October 25, 2012
Kingfisher – Taiwan, 2010
The opening moments of Sheng Kuang’s Kingfisher present us with a very realistic scenario: two young kids fleeing from a group of bullies from school. It is their fortune to cross paths with Ming Kao (Ivan Chen), a young rookie police officer, who scares the bullies off. When thanked, he politely brushes aside the appreciation, explaining that his actions were what the police should do. It would have been wise for him to write that down, for that may in fact have been the last such noble act he commits. The next time the boy and Kao meet, the cop meekly watches as a senior officer talks him into taking the blame for a minor robbery, and the next day it is Kao that must take the boy’s false, incriminating statement. And before the ink is even dry, a group of special officers rush in and accuse the boy of an even greater crime, the murder of a young girl, who turns out to be his sister, the very person he was trying to protect in the first scene. The boy, Fang Guo Yu (Enson Chang), can do nothing, for with his “admission” to stealing NT $73,000, he has just placed himself at the house where the murder took place.
For the next few minutes, viewers are shown a montage of the years that follow. Kao begins a slow descent into alcohol, depression, and self-destructive behavior. As for Yu, the young boy he helped put away, he is stigmatized as a murderer, and as the years goes by, jail becomes his own private revolving door, not because he becomes a hardened criminal, but because he is frequently asked to take the rap for other people’s crimes. During these moments, we witness Kao’s wife scream that she wants a divorce and see Yu develop a relationship with a young woman named Chen Xiao Xing (Annie Liu). The contrast is striking: One of them is falling apart, while the other has a chance at personal redemption.
All of this happens relatively quickly, which means the film has plenty of time to build to something interesting, something about the power of one wrong decision to forever change a person’s fate. However, Kingfisher elects to go in the opposite direction, and as a result, it quickly devolves into one of the most egregious examples of a cinematic mess that I’ve seen in some time. There are accusations of an affair, which may or may not have taken place; a double murder that conveniently occurs late at night; and a bunch of those contrived moments in which key characters arrive at the same place at the same time. One of the participants in the suspected affair is Kao’s wife. She is also one of the murder victims. Normally, this would be when a character such as Kao decides to find the killer even if he has to do it alone. Kingfisher, however, has other plans. In a scene that should be powerful, Kao stares across the dinner table at his traumatized daughter Pei Pei and asks, “Who do you think killed your mother?” Her response is to point an accusing finger directly at Kao. Then she begins barking like a dog. Really, she does.
In Kingfisher, we get the usual band of corrupt cops, and an early scene reminded me of the beginning of Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day. However, Kingfisher doesn’t stop there. It appears that in this version of Kaohsiung, every police officer is either corrupt, unprofessional, or completely incompetent. In one scene, a supposedly tough-as-nails- special units officer demands to know Kao’s whereabouts on the night of his wife’s murder. The question makes sense, and in reality, husbands are often the first people to be suspected in situations like this. Here, however, the question seems intended to deliver a not-so-subtle message to Kao: Stop asking to be included in the investigation. His actually whereabouts appear to be an afterthought. In other scenes, police are shown releasing suspects from jail for no reason, losing a suspect in a high-speed chase, and slapping a suspect. However, nothing compares to the sight of three police officers lazily sitting in the waiting room of a small clinic as a suspect arrives, draws a gun, and escapes with his girlfriend, who is suffering from a gunshot wound to the stomach. So if I understand the film correctly, the police officers elected not to take a gunshot victim to the hospital so that they could catch her boyfriend when he arrived to rescue her, and then they were actually caught off guard when he did arrive.
Perhaps the worst thing that can be said about Kingfisher is that the finished product makes it appear as if the writer and director had no idea where the film was heading. I have no idea if this is true, but only films that have backed themselves into a corner feel the need to introduce entirely new characters in their final moments. And only a film that had no direction of its own would borrow the ending of another film so blatantly. The finished product also demonstrates the director’s relative inexperience. In practically every dramatic moment, he resorts to slow motion to extend the scene, as if seeing people run to overly dramatic music would make viewers more connected to the characters. In another sign of inexperience, in almost every one of these serious scenes, it rains. Apparently, Kuang feels that nothing conveys a character’s spiritual decline or desperation more than being drenched in a sudden storm and not having the sense to seek shelter. A word of advice: Try actual dialogue next time. (on DVD in Region 3)
*Kingfisher is in Mandarin with English subtitles.