- RatedPG13 /GenreDrama
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‘Distance’, which opened the prestigious Golden Horse Film Festival in 2015 and widely perceived as the follow up to Anthony Chen’s hugely successful ‘Ilo Ilo’, certainly has high expectations to meet.
In fact the film is not directed by Anthony himself, though he has a hand in co-writing the screenplay, and wears Executive Producer hat, helping to put the finances together, and grooming three young directors – Xin Yukun from China, Tan Shijie from Singapore and Sivaroj Kongsakul from Thailand to direct.
Joining the bandwagon of several recent films from Asia, the concept of an omnibus film is certainly not a novelty though a marked difference is that the three stories of ‘Distance’ which take place at different countries all star the same lead actor – Taiwanese idol drama leading man Chen Bolin, playing three completely different characters.
The stories are being linked thematically by the concept of “distance” – in the physical, temporal and emotional sense. The film’s Chinese title – ‘Seeing You, And Not Ever Seeing You Again’ -- is probably more literal in conveying what actually transpires in the three narratives.
‘THE SON’ BY XIN YUKUN
In Xin Yukun’s ‘The Son’, Chen plays a high level executive manager on a business trip to Guangxi, and there at the shipping terminal where he conducts his business, he keeps seeing his long lost father (Paul Chun) who have left Chen and his mother behind in their poorer hometown of Foshan many years ago.
Instead of a dramatic confrontation, their eventual reunion was a study in restraint and understatement, though the undercurrents of Chen’s internal conflict, especially bearing eyewitness to the way his dad is being mistreated by his younger son from a second marriage in Guangxi, is especially heart wrenching to watch.
Director Xin is very effective in slowly building up the mood and subdued emotions until it reaches a boiling point when Chen let it all out in a revelation at the end of this piece.
Veteran actor Paul Chun add gravitas to his role as a down and out former factory boss turned cleaner, now taking in his own stride and accepting the current cruel fate as his comeuppance.
To a certain extent, the fates of Paul Chun’s character and his two sons reflect a larger social commentary on the post economic boom of modern China, as Xin balances well the intimate personal relationships between his characters with the larger setting and context of the locale.
The only contrivance might be the many coincidental encounters that Chen has with Paul Chun as they keep running into each other and other incidental characters at different parts of the city.
This is a major city of Guangxi we are talking about rather than the small village setting of Xin’s acclaimed debut feature ‘The Coffin In the Mountain’ which also employed a similar dramatic license of ‘coincidental encounters’.
‘THE LAKE’ BY TAN SHIJIE
Tan Shijie’s ‘The Lake’ intercuts the stories of two childhood friends from a time in the distant past when they would rendezvous and swim by the titular lake in Taiwan, and the present time, where Chen’s character is a young father who had to travel to Singapore to meet his childhood mate, whom he hasn’t seen in years, at the Changi Prison.
Taiwanese actor Tony Yang plays the friend behind bars, in a special guest-starring role. Even though emotions run high during the reunion, we don’t actually feel a strong connection between the two long lost bosom friends, again due to a more restrained directing and performance.
Instead, the actors who portrayed their younger selves, Cheng Huan-lin and Wei Han-ding had a much stronger chemistry together. The scenes of skinny-dipping and physical intimacy through mud wrestling at the lake by the two teenage boys suggest genuine affection between the two, though it was never explicitly clarified in the narrative whether their relationship goes beyond a brotherly love and camaraderie.
Interior shots at the prison setting as well as the abattoir where Han-ding’s disapproving father work in the flashbacks were cold, harsh and austere, amplified by the slow calculated pacing, which probably won’t endear this film well to general audiences tastes.
Yeo Yann Yann’s supporting turn as the prison warden was also a little disappointing, as her limited screen time only requires her to deliver exposition that contains minor plot information.
Narrative-wise, this middle piece has the most potential to be developed into a full feature length story, with all the possible back stories of both the young and adult characters, how the two childhood buddies got to where they are today – a father and a criminal death row inmate.
However the under-written script and lacking of characterization and back stories for both Chen’s and Tony Yang’s roles coupled with the constant intercutting to prolonged flashback scenes have marred the overall journey and experience, taking away from what could’ve been a stronger catharsis at its ending.
‘THE GOODBYE’ BY SIVAROJ KONGSAKUL
The most light hearted piece among the three, Chen plays a visiting Mainland Chinese professor in Thailand giving guest lectures about youths and relationships in the modern internet age and the ‘distance’ among people engaging in social media.
While the exposition in the lecture seem to hint at the themes explored within the omnibus, there are really two story threads at play here, and both are largely dependent on the women characters.
The first story thread is about Chen’s local student guide Pim, who through the course of a few days start to develop a crush for the suave and gentlemanly Chen. This story thread is juxtaposed with the reunion that Chen has with his old flame and former teacher (Jiang Wenli), who coincidentally is now teaching at the same Thai College.
While it is clearly a plot device to compare and contrast the two romances -- one current and the other set in the past – Pim’s thread is clearly the lesser developed among the two.
Chen himself also looks too young to convincingly play a visiting professor from China. The emotional pathos in this film came primarily from Jiang’s performance, especially in the climatic farewell scene that brings her character to full circle. Jiang’s story arc resonates with the title of this short as well as the title of the entire omnibus.
This could have been the strongest entry among the three if not for the lack of credibility in both Chen’s characterization as well as the under developed narrative for Pim.
Overall, all three short films have merits and stand out on their own terms with solid art direction and cinematography, which added a sense of poetic realism that convincingly portrayed the local settings of the respective countries – Guangxi China, Urban Thailand, and rural Taiwan, except the prison walls of Changi which felt too constructed to be convincing.
There is the nagging issue of the lack of narrative connection between them. It feels like all three shorts were conceived separately and held together by the thin thematic thread, thus the sum of the parts do not add up to a coherent whole despite using the same actor.
The casting of a major star in Chen Bolin felt more like a marketing strategy rather than it being integral or necessary for the entire film. The distance between the three stories certainly echoes the title, but perhaps not in the way that the filmmakers would have intended.
Nevertheless, this is a bold first attempt and experiment both conceptually and in execution, and no doubt audiences will still look forward to the next film project spearheaded by Anthony Chen.