Writer/director/cinematographer Chung Mong-Hong has crafted a fascinating, thought-provoking Mother’s Day tale that takes a long, detailed look at the family.
At its core is Chang Chen playing Chen Mo. Four years into his marriage to Mei (Lunmei Kwai), life isn’t as rosy and loving as it was. Trying to increase the population has been as frustrating as it’s been fruitless. Nonetheless, Mo and Mei have planned a special dinner to which he’ll provide a delectable dessert. Like the film, Chen starts slowly then builds his persona with commendable skill.
When a parking spot suddenly opens up on a busy Taipei avenue near the house of “unenergetic” chocolate, the childless husband opts to shift his vehicle from an illegal mooring to the safety of the freshly vacated space. Upon his return, following testy banter with the confectioner, a black “Benz” has double-parked Mo and the driver is nowhere in sight. If he’d parked “on the wrong side of the street” this production, presumably, would be over.
And thus begins a night-long search whose apparent goal is to remove the offending ride in order to re-enter the mainstream traffic and not stand-up a long-suffering bride.
Mong-Hong’s journey moves on many planes. In close proximity to the boxed-in car is an aging couple being forced to raise their orphaned granddaughter. A marvellous case of willful mistaken identity suddenly propels Mo into fatherhood. Purposely telling lies and creating a fictional past suit all comers whose disdain for the truth is entirely understandable.
Behind another door lies (horizontal and the more usual variety) a Mafia-like clan of a ruthless pimp (Leon Dai is just evil enough), protectors and prostitutes. Peggy Tseng does a courageous job playing Lei Wei, the hooker whose total degradation involves water sports for a demeaning john, bully slaps during a desperate dash from unending servitude (moving from the mainland was never supposed to be like this … ) and a public fondling as she’s apologetically offered to Mo.
Most of the film’s slight humour revolves around a barber (Jack Kao is quietly droll) and a fish head languishing in his bathroom. How Mo ends up there is best left for the film, but the ensuing fun and games with a toothbrush and assorted bowls adds a nice touch of balance to the grittier fare.
An overweight tailor (a marvellously understated performance from Chapman To) largely completes the ensemble: his dream of economic salvation (a clothing factory on the mainland going bust adds even more depth and despair to Mong-Hong’s thesis) slips into the brutal hands of loan sharks; the term “whitewashing” will never be the same.
As all of these scenes are played out, the music—much of it courtesy of the Latin American Quartet and John Cage—subtly reinforces the action and the characters as they emerge. The Kronos-like string colourings (cross-reference below) are a delight in every incarnation (deftly using pizzicati for Wei’s bike ride to hell; the piano making its first appearance along with Mei; finely sculpted violin lines help equally well-practised scissors cut liberating cloth that abandons its pattern but scores high nonetheless; the addition of a whistler perfectly personifies “free at last”; even the car radio lyrics “I was a stranger … ” are put in service of the well-paced narrative.
Some may find Mong-Hung’s tempo too slow to stay around and let the story unfold. But, like the proverbial 20-20 vision of retrospect, the film’s final result could only be successful if all its roadblocks (real and imagined) were carefully constructed then patiently taken away. JWR