Saturday, February 28, 2009

Review - God Man Dog

February 28, 2009

God Man Dog – Taiwan, 2007

Singing Chen’s God Man Dog is a chapter in a much longer story. Because of that, there is a great deal that has already happened. A man has lost a leg, a woman has given up a modeling career and had a baby, only to have discovered that the road that decision leads her down is not the one that she wants, and a man’s alcoholism has destroyed his family and made him a stranger to his own daughter. The film begins a few days before the start of Ghost Month, a time when it is believed that the gates of heaven open up and the spirits return to the world. It is a time for festivities, for burning lucky money, and for offering food to the gods. As the film begins, a man named Yellow Bull (Jack Kao) has been given the task of transporting a large statue of the goddess Matzu in order to celebrate the opening of the door of heaven. At the same time, a man named A-xiong (Han Chang) is busy putting the final touches on a resort in the mountains that while bringing business to a remote area of Taiwan will also permanently change the lives of the people living there. It is a job that takes up most of his time and forces him to leave his wife and their newborn baby alone at home for most of the day. It is a situation that is slowly driving A-xiong’s wife Ching (Tracy Su) to despair. One of the people directly impacted by the resort is Biung (Ulau Ugan), a man who along with his wife A-mei (Gai-yi Mo) makes a living selling traditional trinkets, orchids, and fruit, as well as scavenging for recyclable items. Their daughter, Savi (Hsiao-han Tu), a student of san da combat, lives in Taipei with her best friend, who sense places an unhealthy amount of importance on rapid financial gain, regardless of the personal costs to her dignity or morals.

We follow these characters as they go through events that will shape their lives for some time. It soon becomes apparent that the characters have very little to help them get through the trying events that are occurring. Biung prays for the strength to give up alcohol, but the people who should assist him in this endeavor insist that he first be sober before they can do anything for him. When Ching tells her doctor that she doesn’t have “motherly love” and is sinking into depression, her doctor simply implores her not to get too uptight about it, as if her depression will just vanish if she doesn’t dwell on it. It doesn’t. Her husband, a good man at heart, seems equally powerless to help her. He turns to his mother for assistance, but she declines his request to come and keep Ching and the baby company. His only other idea is for the two of them to take a vacation together.

The film’s moral center is Yellow Bull, a man who wears a prosthetic leg that should have been replaced years earlier. Along with delivering items for celebrations and festivities, Yellow Bull restores damaged and neglected traditional religious statues. As he’s looking for them, he speaks to them, asking them for their whereabouts. He continues doing so after he finds them and when he is repairing them, and from the words he speaks, he appears to view the act of finding and restoring them to be the equivalent of keeping long-held traditions from disappearing forever. And yet all around him, traditions are doing just that. Families are being broken up by alcohol abuse and abandonment; polytheism is being replaced by monotheism. In one scene, Ching is told that she must get rid of the Buddhist artifacts in her home because they will cause her faith in the Christian God to weaken. However, not even this new path seems to help her put her life back together.

As the film progresses, we get the sense that fate will somehow bring these characters together, but when it does, nothing that we would normally expect to occur upon such a meeting transpires. There are no long speeches that restore people’s inner tranquility, and no solitary act that settles all of their issues. How can there be for characters whose pain began so long ago and who are just now admitting to themselves that they are not content? How can there be when one person wants to find a way to move forward, while another wants to go back to what he sees as the happy times? Yet didn’t those “happy times” lead them to where they are now?

As I watched God Man Dog, it occurred to me that I was watching a world in which things exist in dualities. There’s tradition and modernization, freedom and restriction, faith and disbelief, marriage and divorce, the past and the future. The characters in the film must choose one of these alternatives and completely abandon the other, even if doing so is not truly in their best interest. While faith can be a powerful force for personal change, it is clearly not that for Ching and Biung. I’m not sure what would be.

God Man Dog is both challenging and extremely powerful. It is a film that presents modern day Taiwan in a state of transition, and while the most likeable character is one that believes in traditional gods, I do not believe that the film is prescribing a return to a more traditional form of life as the answer to modern-day problems. After all, Ching followed traditional customs – she got married, had a child, became a stay-at-home mother. Doing so didn’t keep her demons from surfacing. One can even look at A-mei as an example of this as well. She stayed with Biung despite his trouble with alcohol, and the two of them are no closer to finding the stability they deserve. When the film ended, I admit to being a little disappointed, but it was not because of any displeasure I felt toward the film. It was simply because I wanted to see the next chapter, to know what fate had in store for these characters. However, chapters, like snapshots, do not reveal all, and sometimes we have to be content with what we do see. And what we do see in God Man Dog will stay with us for quite a while. (on DVD in Asia; it is currently unavailable in the United States)

4 stars

*God Man Dog is in Taiwanese and Mandarin with English subtitles.

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