Saturday, May 7, 2011

"Taiwan Stories" Review: "Juliets"

Juliets. 2010. Produced by Khan Lee. Consists of three short films:


Juliet's Choice. Directed by Hou Chi-jan. Written by Hou Chi-jan and Kelly Yang Yuan-ling. Cinematography by Mahua Feng Shin-hua. Edited by Ku Hsaio-yun. Production design by Tsai Pei-ling. Music by Han Cheng-ye.

Cast: Vivian HsuWang Po-chieh.


Two Juliets. Directed by Shen Ko-shang. Written by Shen Ko-shang and Lu Hsin-chih. Cinematography by Tao Chien. Edited by Ku Hsiao-yun. Production design by Tang Chia-hung. Music by pigheadskin.

Cast: Lee Chien-na, River Huang.


One More Juliet. Written and directed by Chen Yu-hsun. Cinematography by Chen Chien-li. Edited by Ku Hsiao-yun. Music by Chris Hou.

Cast: Kang Kang, Liang He-chun.


The omnibus film Juliets consists of three short films set in the 1970’s, the 1980’s (in flashback), and the present day, all riffing on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  As with most portmanteau films of this kind, the quality varies, with the final episode being the weakest.  But all three of them, especially the strong opening two sections, are diverting and well-made films, and feature clever closing twists.  As the title indicates, the focus, at least in the first two films, is very much on the women in the romantic relationships depicted.  Here, they take the initiative, the risks, and find their own strength and agency in pursuing love, much more than the men do.

The first film, Hou Chi-jan’s “Juliet’s Choice,” set in 1970’s Taiwan during martial law, concerns Ju (Vivian Hsu), a disabled young woman who works in her father’s print shop.  She is withdrawn and shy, hiding her face behind her hair, and seeming to wish to disappear.  She feels trapped within both her body and her circumstances, scarcely venturing out of the shop, and hardly speaking to anyone.  However, a possible path of escape emerges in the form of Ro (Wong Po-chieh), a handsome college student who comes to the shop seeking to print banned Marxist materials for his dissident student group.  Rejected by Ju’s father, an instantly smitten Ju offers to print the materials surreptitiously after hours.  As she travels to the college to deliver the materials, she feels she is getting closer to “Romeo,” as Ro’s friends nickname him.  She begins wearing red lipstick and wearing a red dress. (Red is a dominant color in all three films.)  But when she suffers a humiliating episode during one of these trips, her reaction leads to the film’s clever emotional twist.  Sumptuously shot in a nostalgic glow justly compared to Wong Kar-wai’s films, “Juliet’s Choice” also intriguingly juggles its chronology in a similar fashion to Hou’s previous film, the feature One Day.  The film also boasts a strong central performance by pop star Vivian Hsu, boldly cast against type as the awkward and dowdy protagonist.

The second and strongest short, Shen Ko-shang’s “Two Juliets,” ambitiously spans two time periods, the 1980’s and the present, and features a fantastic performance by first-time actress Lee Chien-na, who portrays the two central female characters.  The Juliet of the present is suffering from a recent break-up, so much so that she has become suicidal.  She drives her father’s cab and picks up an unusual fare: a middle-aged man who is going to a mental asylum where he has gone to find his Juliet, whom he has left there after promising to rescue her from there thirty years earlier, and failing to follow through on that promise.  The man’s story as told to the present-day Juliet forms the bulk of the film, an extended flashback which relates the love affair between the man (played in his younger days by River Huang) and Julie (Lee Chien-na).  This story hews the closest to Shakespeare’s original story of warring families, as the lovers have to be in secret because of their rival fathers.  The young man’s father is a puppetmaster, and Julie’s father is a vaudevillian who runs a show in which Julie is a featured performer.  They have their secret trysts in a purportedly haunted house, and they believe they see ghost lovers who also use the house.  Julie is much bolder than her lover, and his diffidence and weakness lead to the tragic conclusion to their love story, which extends to the present and the man’s regret and wish to rectify the past.  Shen, a documentary filmmaker making his fiction debut with “Two Juliets,” impressively uses a very sophisticated narrative structure that packs an incredible amount of depth and poignancy into its brief running time, and has an acidly clever, emotionally satisfying twist.

The final segment, Chen Yu-hsun’s “One More Juliet,” in stark contrast to the other two films, is a broadly comic tale of a male Juliet (TV personality Kang Kang), who after 28 unrequited love affairs, attempts suicide on the eve of his 40th birthday.  This male Juliet, named Chu Li-ye (say it out loud to get the joke), while trying to hang himself, is drafted by a film crew to join a commercial for a slimming Spanx-like garment made for men.  “One More Juliet” gives the anthology’s theme a twist by featuring a gay protagonist, whose Romeo is an extras actor (Liang He-chun) he meets on set.  Unfortunately, the frenetic humor here mostly falls flat and is more energetic than clever, and would seem to have more resonance with Taiwanese audiences familiar with its popular comedian star.

Juliets screens at the Walter Reade Theater on May 7 at 1:30 and May 18 at 4pm as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s film series “Taiwan Stories: Classic and Contemporary Film from Taiwan,” a 20-film survey spanning from the 1960’s to the present.  Click here to purchase tickets.

2 comments:

Victoria said...

Great review! I love the way you describe the films so well and closely without giving them away!

I actually enjoyed the third film most -- I think I was in the mood for broad comedy -- but I definitely agree that the first two dealt with female agency in romance in provocative, sensitive, and beautiful ways. I admired how the women protagonists transcend the typical "suffering heroine" in so many Chinese melodramas, and make difficult decisions that prompted a great range of responses -- horror as well as sympathy, condemnation as well as admiration.

Looking forward to the rest of the series!

Author: Christopher Bourne said...

Thanks, Victoria! Glad you liked the review.

I like your description as well -- I wish I could have put it that succinctly.

See you at more films!