Thursday, February 27, 2014

Review - fantome, ou es-tu?

February 27, 2014

fantome, ou es-tu? – Taiwan, 2010

Siu-Di Wang’s fantome, ou es-tu? is one of the oddest films I have ever seen. It is at times infuriating and at other times inspiring, all the while possessing a sweet quirkiness and enough drama to keep both viewers involved and the rails from becoming completely unhitched during its more ridiculous moments. The film has shades of Ghost and 21 Grams, and contains two of the more fascinating characters I’ve seen in a Taiwanese film since Singing Chen’s searing God Man Dog. However, it also contains many of those all-too common elements of Taiwanese films that continually frustrate and confound western viewers, such as dialogue that stretches credibility and a final scene that too conveniently wraps up every loose angle and melts even the hardest of hearts. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that at times the film works in spite of itself.

The film is set in Kaohsiung, one of Taiwan’s major cities, and in the first scene, the audience is presented with a realistic panoramic view of the city and its people. We see its majestic skyline, its busy streets, its numerous street vendors, and its beautiful parks with their unbelievable views of the night sky. In the first scene, the camera focuses our attention on a young high school student named Ma Jun-An. (Yuan Huang). We watch as he goes about his usual duties, selling food at a mobile stall, giving food to a blind, physically challenged street vendor, and jogging in a park. He is a runner with hopes of representing Taiwan in the Olympics.

The park’s tranquility is shattered by the arrival of a biker gang in pursuit of two members of what must be a rival gang. Fists quickly fly, and our hero rushes to intervene before the incident turns truly violent. Tragically, he ends up being the only one wounded that night, having been mistaken for a gang member rushing to join in the melee. He eventually dies.

It is here where the film takes a turn toward the supernatural, for Ma’s confused and frantic spirit suddenly appears in the hospital just as his mother is being helped out in tears. It is here where the film begins to resemble Ghost, for Ma, having failed to resuscitate himself, begins traveling like mad from place to place - running through walls, entering and exiting buildings, and jumping onto passing subway trains. I half expected him to come across a fellow spirit and ask him how to manipulate items in the physical world. Thankfully, the comparisons to Ghost only go so far.

Eventually, Ma’s finds himself in the home of a young female high school student named Wang Yu-Tung (Cheng Jin). Wang is a bit of a tomboy - her hair is short, she wears jeans everywhere, and she swears like a drunken sailor. However, more importantly, she is also the person whose brutal assault resulted in Ma’s death. Early in the film, we watch as Ma stares out the small window in Wang’s room and remarks to himself that he can’t find his way home. It is then that he realizes that Wang can see and hear him.

What follows is a rather involving spiritual journey, for we not only see the personal fall of Ma’s unfortunate mother but also the beginning of Wang’s long road to redemption. We watch as Ma learns Wang’s backstory, and gradually, both he and the audience begin to feel empathy toward this tragic character. There is very little she can do to completely make up for what she has done, but she becomes convinced that apologizing is the first step.

The film reveals the occasional madness of Taiwan’s legal system, and viewers unfamiliar with it may have trouble understanding the actions of Ma’s mother, for she spends a great deal of time collecting “evidence” of emotional trauma for what some consider to be Taiwan’s version of a civil trial. The film also sheds a revealing light on the often mob-like confrontations that can occur between the families of the crime victims and those of criminal suspects. It also accurately portrays the damage that can be caused by such things as infidelity and the preference for male children in some cultures.

Not everything in the film works. The film’s script contains numerous instances of clunky, unrealistic dialogue, and a subplot involving running does not carry the emotional punch the film deserves. Also, the film can’t seem to make up it mind as to just what a ghost can and cannot do, and consistency is important in a film such as this one. More importantly, I wonder whether audience outside of Taiwan will relate to a male ghost trying to help his mother in the same way as they would a ghost trying to protect the woman he loves. I must confess that I rolled my eyes several times during conversations involving how wonderful Ma’s mother is and how inspirational her stories and explanations are. To me, the explanations that Ma so dutifully cited were attempts at evading Ma’s rather important questions about life, love, and sex. However, he quotes them as if they were pearls of wisdom that came out of the mouth of Confucius himself.

The film is Sui-Di Wang’s sixth. Wang also shares writing credit on the film, and for about 90 minutes, she keeps it from completely veering into after-school special melodrama, only to surrender to the impulse to give everything and every character the happy ending she thinks they deserve. She then compounds the error by accompanying the ending credits with videos of the cast dancing to Taiwanese hip-hop out of character. It is a common technique these days in Taiwanese films, and it works for the most part in comedies or musicals. Here, it is disruptive and completely robs the ending of the emotional power it worked so hard to create.

What makes the film truly memorable are two performances: Ming-shen Ku’s powerful portrayal of Ma’s grieving and angry mother and Jin’s eye-opening performance of Wang. Ku’s work here provides a view into an all-too familiar sight on the evening news – that of a grieving parent struggling to come to terms with his or her loss and the complex emotions it has stirred. Though Jin struggles at times to convey her character’s complex emotions, she provides the audience with an inside view of the kind of character films should explore more often. We come to understand how Wang became who she did, and, while she is ultimately responsible for her actions, we come to understand all of the mistakes and unfortunate circumstances that led to that fateful evening in the park. In fact, I have a feeling that the film could inspire some parents to re-evaluate their interactions with their children.

Having said that, the film is still somewhat of a mixed bag. It is inconsistent and contains some truly cringe-inducing dialogue. However, the film is also frequently involving, emotionally powerful, and ultimately uplifting. It ultimately works. (on DVD in Region 3)

3 and a half stars

* fantome, ou es-tu? is in Mandarin with English subtitles. It also goes by the title Ku Ma.

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