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)