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)

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)