Thu, Dec 06, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Movie review: Xiao Mei

Maren Hwang pushes storytelling and stylistic boundaries in this faux-investigative film about a missing young woman, and while all the technical elements are there, the story is rather uneven and underdeveloped

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Cincin Jao, as titular character Xiao Mei, sits at a table with Nadou, who plays her stepbrother, in one of the film’s surreal sequences blending the past and present in one scene.

Photo courtesy of atmovies.com.tw

No matter how bad, art-house films are usually quite watchable for the first half hour or so. If nothing else, the innovative storytelling techniques and avant-garde aesthetics will keep the viewer’s attention for at least that long. But a good movie still requires a coherent, gripping storyline that actually goes somewhere. This is the only area — but the most crucial one — where Xiao Mei (小美) falls flat as the story builds intrigue but provides too few answers before abruptly ending.

The premise of the story is simple: a young, drug-addicted woman named Xiao Mei, played by Cincin Jao (饒星星), has gone missing. An unidentified cameraman interviews nine people associated with her, each with different motives and connections, to try and piece together what happened.

The opening scene is probably the most entertaining part of the film, as Xiao Mei’s landlord, portrayed by Chen Yi-wen (陳以文) with a thick Cantonese accent, describes his interactions with Xiao Mei while getting a head massage at a traditional barber shop. He occasionally glances at the camera when he gets agitated, and it’s soon revealed that he’s being interviewed. The camera follows him to Xiao Mei’s former apartment while Chen does a splendid job as the unintentional funnyman, delivering absurd one-liners and showing off his father’s martial arts skills, all while moping about how hard life is as a landlord and how much trouble Xiao Mei has caused him. A touch of surrealism is employed when the landlord recalls a previous encounter with Xiao Mei, and past and present merge into one scene.

This blend of past and present and other surreal devices are seen throughout the movie, and are a reason to keep watching. In a flashback sex scene, Xiao Mei’s boyfriend actually pauses mid-action to speak to the interviewer as if he were in the present. The cameraman also seems to be able to film his subjects from improbable positions, for example, when the lens is somehow directly facing the boyfriend while he zips through town on his motorcycle. Characters could be talking to both Xiao Mei and the cameraman in the same shot, then suddenly be interrupted by a passerby. This device is probably necessary for the film to work, otherwise it would just be a series of monotonous interrogations.

Film Notes:

Xiao Mei 小美

DIRECTED BY:

Maren Hwang (黃榮昇)

STARRING:

Cincin Jao (饒星星)

Chen Yi-wen (陳以文)

Ivy Yin (尹馨)

Na Dou (納豆)

RUNNING TIME:

96 minutes

LANGUAGE:

Mandarin and Taiwanese with English and Chinese subtitles

TAIWAN RELEASE:

In theaters


Commercial director Maren Hwang (黃榮昇) should be praised for pushing the boundaries and trying new forms of storytelling in his first feature effort. The cinematography, special effects and score are rich and alluring, and the surrealism are adroitly employed so that scenes are offbeat without being absurd. Taipei and other locales in Taiwan are filmed in a gritty and bleak, yet still colorful and dreamy fashion, providing atmospheric respite from the succession of interviews. It’s a feast for the senses, and there’s a reason Xiao Mei has made it into various international film festivals, including the Berlinale. It also claimed the Crossovers Grand Prix at the Strasbourg European Fantastic Film Festival and best cinematography award at the Taipei Film Awards.

However, while stylistically and technically impressive, there is not enough substance to back the film up. The performances seem to weaken after Chen’s interview, and by the fourth or fifth subject, the magic is wearing off as the suspense builds too slowly, even waning at points despite Hwang introducing new flourishes and layers to each vignette in a bid to keep them unique. The way they are put together just doesn’t translate into a full narrative. It’s as if Hwang came up with a brilliant idea for a short film, but was unable to flesh it out into a full-length feature.

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