criminal who perhaps reinforces his sense of being wronged by the world with his dubious philosophies. Ben, as he calls himself, tells him that society is to blame and he’s better off embracing his darker nature but Ray remains unconvinced. Despite an awareness of his bad qualities – his self destructive need for violence and propensity to make unwise decisions, Ray prefers not to think of himself as actively criminal and resents being lumped in with the Raincoat Robber even if the TV stations sometimes paint him as a kindly Robin Hood figure who only shoots people in the knees  and makes a point of stealing from those who can afford to lose.

Even so there is something in what he says in that Ray struggles to emerge from the labels which have been placed on him throughout his life. He wants to change his fate, but is uncertain how to do it. If everyone calls him a crazed and violent man, perhaps it’s a label he can’t help but live up to and if you can’t beat your programming perhaps it’s easier to give in and simply become what everyone assumes you to be.

The police, as a case in point, quickly decide Ray is guilty because of his previous crimes and reputation as a man of violence. The veteran cop (Jack Kao) who arrested him before is convinced that Ray is their man not because the evidence says so but because he has it in for him and is convinced that no one is ever really reformed. Only one more earnest cop (Shih Ming-Shuai) bothers to examine the evidence and give credence to Ray’s pleas, but in any case Ray is unlikely to trust the authorities when the authorities have so little trust in him despite the encouragement of his loyal girlfriend (Nana Lee Chien-na) who seems to think he really might be guilty but looks as if she might stand by him anyway.

Ray wants to change his fate, but to do it he’ll have to face himself in the form of Ben only Ben is quite the adversary and in some ways even more like himself than he might have guessed if more ruthless and (almost) completely amoral. The awkward bromance between the two begins to simmer as they dance around each other never quite sure who is going to betray whom and when though Hung is careful to keep the tension high and the door open for a more genuine kind of camaraderie.

Set against the rain drenched streets of Taiwan at night, The Scoundrels fully inhabits its murky noirish world of tiny back alleys and underground gambling dens existing underneath the gleaming spires and shiny high tech hospitals. The action is thick and fast but always realistic with a good deal of humour which even sees the fight in a tea house tradition honoured in true heroic bloodshed fashion while Ray scraps for his life literally and metaphorically. A tightly plotted thriller with true noir flair, Hung’s debut is an impressively assured affair which makes the most of its meagre budget to prove that action cinema is well and truly alive and kicking in contemporary Taiwan.


The Scoundrels was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

High Flash (引爆點, Chuang Ching-shen, 2018)

High Flash posterThe little guy is often at the mercy of big business, but the conspiracy runs still deeper in Chuang Ching-shen’s high stakes thriller High Flash (引爆點, Yǐnbàodiǎn). Set in the relatively unglamorous world of a small fishing village, High Flash begins with a mysterious death but quickly spirals outwards to ask questions about the connections between industrial conglomerates and the political establishment both local and national. Those who seem keenest to root out corruption may in fact be no less self serving than those who take advantage of it but perhaps there’s nowhere free of greed and selfishness when there are such gains to be made.

The action opens with a fierce protest by the local fishing community towards the large scale Tonglian petrochemical plant which they believe has been polluting their waters, ruining their health and livelihoods. While the newly elected mayor, Chen (Lan Wei-hua), is giving his best at the megaphone, a commotion breaks out when a burning boat collides with protestors and is later found to be harbouring the body of one Ah-hai (Bokeh Kosang / Hsu Yi-Fan) who is assumed to have committed self immolation in protest of the plant’s continued intransigence.

Earnest medical examiner Chou (Chris Wu Kang-Ren) isn’t sure that’s the case. His evidence suggests Ah-hai, who was already terminally ill with liver cancer, did not die of burns or smoke inhalation while his kidneys also exhibited strange florescent spots later identified as copper sulphate. Chou’s findings are music to the ears of jaded prosecutor Jin (Yao Ti-Yi), who also happens to be Chou’s former fiancée. She too is convinced there’s more to this than the elaborate suicide of a man whose life had been ruined by the heartlessness of big business.

Chuang quickly sets up the expected contrast between the scientifically minded Chou who claims to assess only hard evidence without emotional baggage, and the passionate Jin who is desperate to expose the truth at any cost though the romantic drama between the pair never quite ignites even as the past continues to inform their present relationship and the case at hand. Despite his insistence on hyper-rationality, Chou is not is a cold or unfeeling man as he proves by tenderly introducing himself to Ah-hai’s body and asking for his cooperation in investigating why he died, but his rigidity is perhaps to have unexpected consequences despite his best intentions which see him taking a special interest in Ah-hai’s unfortunate wife and son.

Ah-hai’s illness and that of his little boy who is suffering from a brain tumour are not explicitly linked to the illicit activities of Tonglian but the implication is clear. Industrial pollutants have destroyed not only the local fishing industry but with it a community which is now suffering with a large number of serious and unexplained illnesses. Tonglian, as might be assumed, is not particularly bothered, assuming it can rely on friends in high places and a complex web of thuggery and corruption to deal with any more serious opposition. Meanwhile, Ah-hai’s death is already being repurposed for political gain. The village regards him as a hero and a martyr who sacrificed himself in the most painful of ways in order to bring attention to their plight and the evils of Tonglian. None of which, however, is much use to his wife and son who are now unable to claim on his life insurance and are left without an income.

