Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Review – ORZ Boyz

December 9, 2009

ORZ Boyz - Taiwan, 2008

About ten minutes into Ya-che Yang’s 2008 hit film ORZ Boyz, viewers see a teacher putting lipstick on. There’s nothing newsworthy about the act itself; however, what she does next is somewhat surprising. In front of this teacher stand two students accused of trying to cheat a fellow student out of NT $500 (about $16 in the U.S.). As punishment for their crime – yes, they actually did it – the teacher begins planting kisses on them – on their cheeks, on their foreheads, on their chins - and then orders them not to wash their faces for the whole day. The shorter one squirms and complains a bit as it is happening; the other one, however, can’t stop smiling. A moment later another teacher labels the taller of the two students “Liar #1”; the other one receives the moniker “Liar #2.” His only complaint is over the sequence of the numbers. For the rest of the film, these two characters are referred to by these labels – even by family members. If the teacher’s actions seem a bit harsh, wait a while, for the times in which these two boys are living seem to be filled with adults doing harsh things, whether it’s using something called a “love stick” to hit “#2” with or reneging on promises that had filled the two boys with an enormous amount of excitement. Unlike other films in which characters such as these would struggle through school, the two boys in ORZ Boyz study hard, and they are well liked by their classmates, all of whom cheer their new names rather enthusiastically. However, “#1” and “#2” also have an unhealthy amount of anger in them, anger that – despite their age – is completely justified.

When he’s not in school or playing with “#2,” (Chin-Yu Pang) “#1” (Kuan-yi Lee) looks after his mentally ill father (Chih-Hsiang Ma), a man who barely speaks and seems as if he is in a complete daze all the time. We see “#1” bring his father his medication and cheerfully encourages him to take it. Later, “#1” will remark how much better his father is now because in the past, before whatever events transformed his father into what he is today, he is said to have been like all of the other adults – mean, untrustworthy, possible abusive. Similarly, “#2” spends his evening being taken care of his grandmother (Fang Mei), for his birth parents decided they couldn’t take care of him anymore, and since dropping “#2” off, they have not returned to visit him or even sent a single card. To her credit, his grandmother tries her best to raise him and make sure he gets an education, but even she struggles to cope with his pouting and whining. And yet whatever stress these two boys have at home seems to melt away when the two of them are playing together.

ORZ Boyz fluctuates from the real to the imagined, from live action to animation, from viewers watching the characters to the characters bowing for animated characters watching them from another world. Not all of it makes sense, but not all of it has to. When the real world is hard, which it can be for the film’s main characters, it’s common for children to look to their imagination for comfort. This is also true for a female classmate who has recently lost her mother to cancer. Her role is brief but incredibly moving.

Like other recent movies from Taiwan, ORZ Boyz ends somewhat awkwardly. One of the film’s recurring themes is the children’s idea that another world exists and that to get to this world, they need to achieve “hyper-speed.” To do this, they try running ten fans simultaneously. When that doesn’t work, they cling to the belief that if they go down the slide at a local water park one hundred times they will be carried away to another dimension, where life is stress-free and easy. The characters’ need to believe in this world is understandable, for it represents their desire to escape their emotionally difficult lives. However, the film ends with one of the characters either entering the world in a dream, fantasizing about entering the world, or actually being carried into a world full of robots. It is an unnecessary ambiguity.

However, for the most part, ORZ Boyz works. Several of the scenes are both hilarious and remarkably realistic, showing just how deeply Yang understands the youth in Taiwan. One particular scene involving “#2” choosing between two toys is not to be missed. Other scenes are darker, detailing a side of Taiwan that is not so cheerful, a side that includes child abandonment, inappropriate educational methods, and a social service system that does always have its priorities in the right place. And yet through it all, “#1” smiles widely, which may seem odd until one realizes what is behind the smile. Minor problems aside, ORZ Boyz is fun, amusing, deeply moving, and well worth demanding at your local art house theatre. (on DVD in Region 3; it does not appear to be available in the U.S.)

3 and a half stars

*ORZ Boyz is in Mandarin and Taiwanese with English subtitles.

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