'Murmur of the Hearts': Hong Kong Review

Courtesy of Dream Creek Production Company
Ordinary people, unimagined depths in a poetic and moving Taiwanese drama

Joseph Chang, Isabelle Leong and Lawrence Ko play three damaged characters under the direction of Sylvia Chang

Opening the Hong Kong Intl. Film Festival with resonant emotion, the artful Hong Kong/Taiwan coproduction Murmur of the Hearts (Nian Nian) describes three psychologically scarred people in their mid-thirties who struggle to come to terms with childhood traumas. Co-written and directed by Sylvia Chang, one of Hong Kong’s leading actresses and directors, it brings a convincing woman’s point of view to the stories that will be a strong selling point for the film and assure more festival life.

It is her most accomplished directing job to date, a tour-de-force of flashbacks and flash-forwards, interwoven characters, dreams, fantasy and reality. Sophisticated viewers should find pleasure in the gradual unveiling of the plot, while those who like their stories cut and dried will have a hard time making sense of things.

The nearly two-hour running time could use some tightening, especially in scenes where the actors become repetitive while getting to the point. But there really is a lot of plot and submerged emotions to cover, as Chang and Yukihiko Kageyama’s fine screenplay inexorably closes in on the final, extremely moving sequence. In a film that seems to be always teetering on the brink of melodrama and coincidence, it’s the kind of uplifting ending out of left field, all the more emotional for being unpredictable.

Leading a star cast is Hong Kong actress Isabella Leong as Mei, a willowy artist who initially comes across as neurotic. Her lustful nocturnal visit to see her prize-fighter boyfriend Hsiang (Taiwanese star Joseph Chang from Eternal Summer) in training, much against coach’s orders, puts both of them in a bad light, and things don’t get better when she believes she sees a man with no shadow on her way home. This first supernatural occurrence implies a ghost story is in the offing, but not so. Scenes like these are ably twisted around into dreams, day-dreams or some kind of rational explanation. In much the same way, Hsiang and Mei turn out to be much more than an emotionally challenged boxer and his crazy girlfriend. As their wrenching childhood memories slowly emerge, they reveal unimagined depths.

The third character is Nan (Lawrence Ko), Mei’s estranged brother. As kids the two were very close growing up on Green Island with their loving mother and abusive Dad, who ran a local eatery, but for reasons they never fully understood, Mei’s mother left for Taiwan, taking the little girl with her and abandoning her small son. As an adult, Nan is a local tour guide, a good-hearted church-goer who dedicates his time to others, but is too fearful to find out what became of his mother and sister. This big emotional hole in his personality strains to be filled in the course of the story.

The tale is set between Taipei, Taitung and lush Green Island twenty miles off the coast, where Mei and Nan grew up. Its dark past as a place of confinement for political prisoners is hinted at in a scene with their uncle, a writer. Today it is full of tourists and memories, both for Nan who leads tour groups there and for Mei who has never returned. Their recurrent memories involve their mother (Angelika Lee Sinje) lovingly telling them the story of a mermaid, and how as children they caught stranded fish on the rocky beach and threw them back in the water like “angels”. The angel motif reappears in their lives in strange guises, like a surly bartender who rescues them on separate occasions. But again, the supernatural bits can safely be ignored by viewers unwilling to go there.

Chang’s highly original story-telling interweaves so many different registers of reality that it's not always clear what is happening. Editor Chen Po-wen does an outstanding job with the material at hand, building it slowly to the final emotional pay-off. But there are confusing scenes that could have been avoided, like a bus accident involving two pregnant women and one emergency childbirth. The live birth onscreen is quite powerful, but it takes too long to find out who the mother is.

This is very much an actors’ film with fine interiorized performances by all hands. Leong, who was last seen in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, is riveting in the role of the passionate painter, who only feels alive when she’s angry. Though at first her relationship to a boxer seems perverse, Chang portrays him with such startling sensitivity it's almost plausible. The roots of his angst are explored in an overly long conversation with his long-dead sailor father. Like another key encounter with his coach, convincingly portrayed by Wang Shih-hsien, the actors take so much time working through the scene that it loses some of its power to tedium.

A welcome surprise is Ko as Mei’s earnest, humble brother. He, too, is allowed to run with a long scene in a bar, where he takes refuge from a passing typhoon. Among the wonderful things that happen to him there is a dream meeting with his mother as a young girl, in a conversation full of aching longing. It is a high point in a very poetic film, delicately underscored by Leung Ming-kai’s subtle lighting and Chen Yang’s music.

A Golden Scene, Applause Taiwan, Bona Film Group release of a Dream-Creek Prod., Sepia, Red on Red coproduction
Cast: Isabella Leong, Joseph Chang, Lawrence Ko, Angelika Lee Sinje, Julian Chen, Wang Shih-hsien, Chia Hsiao-ku, Tsan Cheng-chu
Director: Sylvia Chang
Screenwriters: Yukihiko Kageyama, Sylvia Chang
Producer: Patricia Cheng
Executive producer: Lee Sung-liang
Director of photography: Leung Ming-kai
Production designer: Penny Pei-ling Tsai
Costume designer: Sharon Wei
Editor: Chen Po-wen
Music: Chen Yang
Sales Agent: Central Motion Pictures

No rating, 116 minutes

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