Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review - This Love of Mine

March 16, 2018

This Love of Mine – Taiwan, 1986

Yi Chang’s 1986 tragedy, This Love of Mine, may be one of the most depressing films I’ve ever seen, on par with such films as Albert Nobbs, A Simple Plan, and Requiem for a Dream, none of which will ever be described as fun or uplifting. It is the story of a woman, already suffering from the onset of debilitating phobias, who receives a piece of information that sends her on the kind of downward spiral that few truly ever recover from. It is also the story of the pitfalls of marriage and how what is supposed to provide security and comfort can instead be the cause of insecurity, isolation, and intense pain. In other words, it is not an easy film to sit through. This is not a criticism of the film; it is a reflection of many people’s understandable tendency to look away from depressing images that remind them too much of people they know or situations they’ve been in – and I understand this sentiment. Given a choice between this film and one about superheroes, I’d choose the latter every time.

The film’s central character is Wei-Liang, a happily married woman who, when the film begins, is starting to be severely affected by her rapidly developing fears. In the film’s opening scene, set much later in time, we hear a friend of Liang’s explain that Liang’s fears are centered around one key notion: that of losing everything. In this scene, we observe Liang at what we can only guess is a psychiatric ward staring happily into a mirror and combing her long dark hair. She seems completely oblivious to her friend’s presence. In flashbacks, Chang then shows us what completed her mental collapse.

I say completed because, in a curious narrative decision, Liang’s fears are already in full swing when the flashbacks begin. She’s heard that a child died during a routine dentist’s appointment, so she refuses to allow her daughter to get a bad tooth extracted; she’s heard that some farmers use pesticides on fruit, so she recoils at the notion of her children eating grapes that haven’t been peeled; and she’s constantly reminding her children not to get their hands dirty, a seemingly normal request that she makes to the point of exhaustion. The final straw comes during a visit of an old friend. What starts out cordially quickly turns solemn. Liang’s husband has been seeing her friend’s sister on the side.

From here, it helps to understand Taiwan’s legal system and its traditional customs. In the 1980s, infidelity was – and still is - a criminal offense, so the knowledge that one had been cheated on could be empowering. A wronged woman could put her husband in jail or use that threat to extort money and other concessions from him. In the film, Liang’s first reaction is to get out, yet in this pursuit, she is hampered at every turn – from relatives and friends who essentially blame her for what has transpired and from sexist practices such as requiring a woman to have a husband’s approval to rent an apartment. At one point, she laments that she has no friends and no place to go. It is telling that the woman she is talking to remains silent. Eventually, Liang returns home, where unfortunately things have only gotten worse.

In the role of Liang, Hui-Shan Yang delivers a powerful performance. During one particularly dramatic scene, Chang focuses on Yang’s face just after she confronts her unfaithful spouse, and in her eyes we can see an alarming amount of fear. This gives way to a series of uncontrolled sobs that are extremely unnerving. We are watching a character trying desperately to retain what’s left of her wits and failing. Yang plays these scenes like a pro, and in later ones, she is just as moving and disturbing. The other role worth noting is that of Liang’s mother. While Liang is not a character that most people will truly be able to sympathize with, her mother is. She is warm at times, confused at others, and deeply concerned throughout the film, yet she is also hampered by her divided loyalties. She has remarried, something for which her daughter criticizes her, and at key moments, she feels compelled to assist her husband rather than Liang and the children. In these scenes, we see her inner conflict, and we understand that she is a good woman in an impossible situation. It is a small, but critical role, and the actress who plays her (I can’t seem to find her name anywhere) is thoroughly convincing.

In my mind, This Love of Mine would have made a great 80-minute movie. Alas, the film clocks in at just under two hours, which means that the film drags in parts. And while there is some impressive camerawork, none of it adds much to out understanding of the story or its characters. In fact, many of the characters are poorly fleshed out, and some of their motivations remain opaque. There are also several night scenes that are simply too dark. This may have been done to avoid nudity, but it could also be that Chang wanted to create the impression that the characters themselves are in the dark. However, that was already clear. In fact, at one point, Liang clearly states it, so the effect, if that is indeed what was intended, seems rather superfluous.

There is also the troubling way that Liang and her husband treat their children. As I watched it, I was reminded of what several people said to me when I came to Taiwan - that Taiwanese children were different than American children and could therefore be treated differently. I rejected that sentiment then, and I reject it now (fortunately, many people I’ve met here have rebuffed it as well). Therefore, it was hard to watch the scene in the dentist’s office without alarm bells going off inside my head. In the scene, Liang’s husband tries to force his daughter to get a cavity removed and resorts to forcefully holding her arms behind her back to make sure it gets done. The dentist and his assistant join in, one trying to hold her head in place, while the other tries to pry her mouth open – all the while the child is screaming uncontrollably, obviously out of tremendous fear. Nothing is made of this, and in the very next scene, father and daughter are smiling merrily. Later, Liang slaps her daughter for no apparent reason and that too is presented as nothing to get worked up about. Such scenes are distracting, for they bring concerns about child abuse into a movie in which the audience is supposed to empathize with at least one of the parents, and part of me wished that child protective services would just swoop in and get the kids to safety.

It’s hard to say that I liked This Love of Mine. I certainly understood it, but the film seemed pulled in too many directions. I found the phobias to be a bit of a distraction at times, especially given that they are dropped when it’s convenient. Also, it’s hard to say for sure whether the film is depicting how unjust society was toward women in Liang’s position or just how much mental illness was neglected. By combining these two elements, Chang makes the film unnecessarily convoluted. Perhaps the movie’s message can be found in a simply line referred to earlier: Liang’s admission that she never truly understood her husband. It is telling that he does not respond with a similar remark, one that would put the onus on the two of them for having created a marriage that had always been shaky. Yet he only responds with a remark that confirms her feelings. The message is crystal clear. She truly has no one. It’s a powerful moment in a challenging, yet problematic film. (on DVD and Blu-Ray in Asia)

2 and a half stars

*This Love of Mine is in Mandarin with English subtitles. Alas, there are frequent misspellings and incorrect verb tenses.

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