This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
noantwo’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
I think a work like this is deserving of being regarded as a magnum opus. It tells the story of each member of a family in a way which makes it feel like its telling the same story; it also reaches around from the past to the future. The film is three hours long, but it never feels sluggish.
The plot is kickstarted by the family's grandmother entering a coma. When each member of the family attempts to talk to her, they learn more about themselves through their inability to. The mother of the family decides to go on a spiritual retreat because she doesn't have anything to talk to her about. (Her husband describes it to the grandma like "praying... I'm not sure the other party can hear me and I'm not sure I'm sincere enough") Her husband deals with a business where they oscillate between hiring a Japanese game programmer named Ota, or a copycat named Ato, with the husband personally courting the former who has an immense influence on him. He also runs into his first love. (The father is not so great at home, responding to his wife's existential crisis by telling the nurse to read a newspaper, and by buying his son a camera instead of directly addressing him, though that does seem to work out) As this plays out, his daughter forms a friendship with an older, more assertive and talented, girl and she becomes the rebound for the girl's ex and experiences her own first love while dealing with the guilt of her grandmother's condition. Lastly, the son of the family deals with bullying at school, from girls and his teacher, as well as an infatuation with a swimmer at his school. (Note that in all of these relationships, the family interacts with their ideal counterparts who would be otherwise unreachable)
Honestly based on this plot description alone, this would have been a great film, but it also holds surprising depth. Each character is delicately developed, this is one of those rare cases in cinema where the characters feel like actual people, and the actors bring superb performances. (The mother only shows up at the start and the end yet even she has a powerful performance and leaves an impact) The characterizations aid immensely in this aspect; the characters are flawed, they possess hubris, they're selfish, they struggle, and they love. The characters in general often forego "cool" for evocative, such as the women's shrill screams and exploratory love, or the men's overconfidence and anxiety. Another aspect to this is the dialogue, which never feels stilted and also brings in other languages, giving it a global flavor and foreignness between speakers
As each character's story develops, they also connect. The son helps the father see another aspect of his life; the father shares the futility of trying to change the past to the mother, the daughter experiences her first love just as the father relives his, and the son also develops a crush as his sister's feeling grow. (Also not mentioned, the groom himself sees his luck go up and down, directly affecting the father) My favorite to watch was the son because of his innocence, as well as his unique way of looking at things and exploring, though that also made the bullying scenes hard to stomach. Still, each story by itself was amazing, from the daughter's romance to the father's trip in Tokyo. In a way, the film is both multigenerational and intergenerational.
An interesting aspect of the film's dialogue is when character's speak out of tone, such as the son talking to his father about ways of seeing things, the daughter's boyfriend sharing the joy of movies, Ota guiding the father, and more like the voiceovers. While these feel contrived, their effect isn't cheapened because of their serious portrayal and it gives readers another layer to view the film with. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. Everything is deliberately and masterfully done: from movement and stillness, to background characters, to the shape and angle of the settings themselves. My favorite was the use of glass to show reflections of the characters, superimposed with their environment. Speaking of that, this film feels distinctly Taiwanese, addressing economic issues such as globalism and inter-asian relations, and personal relationships such as from school, marriage, work, and the family all imbued with an Asian purview. While the Western aspects are apparent, the traditional influences are still there. One aspect of Asian cinema I've noticed is that, despite alienation and life's challenges, the characters still have the spirit to live. Lastly there's the thing with the butterfly and the grandmother's death, and I'll quote Zhuangzhi's butterfly dream:
Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, a veritable butterfly, enjoying itself to the full of its bent, and not knowing it was Chuang Chou. Suddenly I awoke, and came to myself, the veritable Chuang Chou. Now I do not know whether it was then I dreamt I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man. Between me and the butterfly there must be a difference. This is an instance of transformation.
In conclusion, this was one of my favorite watches of Asian cinema and its surprisingly recent too. It broaches strong themes of family, personal direction, and love, and it does this very adeptly. This film is a must-watch of foreign cinema and will definitely increase your appreciation of the medium.