March 30, 2017
Close to You – Taiwan, 2010
Picture this: a man is at a train station minding his own business when four men begin to harass a young woman. The scene grows tense, and for a moment it looks as if the thugs will go beyond mere words. Suddenly, in comes a reluctant hero. He first tries to appeal to their rational side, and then when they turn their aggressions toward him, he is forced to take them on – all four of them. As he bobs and weaves, eluding one punch while taking another, his hands seem to develop a mind of their own, leaving him stunned at their ability to both protect and attack. His feet assume a position allowing him to make the best use of his new abilities, and soon one of the ruffians lies wounded on the ground and the other three are hightailing it to safer ground. The look on the young man’s face is incredulous. How did that happen? he seems to be asking himself.
Reading the above description, one could be forgiven for thinking I was describing one of the Jason Bourne films. Far from it. The scene occurs early on in Hsiao-tse Cheng’s ridiculous 2010 film Close to You, a film that is not about spies or trained killers, but boxers and the women that love them. And it is not even the film’s most ludicrous plot point. Instead, it is just one of the many things that make Close to You one of the worst Taiwanese films I’ve seen in some time.
Close to You is a movie that has the power to make you want to ram your head repeatedly into a brick – not because you want to do physical harm to yourself, but because doing so is eminently more entertaining than the film itself. Close to You is the kind of film in which key characters act disrespectfully toward each other for most of the film and then proceed as if standoffishness is the natural byproduct of liking someone and not having the courage to tell them. And before someone says that it can be in high school, let me say that none of the characters in this film are in that fine academic institution.
In Close to You, Taiwanese superstar Eddie Peng plays Jie, the president of a local boxing club that, as we learn in an early scene, is in danger of being shut down. The club desperately needs to demonstrate its worth, which means that someone in the club needs to show his stuff. I have said his here because none of the boxers in the film are women. In this incarnation of reality, boxing is a male sport, and women have nothing better to do than ooh and aah at Jie’s recent exploits in the ring. It matters little to them that every match ends with a loss. With him in the club is a young lady named Kui (Amber Kuo), who is secretly in love with him. How do we know? Because in a later seen, she shouts it to herself after yet another moment in which Jie has been rude to her. Only in poorly written movies do characters loudly proclaim their feeling for someone who has just walked away from them and the other person does not hear them.
Into this picture steps Xiang (Ming Dow), a boxer from Beijing who has returned to Taiwan to get treatment for amnesia, hence his inability to remember that he knows how to box. The woman he defended, Shan-Shan (Renee Yuan), is a classical violinist who just happens to know every detail of his previous life, making her either an extremely obsessive fan or a figure from his past. Take a guess at which one it turns out to be. For her part, Shan-Shan, who is in Taiwan apparently to study classical music, is selected as top violinist instead of Kui’s sister Ling (Zishan Yang), who then decides she has always hated classical music anyway and that her calling is to be a singer-songwriter. However, to succeed at this, she must get over her fear of singing in public and maneuver her way around the sleazy underworld of the music industry.
If all of this sounds convoluted, rest assured it isn’t. That’s because the film follows such an utterly predictable storyline that there are few if any genuine surprises, and when they do occur, they are surprises only in how poorly executed they are. For example, there’s the standard initial distrust between the two boxers, the jealousy one feels when he sees the other talking to the women he likes, and their eventual bonding over a sport they obviously have a great deal of respect for. We also get the usual song and dance between people we know will eventually get together. We’ve seen it before, and we’ve seen it done better.
However, we also get Ling’s subplot, which was absolutely superfluous; a boxing showdown on the roof of a hospital because no hospital actually needs the roof for medical emergencies; and a convenient storyline involving a grandfather with Alzheimer’s. The beautiful thing about putting an Alzheimer’s patient in a movie is that the character’s memory can come and go at just the right moment for there to be a tearful admission of love or pride. And to top it all off, the film elects to use a ludicrous and unrealistic medical condition as a key plot point. It gives Xiang a brain injury that make him express tears through laughter. Really.
In the end, Close to You is simplistic and just downright amateurish. It is a film which doesn’t know how to build momentum or space out its emotional moments. Here, they come one after another, without any build up or follow-through. The film just goes through the motions, hitting requisite points but not truly knowing what to do with them. It is a film truly undeserving of the efforts of its cast, and sadly underserving of much attention from an audience. (on DVD)
*Close to You is in Mandarin with less than perfect English subtitles. Correction: The DVD from Singapore has English subtitles; English speakers in Taiwan are just out of luck.