Saturday, May 30, 2009

Review – Comes the Black Dog

May 31, 2009

Comes the Black Dog – Taiwan, 2004

Chi Yin’s Comes the Black Dog begins with the peculiar sight of a man sobbing as another man helps him put a tie on. The second man is rather cheerful, as if there were no reason for alarm or distress. However, on the opposite side of the room chomping of a long cigar is Black Dog (Tsai Cheng Nan), a gangster whose face remains expressionless. The man weeping in front of him is insignificant, so too were told is the money that he owes Black Dog. It’s the principal, the rules, the traditions that really matter to this gangster, and so despite the man’s insistence that he will pay Black Dog an even greater sum than he owes, over a bridge into a deep river he goes, never to be seen again.

The scene immediately defines Black Dog. He is – if there is truly such a thing – a principled outlaw, for only if someone breaks the codes that bind the underworld does he take action against those that have wronged or cheated him. He is also a man capable of brutality and murder, a man others would be wise not to cross. And yet people continue to do so. One such man is Chi (Tai Po). With a beautiful wife (Ke Shu-qin) and an adorable daughter, Chi is a man who should be content. Yet as time has passed, his full-time job as a contractor has been replaced by an addiction to gambling, a change that has created a deep strain in his marriage. To get money to gamble with, Chi is in the habit of using his father’s close friendship with Black Dog to his advantage. If he needs money, he simply tells Black Dog that his father is sick and needs money for hospital care. However, after attempting to steal some of Black Dog’s money, Chi finds himself in a jam. His solution is to tell Black Dog that he needs the money to pay for his father’s funeral. It’s a lie, for as we see later, his father (Lee Bin-hui), despite his blindness, is in perfect health. Thus begins the ruse that will eventually involve Chi’s wife Chuan, a seamstress, Chi’s brother Li (Chen Mu-yi), a police officer who dreams of becoming a Taoist master, and Li’s wife Po Chu (Lin Mei-hsiu), who is in charge of a group of pole dancers. Of the four of them, only Chuan has strong reservations about what they are doing.

One of the most interesting aspects of Comes the Black Dog is the way in which Chi and Li exploit Black Dog’s religion. As a Buddhist, Black Dog adheres to traditional practices regarding religious ceremonies such as the Spirit Guiding Ceremony. He insists that the burial of his long-time friend be done strictly according to long-standing practices and even believes that the dead can speak to him both in his dreams and from the grave. This gives Chi and Li further opportunity to exploit Black Dog. It’s surprising though that Li goes along with it so readily, as he appears to be somewhat sincere in his endeavors to become a respected Taoist master. However, soon he too shows his ambitious, greedy side, talking about how much money customers will pay for blessings and readings and how he has found a new way to ensure customers give him their business.

The film is narrated by Li’s 17-year-old son Bing, which is strange because for most of the film, he is in southern Taiwan and all of the action is taking place in northern Taiwan. Bing is at that stage in life in which he is curious about the opposite sex and still naïve when it comes to clear definitions of right and wrong. He finds himself attracted to one of the dancers that his mother employs, Xiang-Xiang, yet he can only admit to her that he likes to watch her dance. Bing also finds himself drawn to one of his classmates, a woman whom he calls Moonlight Fairy. I had no doubt which one Bing would end up with, but watching him struggle to make up his mind was still interesting, even if the way the film resolves his dilemma seems far-fetched and rather forced.

I particularly liked the character of Chuan, a woman who has seen her once happy marriage deteriorate. As the film progresses, she has only one request for her husband: to stop gambling. He responds to her pleas by telling her that it is her nagging that is causing him to lose all the time, for she is driving away all of his good luck. It’s completely understandable that the sudden appearance of her ex-boyfriend would stir up so many conflicting emotions inside her. Is he the person she should have been with all along? Is he the person she should be with now? I also liked the way the film allows you to have some positive feelings about Black Dog even after you know what the man is capable of. He shows a loyalty and care for Chi’s father, whom Black Dog refers to as Brother Teh, that is admirable, even as the film never lets you forget what Black Dog is capable of doing.

Despite its positive qualities, Comes the Black Dog has two problems. The first is that the film is simply too long. For long stretches of time, we’re shown instances of Black Dog’s benevolence and Chi and Li’s deceptions. I admit that I became impatient for the ruse to be revealed several times. The second problem has to do with the film’s conclusion. After spending a great deal of time building up Black Dog to be a man you wouldn’t want to cross, the film decides to depict him as a man capable of if not complete forgiveness than delayed justice. It is such an abrupt change that it renders much of what came before it pointless. We’re left then with just two characters to which something of significance has happened, Chuan and Bing. The changes are significant and well done; they’re just not what the film seemed to have been building up as the main story. Still, I liked Comes the Black Dog. It was well acted and director Chi Yin has a good feel for both comedy and drama. I just wish the film has taken a few more chances. (on DVD)

3 stars

*Comes the Black Dog is in Mandarin and Taiwanese.

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