The Losers: HKIFF Review
Taiwanese writer-director Lou Yi-an moves from the city to the country for his sophomore effort.
Simmering discontent, interpersonal power plays and their resultant self-abuse are just a few of the ideas at the core of Lou Yi-an’s The Losers, a deliberately paced and sensitive look at some of Taiwan’s titular souls. Not so much about failure as about the circumstances that conspire to convince us that maybe we are, indeed, “losers,” Lou’s second feature is worth the effort to look past a few narrative clichés to get to the larger snapshot of contemporary Taiwanese life free of saccharine sentimentality and conventional teen identity crises.
Together with the recent The Rice Bomber, The Losers could be considered the next step in a burgeoning film trend from Taiwan that focuses on rural life and the threat to local farming by big industry, the (now) standard globalization of food and the modern agribusiness model. Though Lou’s direction is assured and the film has more than its share of striking images, wide release seems like a long shot, though a healthy festival life should be in order.
Shiou (Hsu Hua-chien) returns to his Kaohsiung suburb hometown, Meinong, after failing to make a respectable living in Taipei as an actor. He reinserts himself on the family homestead and decides he’s going to give tomato farming a go, and while doing so he reconnects with an old girlfriend, Mei-sha (Paicx Yatauyungana), who is living a cushy, affluent life with her industrialist husband Tian-jin (Lin Chih-ju). She’s a classically bored wife with bigger dreams and a healthy sex drive and appears to be suffocating in the small community.
At the same time her troubled, rebellious middle school aged son Ah-pan (Pan Chin-yu) is dipping his toes in romantic waters with his friend Yu-mei (Chiu Su-chin), a smart retiring girl of mixed heritage with a deadbeat father. They strike up a friendship that teeters on collapse when Yu-mei finds out Ah-pan has developed a drug habit, an absolute deal-breaker for her, knowing first hand (from her father) about the perils of substance abuse. To keep him out of trouble at least somewhat, Shiou give Ah-pan a job at the farm, and it calms him down at least for a while. At the same time as Ah-pan grows up and Shiou and Mei-sha rekindle their relationship, Meinong’s land is slowly and methodically being bought up by real estate barons looking at property development. One of those is Tian-jin and he wants Shiou’s land.
Similar to his use of Taipei’s housing crunch and physical displacement as a larger metaphor for the characters of his 2009 debut, A Place of One’s Own, seeking a home in the world, Lou tackles the kind of unsavory issues lingering beneath the picture perfect surface of small town Taiwan. On top of the land issues, Lou turns his camera on drug abuse, class rifts and the general dead end nature of these hamlets for anyone with a modicum of ambition. Lou’s dialogue is, for the most part, naturalistic in its awkward pauses and forced niceties, and the easy toggling between Mandarin and the local Hakka gives the film a strong sense of place. But cinematographer Han Ji-hsuan’s images capture their individual mindsets with an efficient visual shorthand that adds to that. Shiou’s hopes for a clean break and new start are reflected in the sun-dappled fields; Mei-sha’s sterile, construct of a suburban life has a suitably man-made light illuminating it.
The cast is uniformly strong at conveying the characters’ varying states of discontent or frustration. As Shiou, Hsu has the kind of hangdog expression expected of a man who is constantly failing at something, and if Pan is a little mannered during his brat stage, he makes up for it when he’s finally forced to deal with his future, his parents and his feelings for Yu-mei. The Losers isn’t flawless—there are moments where the film drags on, and Lou succumbs to a couple of narrative contrivances—but it is a welcome breath of fresh air from an industry that has bogged itself down in fluffy youth romance too often in the past few years.
Producer: Eric Yeh
Director: Lou Yi-an
Cast: Hsu Hua-chien, Paicx Yatauyungana, Pan Chin-yu, Chiu-Su-chin, Lin Chih-ju, Yang Zong-hua
Screenwriter: Lou Yi-an
Director of Photography: Han Ji-hsuan
Production Designer: Zhang Yi-feng
Music: Lin Sheng-hsiang, Ohtake Ken
Editor: Chen Xiao-dong, Lou Yi-an
World Sales: Joint Entertainment International
No rating, 113 minutes