“Juliets” is a bewitching omnibus of romances that are teasingly anti-romantic, or post-romantic, by Hou Chi-jan, Shen Ko-shang and Chen Yu-hsun. As the Shakespearean reference of the title implies, love is in the air in all three stories, but it is more often bitter than sweet, and always comes with a twist. In fact, the first two works are smoldering accounts of l’amour fou that remind one “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”
Aside from the farcical, out-of-character third segment, “Juliets” is a sensual affair which match-makes art house aesthetics with commercial production quality and entertaining storytelling. It should charm its way into festivals, select cinemas in its native Taiwan and other Chinese-speaking territories. Casting directors may want to put out feelers for actress Lee Chien-na who makes an electrifying debut, and the impassioned efforts of idol Vivian Hsu to play against her angel-nymphet image.
While the directors exhibit markedly different tastes and styles, the central figures are all named Juliet (at least in Chinese pronunciation) and they all dress in red at some point. The stories embrace their feminine perspectives, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. Red is the color of passion and danger, as well as luck and happiness (in Chinese culture). Each short is driven by some of these elements.
“Juliet’s Choice” convincingly expresses the anguish of unrequited love. Ju (Hsu), a printer’s daughter with a leg disability, fantasizes about escaping from her boxed-in existence when a dissident college student Ro (Wong Po-chieh) pays her suggestive attention. Sumptuously shot to capture the nostalgic ambiance of the 70s, the chiaroscuro lighting wraps the heroine in a tight embrace that evokes her claustrophobia and obsession.
None of documentary filmmaker Shen’s previous output (not even “Baseball Boys” which swept the board at 2009 Golden Horse Awards) can prepare us for the irresistibly sexy film language and narrative artistry of “Two Juliets.” In a seaside village in the 80s, a vaudeville performer’s daughter Julie (sizzling singer Lee Chien-na whose family runs genuine vaudeville shows) and a puppeteer’s son (River Huang) are forbidden to love because of their fathers’ feud. A mental asylum becomes their love nest — or prison?
This vignette comes closest to “Romeo and Juliet”’s plot yet its ending has a wicked sting that subverts the Bard’s motif of undying love. The atmosphere is as fantasmagorical as Victorian Gothics like “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights.” The narrative structure, which traverses two eras and connects two love-lorn women, has the sophistication of a feature length film.
“One More Juliet,” sends up the profession of its creator Chen, a top-ranking comic TVC director in Taiwan. Chu Li-ye, a bachelor with a record of 28 failed dates, attempts suicide on his 40th birthday, but he is accidentally scouted to star in a TVC. A farcical trifle, its attempt to couch its message that everyone longs for and deserves love in a gender-bending twist is soiled by lavatory humor and unflattering caricatures of middle-aged men.
Tokyo International Film Festival
Sales: Good Films Workshop
Production: Khan Entertainment Co.
Cast: Vivian Hsu, Weng Po-Chieh, Lee Chien-na, River Huang, Kang Kang, Liang He-chun.
Directors: Hou Chi-jan, Shen Ko-shang, Chen Yu-hsun.
Producer: Khan Lee
Executive producer: Khan Lee
Cinematographers: Mahua Feng, Tai Chien, Chen Chien-Li
Production designer: Tsai Pei-Ling, Tang Chia-Hung, Chen Ming-Huei
Writers: Hou Chi-Jan, Yang Yuan-Ling, Shen Ko-Shang, Lu Hsin-Chih, Chen Yu-Hsun
Music: Han Cheng-Yieh, Pigskinhead, Chris Hou
Editor: Ku Hsiao-Yun
Sound: Frank Cheng
No MPAA rating, 106 minutes.