March 13, 2015
Partners in Crime –
It is said that the children of the digital age are the loneliest generation in quite some time. Such a description is certainly worth pondering, for it means that the Internet and smart technology, with their multitude of social platforms and business opportunities, have failed to provide their audience with experiences that are as pleasing as reading a physical book, playing an actual game of basketball, and talking to a friend face to face in a coffee shop. For cinematic documentation of this, look no further than recent films such as Disconnect and Men, Woman, & Children. In fact, rarely in films has the Internet been portrayed as anything other than a haven for criminals and psychos and the origins of human suffering. Jung Chi Chang’s film Partners in Crime is about this generation, and it has its fair share of misfortune, yet what separates it from other depictions of today’s internet-obsessed youth is the way the film presents the youth as craving control of their own narrative.
The film is about three high school students who would never have formed a friendship under normal circumstances. The first of these three is Li-Huai Huang (Ai-ning Yao), a shy and reserved teenager who is something of an outsider and a victim of school bullying. The second, Yong-chuan Lin (Yu-kai Deng), is smart and dedicated to his studies, and because of this, he never seems to be without a group around him. I wondered a bit whether they are truly his friends or just need his help prepping for one of their many exams. The final one, Yi-kai Yeh (Kai-yuan Cheng), plays the role of the rebel. What brings them together one memorable day is the apparent suicide of a schoolmate named Wei-Chiao Hsia. None of them knew her, but her death alters their lives irrevocably.
The three of them are questioned by police officers, spoken to by school officials, and ultimately sent to see a school councilor, whose techniques seem to consist of dispelling views of the afterlife, showing students videos on coping with trauma, and having them write 500-word essays about their feelings. She does this with such a cold indifference to the young men’s true state that I half expected to see her dispose of the students’ essays the moment they left the room. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway – they were copied off the internet.
Instead of going their separate ways, the three of them are soon combing the internet for clues about the deceased young woman’s state of mind. Who was she? Why did she kill herself? Was a failed relationship at the heart of her decision? To answer these and many other questions, they scour the internet, begin questioning their schoolmates, and eventually break into her apartment in search of clues. They can do this because the deceased’s mother has returned to work and is out of the country. If this seems rather cold, it should be said that none of the adult characters in the film respond well to tragedy. Most of them seem to sweep the pain aside and return to their normal lives. I wondered what the intended message was here, and it is worth discussing whether the film is implying that adults are just as disconnected from the real world as their children. The three students soon find a diary and a name, and they are on their way. The question is: What exactly are they on their way to do? It doesn’t appear that even they have the answer to that question.
And yet they go, and here I believe is the most important point – they go because in doing so, they are the heroes of their own story. They are the young detectives, the truth seekers, and the pursuers of justice. They have a purpose, and they can shape their actions any way they want to. As Li-Huai explains after blatantly lying to the deceased’s mother about his closeness to Wei-Chiao, “If everyone believes it, it will become the truth.” It’s the kind of remark that can send shivers down one’s spine. The truth – and what they will eventually learn - is that it is no longer possible for a single person to shape the narrative. With the click of a button, someone else can abruptly change the facts, alter the public’s perception, and leave you scrambling for damage control.
There have of course been films with similar themes. Bobcat Goldthwait’s World’s Greatest Dad, Billy Ray‘s Shattered Glass and Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane all come to mind. Of these films, Shattered Glass comes closest to matching the themes found in Partners in Crime, for just as Steven Glass is looking for acceptance and a sense of importance, so too are Li-Huai and, shown in flashbacks, Wei-Chiao. How else can you explain an eerie scene in which Wei-Chiao locks one of the nicest characters in the film in a bathroom stall only to release her moments later and lend her a book? It can only be viewed as an awkward attempt at making a friend and one that is ultimately unsuccessful.
The film is well directed. However, at times, Chang relies too heavily on style over substance. Key moments are repeated more than once, a technique that is only necessary if viewers learn something new the second time around, which I didn’t think they did. In an early scene, Chang lets the audience see the action through a police security camera, a neat technique, but one that didn’t ultimately seem necessary. I did however admire the film’s rather ingenious opening credits, during which we see objects, as well as people, falling to the bottom of a lake teeming with plant life. However, instead of sinking completely, the objects seem to get stuck along the way. It is as if the lake is trying to decide whether to swallow up both them and the secrets they hold or to return them to the top. After all, secrets do have a way of bubbling back to the surface.
The film also makes excellent use of a device that few films even attempt to employ, that of changing the focus of the narrative halfway through the film. It is a fascinating and welcome turn of events, for it allows for the introduction of a whole new set of characters, almost all of them also driven to be the heroes of their own narrative. The film has faults. Particularly, it is unable to flesh out all of its characters fully, and it relies on actions that are so peculiar as to make some viewers question their authenticity. They may all be important to the narrative that the film constructs, yet if the actions that push a story forward are not believable, a film will begin to lose credibility. I felt this is what happened more than a few times throughout the film.
In the end, however, I felt for these characters. All of them were decent people trying to make it in a world that can be confusing, cruel and punishing, a world in which things that are released into cyberspace are almost impossible to take back. This is the world around us, and, misgivings aside, Partners in Crime does a great job of depicting it. (on DVD in Region 3)
*Partners in Crime is in Mandarin with English subtitles.