Monday, January 4, 2010

Review – Do Over

January 4, 2010

Do Over – Taiwan, 2006

I have no experience with drug-induced hallucinations – or as some may prefer “visions.” That said, I’m pretty sure that two people who are experiencing the side effects of recently-popped pills cannot have the same hallucination simultaneously. So when two characters in Cheng Yu-chieh’s debut film Do Over both believe they are standing on the moon, I found myself rolling my eyes instead of trying to see the metaphor in the scene. I continue to believe that scenes such as this one are only plausible if they can be found throughout a film, and unfortunately they only occur towards the end of Do Over. The result of this is the creation of an unnecessarily complex ending, one that seemingly exists in a reality completely contrary to the one that the first three-fourths of the film established.

Do Over takes places over two days, the end of one year and the beginning of another. The film begins on the second day with the image of a young man name Pang (Wang Ching-kuan) standing in the middle of a one-way rural road blocking traffic. The infuriated inhabitants of the three cars now lined up in front of Pang are not placated by his explanation of there being a movie shooting a short scene just up the road. Soon, five men dressed in black step out of the cars, and in a moment, one of them is pointing a gun at Pang while the others hurl insults and obscenities his way. It’s not the only abuse we see him have to put up with. The previous evening, the director’s assistant had been less than polite to him on more than one occasion. In fact, I’m not even sure that Pang is in fact his real name. It’s more likely that “Little Pang” is the “endearing” term his associates have chosen to call him due to his apparent weight problem. I imagine he would entertain the notion of quitting if the girl he likes weren’t starring in the film.

Later, we’re introduced to Ding-An (Huang Chien-wei), an illegal immigrant who runs drugs for a local crime boss. His only hopes of a normal life rest in being approved for a Taiwanese identification card, for without one, he has no identity and no personal freedom. He is also in love with a young toll collector despite the fact that he does not even know her name and has likely never spoken to her. Early on in the film, Ding-An learns from a small-time drug user/seller that his ID card has in fact already been issued, indicating that it is being intentionally withheld from him by people that he had assumed he could trust. Without it, he cannot visit his sick father in his home country. There are other characters as well - a director named Lixiang (Mo Tzu-yi). who seems to be having an emotional breakdown; a young man (Ko Yue-lin) who pops pills and drives a sports car that he excitedly keeps referring to as KITT; Xiaohui (well played by Chang Yung-yung aka Sandrine Pinna), the young man’s girlfriend; and her deaf friend from Japan who is referred to as Butterfly (Ko Chia-yen) because of the butterfly tattoo that adorns the back of her neck.

Despite some interesting plotlines, Do Over can best be described as a mixed bag. While I enjoyed the storyline involving Ding-An, the conclusion to that storyline stretches the imagination a bit too much with its attempt to be romantic. In addition, Lixiang is an interesting character, yet his scenes with Butterfly seem more forced than natural. It’s one thing for a character to find his soul mate in a club - and the scene in which they do meet is handled with great skill - but soon the two of them are talking to each other about the future as if it were a physical place in front of them and thinking they are stepping into a black abyss that they describe as the “dark side of the moon,” all the while under the influence of pills. If the moment is intended to show their immediate intimacy, it was lost on me. If it’s a dream sequence, exactly whose dream is it? It can’t be both of theirs.

I did enjoy the part of the film that dealt with Pang and Fifi (An-an Hsu), the girl he loves. In their few moments together, they establish a rapport that is genuine and heartfelt. There is a moment in the film when Fifi is informed that the director is adding a romantic scene to the script. Romantic scenes are not new to films, yet the look that Fifi gives Pang is truly extraordinary. She doesn’t appear to be apologizing for the scene, but rather for him having to be there while it is being shot. The glance they exchange makes everything that happens later between these two completely believable. As for the young drug dealer and his girlfriend, they fill the screen with a great deal of vitality. This is true of their scenes in the club as well as those scenes in which they are lost and confused. Of all the relationships in the film, theirs seems the most real. And yet the parts of Do Over that I liked just weren’t enough for me to like the whole film.

Do Over will likely make complete sense to someone willing to accept its final act, as well as its many unexplained events. Like Charlie Kaufman’s excellent film Adaptation, the events that occur in Do Over seem to be under the control of someone other than the characters themselves, as if the characters are being pushed – perhaps against their will – into clichéd, happily-ever-after endings. However, for such jovial endings to feel right in Do Over, they still have to make sense within each of the contexts established on the first day, and I’m not sure they do. Characters make illogical choices, completely new characters are introduced in extraordinary circumstances, and events that made sense may no longer even occur. Some may see this as a sign of genius; I was rather put off by it.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my growing esteem for Huang Chien-wei. This is an actor completely comfortable conveying a wide range of emotions. In Do Over, he is called upon to be tough and emotional, and he succeeds in a way that many other stars only dream they could. Watch the way he talks about how much his ID means to him, and then watch the way he stands in front of one of the gang bosses and demands the ID. Huang is extremely impressive in both moments. Then compare his performance in Do Over to the one he gave just three years later in Yang Yang. You’d swear it was a completely different actor. I hope he gets a chance to topline a film soon – hopefully one that ends a bit better than Do Over. (on DVD in Region 3)

2 and a half stars

*Do Over is in Mandarin with English subtitles.

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