Starting off as a horror comedy and concluding with a hard-knuckle free-for-all, Taiwanese filmmaker Lee Chung‘s first fictional feature is as diverse in its narrative tropes as it is in its list of backers: among his presenters are the Taiwanese behemoth Central Motion Pictures Corporation, Wong Kar-wai‘s Jet Tone Films and Warner Bros.’ Far East branch. While The Laundryman does boast a few twists and turns that don’t add up, the film still works as a knowing and entertaining genre blender, its relentlessly manic energy propped up by its stars — some of them cast remarkably against type — and throbbing imagery.
With its paranormal take on the distracted-hitman template — a subgenre that has spawned films such as The Professional and Fallen Angels, both of which are referenced here — The Laundryman should prove sufficiently appealing for the more populist end of the festival-circuit spectrum. Bowing at the Taipei Film Festival last week before making its international premiere Sunday at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival, the film indeed should kick off a sustained itinerary through festivals beyond Asia in the fall after its appearance at Locarno next month. Meanwhile, a niche release in North American markets is certainly possible.
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One of The Laundryman‘s major calling cards is lead actor Joseph Chang, who plays the nameless assassin whose beefcake appearance belies a troubled soul, his sanity put to the test as he finds himself plagued day and night by ghosts of his victims. Cashing in on the actor’s pedigree as a metrosexual icon — he sprang to fame in 2006 as a closeted high-school student’s love object in Eternal Summer, while his most acclaimed performance to date is that of an emotionally suppressed gay man in Yang Ya-che‘s GF*BF (2012) — Lee introduces Chang making a hit while dressed up as a woman. From there, comedy and action ensue, delivering on The Laundryman‘s objective in playing with both genre conventions and the cast’s entrenched public personas.
Chang showcases nuanced acting chops beneath all that muscle, contributing to the film’s subversion of gender stereotypes: while Chang’s contract killer has his fears laid bare, the female characters come off as tough as nails.
The hitman’s boss, Ah Gu (Sui Tang, Women Who Flirt), is a frosty temptress who conceals her line of work behind the veneer of a high-class laundry. Lin (Wan Qian, Paradise in Service), the psychic to whom the haunted hitman turns for help, is a cynic who transforms from a petite ditz to a possessed fiend as she becomes the vessel through which ghosts articulate their feelings and frustrations. And then there’s Yang (Yeo Yann Yann, Ilo Ilo), a snarky police detective, who disparages the efforts of her soon-to-retire colleague Tang (Tsai Ming-hsiu) in probing the trail of death and destruction brought about by the assassin and the avenging apparitions of his victims.
The presence of these three women, each representing a certain archetypal character of a traditional film genre, symbolizes the warring stylistic tones within The Laundryman. The way Ah Gu keeps the hitman in check — through her physical allure, as well as the pancakes she feeds him regularly — suggests murderous intrigue worthy of a suspense thriller. The elfin psychic sidekick of Lin — a cross between Natalie Portman‘s Mathilda in The Professional, Jennifer Love Hewitt‘s ghost whisperer and any of the wig-wearing eccentrics in Wong Kar-wai’s films — is the embodiment of comedy and drama, as she exposes the hitman to the ludicrousness of his job and the human stories of people he previously regarded only as his marks.
While her part is smaller than that of the others, Yeo’s Yang plays a significant role as her investigation of the killings will eventually lead to The Laundryman‘s climax. Yang Kil-yong‘s and Seo Seong-ok‘s sharply choreographed fights also come just in time to distract viewers from dwelling on the holes in the plot, as all is revealed about the origins of Ah Gu’s murderous network of assassins and the lead character’s place in it. Then again, The Laundryman works more as a visceral spectacle, with cinematographer-editor Yao Hung-i (a longtime member of Hou Hsiao-hsien‘s creative team) and production designer Wang Chih-chien keeping the film’s jumping tenors in check with adequate choices in lighting, backdrops and cuts. The color might bleed in the long run, but The Laundryman is a shrink-wrapped piece of genre-hopping entertainment.
Venue: Taipei Film Festival (Taipei Film Awards); Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (Bucheon Choice); Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande)
Production companies: 1 Production Film Company, co-presented by China Motion Pictures Corporation, Jet Tone Films, Lucky Royal, Warner Bros (F.E.)
Cast: Joseph Chang, Sui Tang, Wan Qian, Yeo Yann Yann
Director: Lee Chung
Screenwriters: Lee Chung, Chen Yu-hsun
Producers: Chang Ya-ting
Executive producer: Lee Lieh, Roger Huang
Director of photography: Yao Hung-i
Art director: Wang Chih-chien
Costume designer: Hsu Li-wen
Editors: Yao Hong-i, Yang Wei-hsin, Chiang Yi-ming, Shieh Meng-ju
Casting Director: Finn Wu
Music: Wen Tzu-chieh
Action directors: Yang Kil-yong, Seo Seong-ok
International Sales: Ablaze Image
In Mandarin and Taiwanese
No rating; 110 minutes