Friday, July 3, 2009

Review – Finding Shangri-La

July 4, 2009

Finding Shang-ri La – Taiwan, 2008

There is a right way and a wrong way to tell someone that you’ve been secretly stalking them. The right way would be Christian Slater’s approach in Untamed Hearts – speak softly, preface the information with a warning such as “I have to tell you something,” and flower the revelation with sweet, romantic phrases that will make her heart melt instead of triggering her natural instinct to flee. The wrong way, alas, is the one Alex employs in Isming Ting’s beautifully-filmed Finding Shang-ri La. After a romantic night of love making and an idyllic morning dip in a lush Tibetan lake, Alex (Alex Wu) displays neither tact nor forethought when he abruptly blurts out that he has not quite been honest with the woman that he thinks he loves. Therefore, instead of seeing him for the lost romantic that he wants to be, Ji Ling (Chu Chi-ying) darts away as fast as she can. It’s a logical reaction. In any event, Alex is not that important of a character anyway, so his sudden disappearance from the film is not terribly tragic.

The main character is Finding Shangri-La is Ji Ling, a young woman who for two years has been grieving the loss of her son, whom she affectionately refers to as Tong Tong. During those two years, she has been unsuccessfully appealing the “not-guilty” verdict that cleared the couple she holds responsible for Tong Tong’s death. I suppose the law allowing a victim’s family to appeal court rulings was designed to help families complete the grieving process, yet in Ji Ling’s case, it has only prolonged it. To make matters worse, her relationship with her husband Ifan has begun deteriorating. His glances at her hint at his frustration that she has been unable to accept their son’s fate and move on. Ifan is an unfortunate example of a character whose mood shifts instantaneously to suit whatever the film wants Ji Ling to do. In one scene, he is distant, while in the next one he is frightening and borderline violent. This justifies Ji Ling’s sense of isolation and reinforces her desire to run away. In another scene, Ifan backs Ji Ling up while he is talking to Mr. and Mrs. Bai, the people Ji Ling blames for Tong Tong’s death, but then he suddenly urges her to drop her appeal. This justifies her ultimatum: Either they leave or I do. The film even hints at Ifan’s infidelity in one scene and then toward the end of the film has him rush to his wife’s side when she is in trouble. It therefore justifies Ji Ling's later infidelity and yet sets him up as a character who may be able to forgive her indiscretion. Ifan is therefore more of a puppet than a fully drawn out character.

Events begin to unfold after Ji Ling finds a piece of paper hidden in a curtain in Tong Tong’s room. The slip of paper reads “Clue #1” and has a picture of some kind of container on it. The discovery would normally simply be a reminder of the game that she and her son used to play together – treasure hunt. However, these are not normal circumstances for Ji Ling, and the clue causes her to reach an almost unthinkable conclusion, that her son is not really dead. She begins frantically looking for the next clue, eventually finding it in a vase. The clue, a picture of a mountain in Shangri-La, contains the words, “Go mommy.” So she does. She gets on a flight to Shangri-La, which by some miracle, her friend had purchased for her earlier in the film and sets off to – as she puts it – be alone. However, the film hints of another reason for her sudden departure, her belief that Tong Tong is somewhere near that snow-capped mountain range that he drew for her.

Depending on your point of view, at this point in the film Ji Ling is either the most dedicated mother in the world or one step away from insanity. Through flashbacks, we see the fateful day when Tong Tong was killed in a hit-and-run accident. In many other scenes, we witness Ji Ling discussing how much she misses her son and wishing that he had not died, so how seriously are we supposed to take the moments when she thinks she sees or hears Tong Tong? Yet if these moments are not to be taken at face value, then what are we to make of them at all? I suspect that the film would prefer that we see Ji Ling as sane but emotionally lost. This would allow viewers now to worry too much about her mental state or wonder why she isn’t seeing a psychiatrist on a regular basis.

The film has been described as being part commercial film and part art film, and that description seems appropriate. For most of the first half, Finding Shangri-La is grounded in reality. We see Ji Ling struggling with her loss and understand her need to get away. She meets Alex, they share intimate details, and begin to realize how much they need each other. That she would never once ask him why he is in Yunnan or why he is so available to help her is just one of those details we have to accept. The latter half of the film takes place near Meili Snow Mountain and may or may not all be a dream. If it is, then we have a character whose inner demons are silenced by a conversation she has in a dream, much in the same way that Ray Charles’ addiction to drugs was cured in Ray. If it is not a dream, then we have a film that takes place in a world in which the dead and the living walk side-by-side. Neither interpretation completely fits the way I see the world.

I therefore have mixed feeling about Finding Shangri-La. I have great esteem for Chu-Chi-ying’s performance and marveled at the film’s amazing cinematography. In addition, the film’s depiction of Mr. and Mrs. Bai is fascinating. They are sympathetic and realistic characters, fully aware of the consequences of their actions. They know they made a terrible decision, and they are indeed paying a price for it. Whether their suffering is the result of karma is up for you to decide. I didn’t much care for the subplot involving Alex and the bitterness he feels as a result of his childhood. Moreover, he is another male character in a Taiwanese movie that seems too immature to handle a relationship. This characterization is becoming a bit of a cliché, having been used in Su Mi Ma Sen, Ai and the enormously successful Cape No. 7. I look forward to seeing a movie that depicts young men from Taiwan in a different light or at least gives these characters enough screen time to explain his deficiencies. Otherwise it is a stereotype and not a very flattering one at that. Finding Shangri-La is therefore a film whose parts are better than its whole. There are some things to appreciate, but too much to scratch your head about. (on DVD in Region 3)

2 and a half stars

*Finding Shangri-La is in Chinese and Tibetan with English subtitles.

No comments: