Tears -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
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NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

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"Tears" is a quietly shattering character study of a bad cop with a good conscience, whose punishment becomes redemption for his past crimes. It calmly traces how negative actions, like small tremors imperceptibly building up to a quake, can have devastating consequences on self and others.

The screenplay is the most consistent of veteran Taiwanese director Cheng Wen-tang's works, equipped with a bleak social background in which to understand the protagonist's behavior. Evincing a pensive mood and drawn out with the minute quotidian details that hark back to the Taiwan New Wave, "Tears" is a strictly non-commercial affair destined for small art house release and festivals.

"Tears" begins innocently as a glum portrayal of a reclusive man. Guo (Tsai Chen-Nan), a divorced middle-aged detective, boards alone at a seedy rooming house rather than live with his son. He eats by himself at the police canteen, and devotes his free time to his dog and to volunteer work at a hospital. He often skips his beat to chat to Wen (Enno) and Xuan Xuan -- teenage girls who sell betelnuts in skimpy clothes.

Guo would be an amicable, avuncular type if not for two things -- he's never shed a tear for 10 years, and he's an old hand at torture. In the troubling prologue, he reluctantly shows his juniors methods to extract confessions and make fall guys of suspects. It is an unflinching scene that also deftly reveals his violent streak, anger and self-loathing.

Cheng develops ambiguous rapport between Guo and Wen, keeping the viewer unsure whether his feelings for her are paternal or sordid. Therefore, when Wen discovers why he is so protective of her and why he volunteers at the hospital, there's greater psychological complexity in her response.

The character of Guo confirms Cheng has abiding interest in people on the fringe (like Aboriginals, or an ex-convict.) It is a bigger challenge to elicit audience sympathy for Guo because what he did was in cold blood, for expediency. Cheng's viewpoint remains nonjudgmental without condoning his crimes. The meticulous efforts in depicting his squalid existence is intended to reinforce how guilt zaps the life and joy out of anyone.

The film reopens a dark chapter in Taiwan's past and points a finger at police abuse of power. Guo only got away with what he did because the system tolerated, maybe encouraged, it.

Camera is always removed and restrained except for a stylistic flourish at the end. It casts a disillusioned eye on a city that is devoid of compassion or morality, as seen in a homicide case that brings his downfall or karma. Those who like Hou Hsiao Hsien will appreciate Hou regular Tsai's measured performance.

Venue: Pusan International Film Festival -- A Window on Asian Cinema

Sales: Joint Entertainment International Inc.
Production: Dreamosa Film Ltd.
Cast: Guo, Enno, Serena Fang, Huang Jiang-wen
Director-screenwriter-producer: Cheng Wen-Tang
Screenwriters: Cheng Jin-Fen, Chang I-Feng
Executive producer: Gu Heng-yi
Director of photography: Feng Hsin-Hua
Production designer: Chen Yong Jhih
Music: Hang Cheng-ye
Costume designer: Hsu Re-shuang
Editor: Chang I-Feng
No rating, 111 minutes