Vested interests exist on both sides – those keen to uphold Ah-hai as a hero and a martyr at the cost of his wife and son, and those keen to minimise the effects of his death in ensuring Tonglian is able to go on doing its (extremely dodgy) business with the same bottom line. While top execs boast about making a killing on the fluctuating company stocks and spending it on yachts, horses, and vintage wine, Ah-hai’s wife and son are left at the mercy of prevailing forces and fearful for their futures. The village might well feel that seeing as Ah-hai is dead anyway making a martyr of him whether he was one or not might be worth it if it helps expose Tonglian’s various transgressions but then again they may have overestimated the extent to which anyone really cares about big business corruption and the complicity of the state.

Nevertheless, in true conspiracy thriller fashion getting too close to the truth can prove dangerous and Chuang perhaps missteps in the case of whom he allows to pay the price, but his anti-corruption messages and warning about the cynical hypocrisy of big business eager to claim it cares about the little guy and his environment are sadly universal, as are his world weary implications regarding the eventual corruption and diminishing efficacy of longterm protests.


High Flash screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on March 28, 7pm at AMC River East 21 where director Chuang Ching-shen & actor Chen Chia-kuei will be present for a Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

White Ant (白蟻─慾望謎網, Chu Hsien-che, 2016)

白蟻_poster_D_0105_final_更新tenga_cs5White Ant (白蟻─慾望謎網, Báiyǐ – Yùwàng Mí Wǎng) – another name for termite, is an apt title for this first indie narrative feature from veteran Taiwanese documentarian, Chu Hsien-che. Voyeurism, sexual fetish, social conservatism, stigma, embarrassment, and longstanding mental illness conspire towards tragedy as one young man becomes the target for a betrayed woman’s scorn, an innocent bystander in her quest for revenge as a salve for her own repressed emotional pain and loneliness. Chu certainly finds plenty of that as guilt and shame continue to eat away at our protagonists, burrowing ever deeper like the termite of the title, undermining already fragile foundations in each of these differently damaged people.

Bai Yide (Chris Wu Kan-Ren) is a quiet, aloof young man who works in a bookstore. On his way home one day, he stops to swipe a set of ladies’ underwear hanging out to dry in the courtyard where he lives. Bai puts on the underwear and then removes it to masturbate in front of his mirror, reduced to angry, desperate tears in the shame of his compulsion.

Unbeknownst to Bai, his illicit activities have not gone unnoticed. Two bored students, Tang Junhong (Aviis Zhong) and her minion Lu Peiyi, saw Bai steal the pants and bra and filmed him doing it. On the rebound for a bad breakup and looking for some random payback, Junhong mails Bai a copy of the DVD exposing his sordid needs. Junhong is, apparently, offended by Bai’s “depravity” though her true motivations remain unclear even to herself. Despite the urgings of Peiyi and Peiyi’s boyfriend who partially assists through his social media accounts, Junhong continues to taunt Bai who soon descends into a cycle of paranoia and depression which eventually has tragic consequences of the kind Junhong had not intended or imagined.

Besides the act of theft, which has admittedly deprived someone of a set of underwear, Bai’s unusual fetishes serve to harm no one though they appear to cause him a degree of mental stress in feeling himself to be in someway transgressive and required to keep his tastes firmly under wraps. The act of theft may be an attraction in and of itself, though if Bai desired pristine, unworn underwear he would likely find it difficult to acquire for the same reasons that lead him to feel ashamed just for wanting it. Junhong has no real right to feel as outraged as she does – it’s not as if Bai stole her pants or harmed her in any way. He is simply an innocent bystander who happened to step into a space approximating that of Junhong’s ex on whom she vowed revenge.

As we later find out from Bai’s melancholy mother, Lan (Yu Tai-yan), Bai had been experiencing a degree of mental distress since childhood. Following the death of his father and subsequently witnessing his mother with another man, Bai has suffered with a compulsion to steal ladies’ underwear beginning with Lan’s. Lan blames herself for this – in having been both too clingy in allowing him to sleep in the same bed long past the age most children lock themselves away in their own rooms, and in having been too self-centred in taking a lover which, she feels, led to a neglect of her son’s interests. Bai, suffering apparent paranoia and depression even in childhood, believing that there is a voice in his hair which torments him, is further unbalanced by Junhong’s campaign of terror. Trying to track down the blackmailer and figure out what is they want out of all of this, he becomes suspicious of everyone, permanently on edge, terrified, and angry lest his sordid secret be revealed.

Driven half mad by her own frenzy of vengeance, Junhong’s actions places a wedge between herself and her best friend Pieyi who thinks things have gone far enough. Friendships ruined, Junhong ends up just as lonely and isolated as Bai before eventually emerging scarred and guilty, unwilling to process the unintended consequences of what she saw as an amusing series of practical jokes probably designed to make her feel powerful when she felt anything but. Junhong attempts to atone by connecting with Bai’s sorrowful mother, Lan, who doesn’t know her true identity, but in any case continues to blame herself for her son’s death. Lan, a tragic figure, is also isolated by her feelings of guilt and self loathing both in claiming responsibility for Bai’s mental instability and for the loss of her husband which kickstarted the pair’s eventual downfall.

Strangely enough the two women bond through their shared guilt and grief, finding common ground even after the truth is revealed. Despite this final plea for empathy and connection, Chu’s premise seems to rest on an association of unusual sexual proclivities with mental illness. Bai’s suffering is never condemned, indeed the film seems to believe he should suffer for his “perversions” rather than criticising the society which has relentlessly excluded him, viewing his instability as further evidence of his otherness rather than a symptom of the isolation he is forced to feel through continued rejections. Nevertheless, Chu does seem to be clear that it is these repressed emotions that eventually become white ants, burrowing deeply inside the sufferer until they threaten to destroy the foundations of humanity, though whether the damage can ever be fully repaired appears to be far less clear.


Seen on Mubi.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Interview with director Chu Hsien-che from Busan 2016