Thursday, November 10, 2011

Review – One Day

November 10, 2011

One Day – Taiwan, 2010

Chi-Jan Hou’s One Day remained with me for some time after the credits had stopped rolling. It lingered in my head like a poem whose message seems both obvious and transparent, like a song which simultaneously moves and perplexes. And as parts of the film played back in my head, I found myself attempting to reconstruct its narrative, as if viewing the events in a more linear order would reveal a further connection between the film’s mysteriously wistful and romantic first half and its more somber, yet equally wonderful second half. It’s the kind of film in which seemingly innocuous remarks turn out to have a meaning that I suspect few who see the film cold will deduce on their own.

And so I find myself in a bit of a quandary as to how to review this film. How do you talk about a film in which key moments in the second half cause you to rethink moments from the first half? Should I write those now infamous words spoiler alert every time I am about to write about something that would lessen the viewers’ appreciation of the film if they knew it ahead of time, or do I write about the film in such bland terms that one may finish the review without a clear idea of the film’s plot? I know I hate it when I know a film’s secrets before I’ve even seen the film, yet it’s not always easy to talk about a film without revealing a bit more than you should. Therefore, I will sum up my review here: One Day is a terrific, mesmerizing film that will surprise you with its subtle complexity. It might also cause you to think about life, love, the choices we make and the choices we would or would not make again if given the opportunity. I give it four stars. It is available on DVD in Region 3 and on Blu-ray in Region A.

Stop here if you don’t want to know anything more; read on if you wish. What follows may contain spoilers.

The film begins in 2009. We know this because a radio station is broadcasting news of the death of Michael Jackson. In the opening scene, we see what appear to be fragments of a dream – there’s a face that remains slightly obscured from both us and the dreamer, and the man in the dream appears to be saying something. This too remains unintelligible. Upon awakening, the dreamer, a young woman named Singing (Nikki Hsin-ying Hsieh), does what most people do: She interprets the dream in the only way she can, by linking it to a figure from her past, in this case, her long deceased father. To Singing, it is as if her subconscious were trying to put closure to an important incident from years earlier. She does this while also admitting that she can’t really remember what her father looked like. Perhaps this is why her most prized possession is a compass that used to belong to him. By keeping the compass close to her, she is also keeping his memory alive. And no, in the film, she doesn’t get lost at sea and have to use the compass to find her way to safety.

We watch as Singing leaves home on her scooter and gets on a ferry that is practically empty of passengers. It usually isn’t. From there, she makes her way to the cruise ship that she works on. The cruise ship is full of young men from the military, all but one of whom couldn’t be having a better time if they wanted to. The camera focuses on the one sad soldier, and we watch as tears roll down his cheeks. Is he, like other people we hear about, also crying over the loss of the King of Pop? Later, he stands on the side of the boat and looks off into the distance. Further down to his right stands Singing, and the two of them share a glance that appears both awkward and painful, as if there were years of history behind it. How can this be, though? They seem to be complete strangers. Yet look closer. Don’t the compasses they are holding look eerily similar?

For the first twenty minutes or so, One Day resembles something out of a Twilight Zone episode. At one point a dirty, disheveled man from India chases Singing around the ship with an ax in his hands while hollering something at her in a language she doesn’t speak. If this isn’t scary enough, the soldier who helps her, the same one that she exchanged an awkward glance with, informs her that they are not in the real world and that she can speak to the strange man who chased her if she only tries hard enough. Now, I’m not a dream specialist, but in my experience, once you realize you’re in a dream, you wake up. Singing does not, and soon she, the soldier, and the man from India are conversing in Hindu because in a dream, it seems you can speak any language. A few minutes later, however, the film transports these characters back into a reality that looks much more familiar to us, and there we find Singing, now in Taipei, sitting at a cubicle in some sort of study center next to the very young man we just saw on the ship. We later learn his name is Tsung (Bryan Shu-hao Chang). The two of them don’t appear to know each other well, yet there’s a pretty big chance they will later.

Singing and Tseng form one of the strongest and most realistic relationships I’ve seen in a movie in some time. We see them go from casual acquaintances, to close friends, and finally, to the kind that gaze into each other’s eyes and feel a warmth and safety than many would envy. I never doubted for a second they were meant to be together. However, as you watch Singing, you detect both an unease and a hidden melancholy, the source of which are difficult to pinpoint. She also makes one particularly odd comment that resonates because it seems so out of place for a couple as happy and in love as they are. It’s just one of the many moments that viewers will likely replay in their heads, only this time seeing it in a way that is both moving and terrible.

One Day contains excellent performances by Hsieh and Chang, and it’s clear that the two of them were at ease with each other. I have no doubt that had One Day performed better at the box office, we would have seen them reunited on screen very quickly. If IMDB is to be believed, Hsieh has made two films since One Day. As for Chang, it appears One Day is his only film. It’s a shame. The film also marks Hou’s feature film directorial debut. This is a director to watch out for. One Day is a remarkable film. It won’t be easy to find, but it is well worth the effort. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

4 stars

*One Day is in Mandarin and Hindu with English subtitles.

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