My Mandala (原來你還在), the directorial debut of writer Elsa Yang (楊南倩), has many good ideas as it sets out to explore the theme of betrayal, faith and familial love through the story of a petty criminal planning to swindle money from a grieving family by posing as a Tibetan lama. The ideas, however, have remained largely inchoate, lost in a script that reflects little of Yang’s impressive writing credentials, which include the Golden Horse Award-winning screenplay Return Ticket (到阜陽六百里).
The story begins with Guo Yin, played by promising new thespian Huang Ho (黃河). Guo Yin has just returned to the street after serving a stint in prison for phone scams. Looking for new ways to make a buck, the con artist studies everything he can about Tibetan lamas on YouTube, in the hope of swindling rich people seeking to fill a spiritual void.
He is soon approached by Xinyu (Lu Yi-ching, 陸弈靜), the wife of wealthy businessman Timhan, played by veteran actor Wang Dao (王道). Mourning her son, who was killed in a car accident, Xinyu invites the impostor to stay at their home, believing that through daily prayers and meditations guided by the lama, her son’s wandering soul can finally be laid to rest and be reincarnated.
Initially, Timhan is suspicious of Guo Yin and opposes the idea of having a stranger under their roof. But the hardened businessman gradually gives in to his wife’s views and develops fatherly feelings toward Guo Yin, who is about the same age as their dead son. Little by little, the swindler, too, forgets why he came to the household in the first place and begins to see himself as a surrogate for the son. He even helps the parents come to terms with their loss. Meanwhile, he is forced to confront the ghosts of the past — that is, his previous betrayal of T-cai (Da Ching,大慶), a brotherly figure, mentor and the only family that he ever had.
Directed by Elsa Yang (楊南倩)
Starring: Huang Ho (黃河) as Guo Yin, Lu Yi-ching (陸弈靜) as Xinyu, Wang Dao (王道) as Timhan, Da Ching (大慶) as T-cai
Running time: 104 minutes
Taiwan release: TODAY
Language: Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles
Co-written by Yang and Jerry Liu (劉彥甫), the film is most engaging when it’s probing human emotions. When Guo Yin imagines himself dining with the wife and husband as one loving family, he is a tour de force, offering the viewer an eloquent glimpse into the mind of his lonely character, who becomes suddenly and instantly likable.
Unfortunately, for the most part the creators of the film fail to thread the narrative into an even, balanced whole. Though crucial to the formation of the protagonist’s character, the plotline about Guo Yin’s mentor T-cai is never completely tied to the main storyline, and the flashbacks designed to shed light on the duo’s relationship feel contrived rather than revelatory. The past and the present often jar and become a source of distraction from each other.
The biggest victim of the uneven script is probably the Atayal (泰雅族) actor Da-ching, who plays the young Mouna Rudo in Wei Te-sheng’s (魏德聖) Seediq Bale (賽德克．巴萊). Bringing a strong presence to his role as a religious charlatan and a caring brotherly figure, the actor seems desperate in the end, struggling with a character reduced to a small-time gangster leader with a greased-back hairstyle.