The Bride Who Returned from Hell – Taiwan Film Festival

Written by Yuan-Fu Chang

Directed by Chi Hsin

Taiwan / 1965 / 117 mins

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Recently, the Ministry for Culture in Taiwan chose to preserve to The Bride Who Returned from Hell for its historical significance to the nation. Based on the 35mm cut, complete with grainy film cells and light strains, this revitalised look at the 1965 epic is the closest those outside of Taiwan will come to experience the film and gain a grasp of its impact.

Although far from a feminist masterpiece, the film does, however, take its stance as a woman striving in a man’s world. Adapted from the 1960 novelMistress of Mellyn, Chi Hsin’s film sees Bei Sui-mi return to Taiwan after her sister’s unusual death following a boating accident. Masquerading as a nanny to her niece, Bei Sui-mi lands herself at the dark heart of an unfolding drama. Originally setting out to unravel the truth surrounding her sister, she is instead whisked into repairing her brother-in-law and nieces strained relationship, discovering several romances, and all while avoiding the dangers as locals begin to disappear.

There’s a perplexing notion in the manner Chi Hsin smashes genres together, toying with aspects of thrillers, comedies, romantic dramas and yes, even musical elements. Experimentation of any nature in cinema is to be encouraged, but there’s also a necessity to realise when to step back – after painting itself initially as a dramatic thriller, the light-hearted tone is off-putting, and the comedic factor rears itself at inopportune moments.

On the film’s musicality, the occasional songs serve a narrative purpose, as a storytelling mechanism of sorts. Often to enhance emotions, strike memories or forge relationships, the film’s score is, on the whole, one of its finer aspects. Often uplifting, it oddly compliments much of the films genre twists – without disrupting the instrumental score. As the drama moves into romance, and then into thriller territory, the score follows suit without breaking immersion – save for one scene, where the choice in music shatters the film’s authenticity.

Inspiration is one thing, paying tribute is another, Chi Hsin isn’t so much wearing influential directors and filmmakers triumphs on his sleeve as lifting direct aspects and incorporating them into the film. After the initial bars of Monty Norman‘s cultural behemoth strike a bell, quickly you realise that it isn’t a homage – it’s a direct copy-and-paste of the track. Implementing these nods and lifts from Hitchcock to James Bond may nod to Chi Hsin’s love for these movies, but the call-backs dampen what emerged as an innovative piece of sixties’ Taiwanese cinema.

Disappointingly, Yuan-Fu Chang’s script didn’t need this pandering copycatting. The Bride Who Returned From Hell has an intensely gothic murder mystery at the core of its atmospheric story – it doesn’t require elements from other films and genres to work and these directorial choices hinder an otherwise brilliant film. Chin Mei’s portrayal of Bei Sui-Mi is gripping, as she fends off the tone dips and strides out on her course, controlling the film and aiding those sharing the screen. The rapport she establishes across the cast, particularly with Fan Yue and Chun-Hsiung Ko, saves much of the film with their complex, engaging relationships.

Where The Bride Who Returned From Hell does well, in performances, cinematography and score composition – it does exceedingly well. Otherwise, much of the experimentation with genre, and especially the unflattering homages, lead to broadening too much of the original story – cramming in an excess amount of side characters and backstory and watering down an example of sixties’ Taiwanese expression.

Screening as part of Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh

Review published for The Wee Review

Six Suspects – Taiwan Film Festival

Written by Yi-Yun Lin

Directed by Lin Tuan-Chiu

Taiwan / 1965 / 109 mins

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Tenn Kong-Hui has no shortage of enemies, though that’s expected for a crooked blackmailer. Abusing his talents in reconnaissance, he takes a twisted delight in busting up the soirees, marriages and lives of the social elite – for a fee, of course. So when he turns up lifeless in his apartment, there’s already a shortlist of possible suspects – five to be exact. As each turns up an alibi, the case seems lost – until a breakthrough comes when a final sixth suspect surfaces.

And who can blame the killer? As Tenn Kong-Hui is carried with such a revolting smugness by Tung-Ju Wu, if anything, they surely just merely beat someone else to the punch. Richly embodying the seedy underbelly of the flourishing middle classes, this pro-police crime thriller has a depth which isn’t obvious at first. Our villain, a roguish blackmailer, sits atop his high horse noting the rotting underbelly of a seemingly innocent society, long before the world caught on. Much of this is due to the period of the film’s production, a time of martial law where law enforcement were the unquestionable heroes, while the corrupt middle class was the enemy.

What makes it easy to follow an overlapping timeline and character-rich film is Yi-Yun Lin’s clear writing. Little is over-complicated and rather than attempting to subvert the audience’s expectations, the script merely allows the story to develop, twisting when necessary. It makes for a compelling mystery that still takes a surprise turn with its unusual and diverse range of suspects. Remarkably well-paced (despite the multitude of overlapping story threads), Six Suspects never strays from the realms of believability or understanding. Yi-Yun Lin’s writing flows quite naturally, even if the odd performance reaches heights of cartoonish exaggeration. Eliminating the suspects, the film’s structure dips and emerges out of flashbacks to understand the lead-up to the fate of Tenn Kong-Hui, unravelling the murky tactics he employed to unearth his trove of secrets.

