Rare 16mm print from Emory’s own collection. I was wary when the first word onscreen read “Strring,” but the subtitles turned out to be good.
Chin has frizzy hair, large glasses, has been dating round-headed fabric-store worker Lon since high school and they don’t seem very close anymore. Also they wear bad suits in every scene. Chin works assisting Ms. Mei, is getting a raise in her first scene at work, and the company is getting bought out (due to financial ruin from a 10 cm surveying error) in the next.
Her boyfriend Lon seems depressed, trades videotapes of baseball games with his former coach Mr. Lai. Lon’s ex Gwan is getting divorced, and Chin’s coworker Ko, also getting divorced, wants to hang out with Chin. Chin’s dad is inappropriate (and a financial mess, and former abuser), mom is evasive and withdrawn, and sister lives in a graffiti-laden high-rise (prominently scrawled: “Duran take youself”) with other kids. Lon runs into Kim, a cabbie friend with a flake wife and three unattended kids.
As the movie progresses (takes place over a few months), more and more money problems and relationship problems are revealed and intensified, not just from our central couple but everybody. The mood is occasionally lightened with a few jokes or some laughable 80’s fashion but there’s an air of constant unease. Things start to go bad when Lon gets into a bar brawl (to a Michael Jackson song, which may account for the movie’s unavailability on video), then Chin throws him out after he sees his ex, who is visiting from Tokyo.
Chin is being stalked by ex-coworker Ko at this point, and I wish I’d paid more attention to what he looked like, then maybe I’d be sure if he’s the one who stabs Lon to death at the end. Of Yang’s films I’ve only seen this, A Brighter Summer Day and Yi Yi, and each ends with a death. “Once it’s over, forget it. Understand?,” Lon says to the motorcycling assailant, who then follows Lon’s cab until the inevitable confrontation. Movie gets slightly metaphysical there at the end – he has a dying dream sequence reflected in an unplugged television, then it cuts from Lon, smoking, to the smoke above his head – beautifully done. Back to Chin, still unaware of her boyfriend’s fate, who is finally getting her job back, meeting her ex-and-future boss Ms. Mei in an empty, white office building, recalling the empty white apartment the couple was about to rent in the first scene.
Articles online mention visual distancing effects: characters peering through blinds, shots through mirrors, Chin’s ever-present sunglasses, one interaction shown only with shadows on a wall. They also mention Lon’s fantasies of playing baseball when he was younger, which I’d thought would be a bigger deal than it was. From skimming a couple articles I figured he’d be like the insufferable skateboard-head-injury guy in Little Children, but it’s more of a gently aimless pre-middle-aged malaise.
There’s a karaoke bar, but nothing that stands out as much as the karaoke scene in A Brighter Summer Day – better is a dance club where the power goes out in the middle of “Footloose” as Chin sits alone in the corner.
Written by Yang, Hou and T’ien-wen Chu (cowriter of Three Times, among others) and shot by Wei-han Yang, who worked with Yang again on Yi Yi but nothing in between.
Lead actress Chin Tsai married the director, was in a Stanley Kwan movie the following year which sounds pretty good, then nothing else. Hou Hsiao-hsien (Lon) was already a writer/director – his A Time to Live and a Time to Die came out the same year. Nien-Jen Wu (cabbie Kim) and I-Chen Ko (was he the stalker?) were also writer/directors… it’s an accomplished cast.
Update from shinbowi3 on twitter: the film’s original title “literally translates as Pure Plum and Bamboo Horse. This is a chinese phrase that colloquially describes a love born from childhood friendship. This title frames the film as more personal and I LOVE IT.”