'Xiao Mei': Film Review | Filmart 2018

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
'Xiao Mei'
Jumbled fragments of a drug-addled life.

Taiwanese commercial director Maren Hwang's ambitious yet uneven first feature opens the Hong Kong International Film Festival after its world premiere at Berlin.

The more offbeat of the two Taiwanese films opening the Hong Kong International Film Festival this year, Xiao Mei is as amorphous as its vanished titular character. With his first foray into feature filmmaking, commercial director Maren Hwang makes repeated leaps through different visual or storytelling modes as he reconstructs the last days of a drug-addled young woman as seen from the perspectives of her family, lovers, and both long-running and fleeting acquaintances.

With its nine varied chapters resembling, among others, a tense whodunit (complete with dash cam footage of a car crash and violent assault), an eerie paranormal thriller (with a shaman and burning scarecrow), a relationship drama (anchored by a sex scene in a love motel) and even an anti-drugs public announcement, Hwang's directorial debut is audacious in its style, ambitious in its themes but slightly uneven in its tone.  

Still, the film as a whole is an affecting depiction of a troubled individual's slow spiral toward oblivion — and the attitudes of those who observed that sorry descent from up close or afar. Produced and lensed by the festival-friendly auteur Chung Mong-hong (Soul, Godspeed), Xiao Mei should find favor with programmers and perhaps niche distributors after its screenings at the Berlinale's Panorama sidebar and then as a curtain-raiser in Hong Kong.

The latest in a long line of films revolving around the attempt to paint a picture of a missing/dead individual through the observations of others — Citizen Kane, say, or Shohei Imamura's A Man Vanishes Xiao Mei's chapters are each dedicated to a person telling an offscreen interrogator what they know of the young woman (played by Jao Cin-cin) who gives the film its title ). Or at least what they claim to know anyway: While their testimonies do piece together Xiao Mei's life story — with the character appearing in re-creations based on the accounts — their individual takes offer as slippery a representation of the missing woman as it does their own personalities and the particular circumstances in which they live.

While recalling her initial exchanges with Xiao Mei and the stinking mess she has left behind, her landlord (Chen Yi-wen) goes on a tangent about himself and his rugged background, to the point of actually showing off a few martial arts moves. Xiao Mei's courier boyfriend (Liu Kuan-tung) is a narcissist whose lasting impression of her is their last steamy tryst — even providing a running narration as he goes through the motions in a re-creation of the scene. Her childhood sweetheart (Mu Chien-ho) muses mournfully about their shared experiences of juvenile delinquency and how he (and he alone) recovered from it all. 

And then there are her employers. There's the kindhearted clothing store owner (Yin Shin) who tries to help Xiao Mei to kick the habit; and there's the suspect skin care company executive (Lawrence Chiu) whose actions might have finally derailed the woman's life. The latter's attempt to paint himself as Xiao Mei's benign mentor raises the important question of whether these people are credible witnesses. Are they refashioning the truth to shrug off their moral responsibilities for Xiao Mei's well-being? What does all that helplessness or indifference tell us about urban alienation at this point in time?

These questions are brought into sharper focus with the input of Xiao Mei's relatives, who also founder as they try to make sense of her actions. Her half-brother (Na Dow), a slouching waiter in a back-alley eatery, recalls the traumatic state she was in the last time they met, and how he couldn't talk her out of it. Speaking on a rickety train traveling to her provincial hometown, Xiao Mei's mother (Samantha Ko) talks about her daughter's wobbly mental state as she grew up battling the demons of being from a single-parent family.

And then there are the red herrings. Perhaps unsatisfied with merely going down the straight and narrow — Hwang hails from the flashy, glitzy world of advertising, after all — the filmmaker includes a vignette that follows a shadowy psychic (Chang Shao-huai) as he and his sidekick conduct creepy nighttime rituals in order to determine Xiao Mei's whereabouts. But the most redundant part of the film comes at the end, as Xiao Mei ends with a photographer's recollection of seeing and then following a mysterious girl into an underground sewer.

These two chapters are the most stylized and intriguing in the film — but they are also the most ill-fitting, as they clash with the sturdy reflections of empathy and humanity on offer in the other segments. Still, Xiao Mei remains a technically accomplished debut, as Hwang's artistic vision is largely realized by the combined forces of Chung's camerawork, Liao Kuo-hui's atmospheric production design, Lu Luming's score, and a sound design from Tu Duu-chih and Wu Shu-yao. With the experiment over, Hwang is well-positioned to deliver a more measured sophomore effort.

Production companies: Studio Romance, Creamfilm
Cast: Chen Yi-wen, Liu Kuan-tung, Na Dow, Lawrence Chiu, Jao Cin-cin
Director-screenwriter: Maren Hwang
Producer/Executive producer: Chung Mong-hong
Director of photography: Nagao Nakashima (Chung Mong-hong)
Production designer: Liao Kuo-hui
Costume designer: Lin Ling
Music: Lu Luming
Sound designers: Tu Duu-chih, Wu Shu-yao
Editing: Lai Hsiu-hsiung, Man Chi-ming
Casting: Wen Hsuan
Sales: Mandarin Vision
In Mandarin
95 minutes