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BUSAN, South Korea — Finally wriggling out of his auteurist cocoon that led to the disastrous “Butterfly,” Chang Tso-chi has metamorphosed with “When Love Comes” — a layered and cadenced domestic drama about a polygamous Taiwan family and how its members live with each other’s secrets and shortcomings.
Arguably his best film, certainly his most visually splendid and life-affirming, “Love” reflects the Chinese philosophy of letting water pass under the bridge. The film is dedicated to the late actress Qiu Xiumin, and pays homage to women’s strength and largesse.
Chang has never been a player in the commercial field and this film is not going to be a breakthrough either. A short-to-medium run in Taiwan’s art house circuit followed by a few festival appearances is a likely fate.
The voice and thoughts of 16-year-old Laichun (Li Yi Jie) guide one through this family saga.
Her father, Dark Face (Lin Yu Shun), has “married into” Xue Feng’s (Lu Xue Feng) family as it lacked a male heir. When Xue Feng turns out to be infertile, she permits him to take his ex-lover Zhihua (He Zi-hua) as a concubine, who gives birth to Laichun, her sister Lairi, and a newborn boy.
The family is either embroiled in daily quarrels, or harassed by cops and triads exhorting bribes from their restaurant business. When Laichun’s boyfriend does a runner after knocking her up, the crisis peels open her parents’ old wounds. It is only during a trip to the ancestral hometown, Kinmen, that a confession brings healing and hope. The coda contains a twist that makes the scene of the two wives hugging each other in the bathroom take on more meaning than just female bonding.
The narrative strategy of family dramas is to start with enmity or problems and conclude with resolution and reconciliation. Here, jealousy is mingled with generosity, death and disability coexist with new lives and loves, and there is no solution to anything, just like real life. The film begins and ends with a birth, delivered on the same floor of a crowded arcade. It epitomizes the family’s predicament and life itself: unpredictable, uncomfortable, yet somehow one pulls through.
This is a rare occasion when engrossing characters are fully aligned with nuanced and natural performances. The paintings by Dark Face’s autistic brother Jie and recurrent shots of flocks of pigeons are pure cinematic poetry. While disability and animals are recurrent tropes in Chang’s works, they are more organically integrated into the plot here, so they come to define the film’s aesthetic temperament.
Gala Presentation, Pusan International Film Festival
Production: Chang Tso-chi Film Studio.
Cast: Li Yi Jie, Lu Xue Feng, Lin Yu Shun, He Zi-hua, Wei Renqing, Gao Mengjie.
Director-screenwriter-executive-producer-editor: Chang Tso-chi.
Producer: Joseph Liao.
Executive producer: Lu Kuo Fu.
Director of photography: Chang Chan.
Production designer: Peng Weimin.
Costume designer: Wang Zhou-ru.
Music: Wu Rueiran, Sheng-Te Lin.
No MPAA rating, 107 minutes.
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