Life For Sale (售命, Tom Teng, 2021)

A nihilistic insurance broker chases existential validation in Tom Teng’s darkly comic crime drama, Life for Sale (售命, shòu mìng). Drawing inspiration from the novel by Yukio Mishima by the same name, the film takes aim at the commodification of life under a relentlessly capitalist society while its hero gradually discovers liberation in reaching an accommodation with death that begins to give meaning to his existence. Sucked not only into local gangster intrigue but shady international conspiracy, he finds himself forming a tentative relationship with an equally depressed neighbour who has troubles of her own. 

Ironically enough, Liang (Fu Meng-po) is a life insurance broker which quite literally means it’s his job to figure out exactly how much a life is worth. As for himself, he’s convinced his life is worthless and is obsessed with the idea of suicide while seemingly reluctant to actually die. He looks up banal ways to end his life on the internet and discovers that almost everything including carrots, cinnamon, and chewing gum, becomes poison if you consume enough of it. When he’s called into his boss’ office shortly after punching an irritating colleague in the face, he’s given a good idea of what his own life is worth when she tells him that the company bought a year of it with his salary but he’s been a poor investment and has actually cost them money through this rubbish sales record. It’s at this point he decides to call the corporate life quits and, taking inspiration from a copy of Life for Sale he found on the bus, decides that he should try monetising his life by selling it on the internet. 

His first offer is from creepy gangster Wang who repeatedly claims there’s nothing in the world his money can’t buy. He wants to send Liang on a dangerous mission to retrieve his wife’s dog from a rival gangster who’s kidnapped it, while a mysterious woman is also trying to recruit him for some kind of experimental research programme. Perversely he continues to think of his life as his own even having sold it resenting those who now think they own him and contemplates suicide as an expression of his autonomy. He comes to realise that his life is the one thing he has while simultaneously accepting that having lost it he is effectively dead already and has nothing left to lose. The realisation is liberating, his nihilism intensified as he resolves to do whatever he can to survive in part so that he might save others. 

Having begun with a darkly humorous take on the dehumanising nature of modern capitalism in which there is a price tag on each and every life, the film slides towards existential contemplation as Liang finds himself caught in the crosshairs not only of internecine gangland drama between the sinister wang and flamboyant Liao mediated though a chaotic hit on a dodgy policeman, but of an international conspiracy which is intent on doing something not entirely ethical to his body. Despite his newfound ruthlessness he is effectively emasculated firstly by the mysterious woman who tells him that he is a coward who does not deserve to be called a man and then by his neighbour who having lost faith in him declares that she will have to save her son herself thereby defining the value of her own life. 

All the while, Liang is plagued by a little bug that follows him around and seems to lead to trouble while perhaps echoing his capacity to survive. When he asks someone why they continue to smoke despite knowing the risks, he is ironically told that everyone has a little bit of a death wish and continues to leverage his own in a determination to at least make his death if not his life mean something. Then again, even post transformation he can’t seem to escape from the world in which everything is for sale agreeing to sell his life but drawing the line at his soul. On the run though perhaps no longer from himself, Liang has at least gained a new appreciation of the value he places on his own life and those which define the lives of others if strangely unaffected by failure or tragedy. Quirky production design and comic book-esque absurdity hint at the underlying satire but also contribute to a kind of origin story for a superhero escapologist looking for agency in a continually exploitative existence. 


Life For Sale screens at Lincoln Center 24th July as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

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)