Thursday, October 20, 2011

Review – The Personals

October 20, 2011

The Personals – Taiwan, 1998

Kuo-fen Chen’s film The Personals is a rather peculiar film. For one, it is about a woman who claims she is looking for Mr. Right, yet somehow it does not feel like a romance, nor is there any legitimate chance it will ever become one. It is about a woman on a series of blind dates that have little chance of success. Part of the reason for this may well be that the woman is not really looking for love, for she seems to have an ulterior motive, one that becomes clearer as the film progresses and completely changes how the character is viewed. At one point in the film, she pauses for a moment and ask herself whether she is meeting all of these men for the right reason. Well, if you have to ask, then you’re probably not. However, there’s another reason for her lack of success – the men who answer her ad are hardly the kind a young woman would be honored to take home and introduce to the folks. And this presents a problem for viewers, for it we are meant to sympathize with the young woman, wouldn’t it be better to have her meet a few decent guys instead of the lonely, occasionally creepy ones who keep sitting across from her? Then we could at least sigh as she lets nice guys slip through her fingers and pull for her to one day get it right.

No such luck, though. Here are just a few of the men she meets: a pimp who is looking for new employees; a man who blames all of his ex-girlfriends for his break-ups, despite the fact that his personal hygiene leaves a lot to be desired; an eccentric man with a shoe fetish who brings a suitcase of ladies shoes with him when he goes on dates; an adult film fanatic whose secret desire is to star in an adult film; and a palm reader who just happens to interpret the lines on her palm as indicating that she should look for a much less formal relationship, one with fewer strings attached, if you know what he means. Her ad is even answered by a woman dressed as a man who implores her to open her mind and give the other sex a try. The scene is slightly unsettling, and it reminded me of earlier, less respectful depictions of gays and lesbians in films. However, at least the film includes creeps of both genders.

On all of her dates, there is one constant: Ms. Tu (Rene Liu). She tries her utmost to remain polite and respectful, while simultaneously struggling to understand why such people would have answered her ad in the first place, especially since her ad clearly states that she is looking for a husband. It’s understandable that she would have this reaction the first few times she is staring at someone whose motives are less than normal, but after the seventh or eighth odd, desperate person, you’d thing she would begin to notice a trend. Perhaps there’s a reason why people turn to personal ads to meet someone. The experience seems to give some of them the false impression that they can act in the most socially irresponsible manner imaginable and use the supposed desperation of the person who posted the ad to seek out casual sexual encounters or illicit affairs. Perhaps then personal ads were the chat rooms of the 1990’s. There’s even one man who seems to have an unhealthy interest in a pinball machine. Fast forward ten years, and it’s not hard to imagine this same character alone and addicted to online games.

If the film works, it is because of the performance of Ms. Liu, for she creates such a compelling character that it feels almost cruel to say anything negative about the film. That said, the film is awkwardly paced, and for much of the first hour, viewers are treated to what seems like an endless parade of meetings, none of which have anything to do with anything that comes up later. Ms. Tu meets the men, reacts to them rather incredulously, and then dismissed them, oftentimes off camera. These scenes are intended to be a not-so-subtle commentary on contemporary Taiwan, depicting it as a country in transition both morally and sexually. Some will no doubt find this fascinating, while others will cry out for a more narrative structure. I thought the scenes should have added up to something more than just a large number of lonely people. In between the meetings, we witness Ms. Tu speaking rather emotionally to someone’s answering machine and receiving advice from one of her former professors who listens patiently in a way that suggests a caring heart and a non-judgmental attitude. These scenes, few as they are, are some of the finest in the film.

The film builds to a rather powerful finale, as secrets are revealed that put all of Ms. Tu’s actions in a new light. The problem is what we learn does nothing to make up for the tediousness of the first hour. We do not look back at the men she rejected in a new way – no, the majority of them remain the oddities and creeps we first thought they were, And the few that we empathized with hold onto our empathy simply because that is the natural response to characters who are so forlorn and fragile that they would ask a woman to marry them after such a brief chat.

The Personals is based on a stage play, and it may indeed have worked well as one. The film primarily takes place in two locations, and the stage is the right place for a story with so many entrances and exits. However on the big screen, the experience can be rather taxing. Some time back in my review of If You are the One, I expressed frustration at the number of dates the lead character goes on even after if is clear which one he will end up with. I would say that The Personals doubled that frustration and added a topping of uneasiness to it, for if the blind dates have no chance of leading anywhere, what is the point of them? Are viewers meant to laugh at the eccentricity of it all, to find humor in the sheer volume of lonely people there are in the world? If so, I could have used a laugh track. At least then I would have known what was intended to be funny. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

3 stars

*The Personals is in Mandarin with English subtitles.

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