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The fallout from a campus rape and the struggle to find justice, or at the very least closure, for a student, the professor involved and their friends and family is at the heart of Wang Wei Ming’s muddled and pretentiously parenthetical (Sex) Appeal, one part courtroom- and one part psychodrama that is unsure of its message. The thorny subject matter comes dangerously close to victim-blaming as it explores the he-said, she-said perception of the central assault (and subsequent “relationship”) as well as the institutional pressure to address the subject. The combination of the material and the high profile, female-led cast should earn (Sex) some festival life and possible regional release in Asia.
In a reversal of the normal country girl in the big city trope, Taipei native Bai Huihua (Amber Kuo Tsai Chieh, Doze Niu’s Love) heads to Taitung to study music at university. She enrolls in the charismatic Professor Li’s (Leon Dai, Reign of Assassins) class and almost immediately she finds herself out for lunch with him instead of taking tutorials in his office. That leads to a lecture about her lack of passion for music being her biggest hurdle and then, quite clearly, rape. As the school term progresses, Huihua continues to see Li (which we learn after the fact), but is so distressed at their relationship such as it is she attempts suicide. That brings both school administrator Wang (Jade Chou) and school counsel, Professor Lin (Alyssa Chia) to her aid. Any legal assistance is complicated by the fact that Lin is married to Li, and leads Wang to call an old friend and lawyer Fang (Vivian Hsu, Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale) for help. Fang reluctantly agrees, after venting long simmering rage at Wang over a mysterious issue from their past and confronts Lin, representing her husband, in court.
(Sex) Appeal has a fractured, time-jumping structure (she’s raped, months go by, she’s suicidal, but wait, she’s been seeing him all along) that muddies the waters of what happened between Li and Huihua. If director Wang and writer Hsu Kun Hua’s goal was to present their sexual relationship as an abusive one based on a power imbalance they failed. The only surety viewers are privy to is the initial rape. The question of why Huihua sees him again and again is never addressed. The nail goes into the gender politics coffin when she admits to Fang that yes, their first encounter was not consensual, however she may indeed be in love with Li. It transforms the film from an exploration of sexual misconduct to one of a young woman’s state of mind in the midst of her first romance. What?
Things don’t improve during the film’s courtroom scenes (all histrionics and dramatic declarations), but strangely, despite the focus on the more sensational trial aspects of the narrative, there’s a better, far more interesting story to be told about Fang, Lin and Wang. Hsu’sscript makes it clear there is a long history shared by the three, much of it now defined by resentment and anger. Hsu, Chia and Chou bring just enough simmering bitterness and manipulative emotionalism to their roles to pique interest, and deeper exploration of their ruined relationship would be welcome. It would be far more compelling than watching another twentysomething woman held up as accountable in an inappropriate student-teacher relationship or a successful woman punishing herself for scuttling her husband’s ambitions.
Production company: Coolie Films
Cast: Vivian Hsu, Amber Kuo Tsai Chieh, Alyssa Chia, Jade Chou, Leon Dai, Huang Yuan
Director: Wang Wei Ming
Screenwriter: Hsu Kun Hua
Producer: Hsu Hsiao Ming
Executive producer: Tsiang Jamin Ben, Yuan Xin, Hu Juang Hong, Zhang Feng Kui
Director of photography: Mark Lee
Production designer: Yang Chuan Hsin
Costume designer: Chen Wei Zhen
Editor: Man Chiming
Music: Annie Lo
Casting director: Fu Kun Mun, Xiong Wenhua
World sales: Chinese Shadows
No rating, 107 minutes
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