A young man with a fetish for women’s underwear becomes a target for harassment, which is just the tip of the iceberg in Taiwanese documentarian Chu Hsien-Che’s thematically sprawling debut feature, White Ant. Facile pop psychology aside, it would come as no surprise if Chu’s New Currents entry at this year’s Busan International Film Festival emerged as the frontrunner in the fest’s primary competition. Carefully modulated and wisely attuned to its strongest elements (Wu Kang Jen’s brave first-act performance and the bond between two mourning women in the third), White Ant is evidence of Chu’s doc background, both in style and substance. White Ant has enough low-key star power in Wu and veteran performer Yu Tai-Yan to give it art house buoyancy in Asia-Pacific, and it’s a shoe-in for festivals outside the region.
In the middle of the night in a quiet corner of Taipei, bookstore worker Bai Yide (Wu, Taipei 24h) stops in the courtyard of a nondescript apartment block. A set of women’s underwear hanging in a window has caught his attention, and he is compelled to steal it. He goes home, masturbates and then lovingly stores the set away with dozens of others he has neatly tucked under his bed. A few days later, a DVD lands in his mailbox: Someone has caught him swiping the underwear and recorded it. Knowing his secret has been discovered is a source of ceaseless anxiety for the fragile Yide, who grows more distant and distracted each passing day.
Elsewhere, the university student who shot the video, Tang Junhong (Aviis Zhong), harbors no remorse over what she’s done. She refers to Yide as a thief and a pervert, stalks him at work and drops off multiple copies of the DVD to prove her point and exert a little power over the anxious young man. Her friends urge her to either leave him alone or call the police, suggestions that come too late to prevent catastrophe.
Structured almost like a two-act play, what starts as an examination of fetishism as a source of shame and isolation morphs into an examination of guilt and catharsis when Junhong insinuates herself into Lan Tangyuan’s (singer-actress Yu, Yang Yang) life. She is Yide’s mother, and Junhong is eager to find out if she had any influence on Yide’s fate, and if there’s anything she can do to make things right.
Writer-director Chu does an admirable job of toggling back and forth between past and present, and giving all three characters and both storylines room to breathe. Junhong’s growing fear that she is responsible for Yide’s end weighs on her almost as much as his belief his “sickness” would drive him even further onto the periphery of society. Both young actors deliver nuanced performances that swing between heartbreaking and infuriating without tipping into histrionics. Wu, all bone and tightly wound sinew, is the surprise, as his previous work has been good but not remarkable. Yu has the thankless role of the self-flagellating mother, but makes the most of her quiet moments with Zhong as they find a way to heal.
White Ant has its flaws. Yide’s emotional and psychological issues are the result of the childhood trauma of accidentally seeing his mother having sex (yes, another dangerous and damaging mother with a sex drive), and Junhong’s final breakdown stretches out past the point of moving into awkward. But Chu’s direction has an immersive quality to it that gives the characters texture and binds them in shared, unspoken fears, and Chu packs each frame with countless details that make Yide, Junhong and Lan’s space as physically oppressive as each perceives it to be.
Venue: Busan International Film Festival
Production companies: Big Houses Film Production, Content Digital Film Co.
Cast: Wu Kang-Jen, Aviis Zhong, Yu Tai-Yan, Alina, Hu Wei-Jie
Director-screenwriter: Chu Hsien-Che
Producer: Mark Chen
Executive producer: Lai Ming-Hsiu, Kao Chun-Ting
Director of photography: Lei Heng
Production designer: Cheng I-Feng
Editor: Cheng Hsiao-Dong
Music: Wu Chia-Feng
World sales: Ablaze Image
No rating, 95 minutes