With cigarettes, popped collars and attitude, Lin Tuan-Chiu transforms Taipei into an energised, vibrant metropolis with ease thanks to Lai Cheng-ying’s expressionist lighting, accompanied by smooth jazz. Everything is amplified in Six Suspects, especially the emotion. Fuelling the untrustworthy nature of the suspect’s accounts, Lai Cheng-ying casts shadows across any available surface, grasping the noir angle with both hands. Visually, it creates a sharp monochrome dynamic, achieving a fly-on-the-wall sensation which draws the audience to the side-lines as these sordid affairs and betrayals unfold.

Humiliation, jealousy and rage abound – it’s a wonder the film has as little a body count as it does. Collectively the cast does a smashing job, not only in giving life into a plethora of different characters but also in their motivations and interactions with one another. From cheating businessmen to seductive suitors and loyal partners, Lin Tuan-Chiu’s direction of them usually reins in the hammy performances, save for a couple, which stray from a noir thriller into comedic territory. Notably, Chin-Hsin Hsia gives much of the gritty game away and stands out for the wrong reasons against the more rounded, natural performances of Ching-Ching Chang.

Six Suspects may have never received an official release, but here it sits as a solid example of an interesting period for Taiwanese cinema. A crime thriller which initially toys with interesting ideas succumbs to a flawed climax where the police are once again the victors against the bourgeoisie incessant wants of greed and envy. An addictive taste for dramatics can be satiated with this film, if you can stomach the police-pandering and occasional hackneyed performance.

Review published for The Wee Review

My Punch-Drunk Boxer – Fantasia Film Festival

Directed by Hyuk Ki Jung

South Korea/ 2019/ 114 mins

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Aphrase we’ve all heard and potentially used ourselves, Punch Drunk is the more common term for the medical condition Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease which causes irreparable damage, often as the result of repeated head trauma: a grave concern for boxers.

Allowing the past to provide context, My Punch-Drunk Boxer tells the story of Lee Byung-Gu (Tae-goo Eom), from former boxing star through to his departure from the sport and growing illness. Accused of doping, bringing ill-repute not only to himself but his mentor and practise gym, Byung-Gu now helps out around the struggling boxing pit as a cleaner, towel boy and shadow coacher when able. Upon meeting Min-Ji (Hyeri Lee), his passion to return to the sport returns and he sets out to hopefully repair the damages caused, while promoting Pansori, a rhythmic style set to a drumbeat.

Unsurprisingly, the inclusion of Pansori incorporates rhythmic importance to the film, not only narratively but to seed the vitality of drumbeats and fluid motions of boxing into the film’s structure. It does mean an unwelcome stream of narration is added to the film’s soundtrack as a Pansori storyteller recites verses of what we’re seeing on screen or recaps some of the previous events of Byung-Gu’s life. While inoffensive, the mechanic is only used episodically, but does little else but drive down the pacing of the film and stagger tension or comic timing.

Jung’s way with a dry sense of humour adds authenticity into many of the character’s responses to adversity. As much of the film handles the sensitive matter of Alzheimer’s in the young, the humour thankfully isn’t crass, though it can be over-the-top, and adheres to a character’s traits. Tae-goo Eom’s more fluid movements and awkward moments demonstrate both an understanding of punch drunk syndrome, and a way to physically connect a mental condition with the audience. He never plays his condition for laughs. Instead, Tae-Goo personifies a marvellously created character.

And lordy, what at first presents itself as a budding companionship in its gentile charm is a model of cinematic romance. The chemistry Tae-Goo and Hyeri Lee possess is investible and builds a natural relationship which doesn’t then comprise the entirety of the narrative. Lee absolutely shines as a beacon of enjoyment. Her presence turns bleaker moments to warmth and demonstrates an equal prowess with the choreography as her costars.

Fundamentally raw, without pomp or flash, an earthy choreography drives the fight scenes – though there are few. My Punch-Drunk Boxer isn’t necessarily a sports film, rather a dramatic romantic comedy which centres itself around boxing culture and one man’s desire to make amends. As such, there is little in the way of opulent showboating, no big crowds. What is the focus is the history behind the practices, the precision of the movement and the camera’s ability to capture this (with admittedly a few too many jump cuts and quick edits).

Visually, the film balances, squeezing in the tighter frames as the crowds and narrow lanes of South Korea demand. Kang Min-Woo capitalises on the beaches and more open scenes, and there’s a palate cleanser as the art direction manipulates shadows against the purest of azure skies. It isn’t much, but when the film needs to, it finds a statement shot to carry forward a feeling or a tonal shift, opening up the airwaves from the stuffy gym or concentrated streets.

At its heart though, this film searches for Byung-Gu’s autonomy, and his perseverance to make amends and reclaim a semblance of life. My Punch-Drunk Boxer speaks to a diverse crowd, and ties together multiple genres, stumbling as it brings too much into what are otherwise beautifully stitched scenes. Respectful, humorous and charming, My Punch-Drunk Boxer is a definite for those searching to break from the traditional formula or find a sporting film with a broader scope.

Review published for The Wee Review