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)

You Have To Kill Me (我是自願讓他殺了我, Chan Chun-Hao, 2021)

An earnest policeman discovers nothing is quite as he thought it to be in Chan Chun-Hao’s adaptation of the novel by Feng Shi, You Have to Kill Me (我是自願讓他殺了我, wǒ shì zìyuàn ràng tāshā le wǒ). Drawn into a dark web of intrigue which eventually points to abuse of power and a low regard for human life, he is forced into a realisation that even as a law enforcement officer he can never be certain of what is real and what is not while caught in the middle in a battle of between parents each trying desperately to protect their sons. 

About to propose to his live-in girlfriend Kai (Janel Tsai), Shing’s (Cheng Jen-shuo) world comes crashing down when he and his partner Ye-ze (Xue Shi Ling) are dispatched to the mountains and discover that she is the victim of the homicide they’ve been sent to investigate. Shing apprehends the apparent killer, Li Zi-jian (Snoopy Yu), running away from the scene, but the situation is complicated when it turns out that Zi-jian is the son of a local politician, Chairman Li (Yin Chao-Te), and while he admits to the killing claims that he did it at the instigation of Kai who was suffering from terminal cancer and wanted him to help her escape her suffering. A look at Kai’s medical records bears out his story, but on closer examination Shing realises the documents don’t add up. His suspicions are confirmed when Kai’s parents, whom he had seemingly never met, arrive and fail to identify the body claiming instead that it is another woman who had been harassing their daughter, Lin Jing. 

Shing is forced to accept that he might not have known the woman he wanted to marry and that their relationship was founded on a lie, uncertain how much of any of it might have been real. Meanwhile he runs into a series of bureaucratic roadblocks as the chairman continues to disrupt the investigation in order to protect his son, eventually having Shing taken off the case leading him to investigate all alone discovering even more uncomfortable truths that cause him to question his reality. Leaving aside the minor plot hole that it seems unusually easy to live under an assumed name in contemporary Taiwan even if you’re involved in activities which would generally require an extensive background check, Shing has good reason to be confused as he dives ever deeper into an amoral morass in which those with power are prepared to manipulate it for their own ends without much thought for the lives of others. “That’s how much a person is worth” the chairman baldly states signing a settlement agreement over something else his son may or may not have done, later claiming that it doesn’t matter if he caused someone’s death “accidentally” and he’d do it all again to save his son. 

Even so, the chairman may have limits in that his attempts to manipulate the system are bureaucratic in nature and seemingly unnecessary at least it seems as if there would be easier ways to achieve his aims without directly harming others even if they would risk lives indirectly. Meanwhile his accomplice is also seemingly involved in order to protect their family, willing to compromise themselves morally to protect their elderly relatives while believing nothing that bad would come of their actions. Then again, Shing finds himself on the receiving end of further recriminations accused of having failed to protect the woman he knew as Kai from herself leaving her with only a dark path to ensure that justice would be done and corruption exposed. 

While Zi-jian feared he was a burden to his father feeling himself unloved even as he went to such drastic lengths to protect him, Kai/Jing was also afraid to fully trust Shing fearing she’d one day disappoint him unable to move on from her traumatic past without putting it to rest. Taking aim firmly at the societal corruption that allows the rich and powerful to misuse their position for their own gain while ordinary people suffer Chan’s noirish drama situates itself in a murky world of constant uncertainty in which even an earnest policeman can be largely oblivious of the lives of those around him while the purest of motivations can lead to only darkness and misery.  

You Have To Kill Me streams in the US April 4 – 10 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)