Reviewed at the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival by Shelly Kraicer
Chen Kuo-fu manages to pull off the near-impossible here. He's made a sparklingly entertaining film that is also rich and provocative, packed with complex structure and ambiguous meaning.
The formal framework is neat and clear: a series of interviews that Du Jiazhen (Rene Liu Jo-yin) holds with prospective suitors, all respondents to a personals advertisement that she's posted in a Taipei newspaper. Each interview takes place in the same fancy (mostly empty) Taipei restaurant, and each is decorated by a title announcing the name, age, and occupation of the prospective suitor. Most of them are funny, in various ways, but two stand out: Chin Shih-chieh's shy, intense schoolteacher Yu-wen, whose monologue on loneliness is so beautifully written and so masterfully performed (by one of Taiwan's greatest theatre actors) that we're sorry when he brings it to an end, collapsing flamboyantly into a fragile and self-conscious shell, his arms all wrapped up around his face.
And Chen Chao-jung's preternaturally beautiful ex-con, who actually manages to impress Liu to the point where they sleep together, with poignantly sad results (that look and feel like they might come out of a Tsai Ming-liang film).
But emphasizing the presumptive men in Du's life misses the focus on her, both on Du Jiazhen, the lonely opthamologist she plays, and on Rene Liu the actress. Both are remarkable, acute, and beautifully expressive listeners: most of the shots show Liu's extensive range of exquisitely modulated reactions to the men's spiels.
Complicating the structure of the film is not only this background story, but another extended conversation, broken up and inserted between the suitor-interviews, that Du has with her former teacher. It's perhaps the only sustained, communicative "conversation" in a film composed almost exclusively of conversations. And it's here that Chen Kuo-fu becomes ambitious, and somewhat abstract, in a way that doesn't clearly mesh with the rest of the film. Her teacher talks, somewhat generally and philosophically, about Liu's search for identity, but this seems too intellectualized, too preachy, to fit with the rest of the film. It does lead to a revelation about the teacher, which provokes Du's own tears. As if his account of self-discovery means more to her than all the ideas he's been preaching, as if she suddenly sees that it's not a husband whom she's been searching for, but in the end, herself.
A bit of a trite destination, perhaps, after such a fun, daring, wild, brilliantly structured trip? Several stylistic strategies protect The Personals from this fate: a rapid fire, almost self-consciously playful cinematography style, which mixes idiosyncratically framed shots (speakers isolated at the edges of the frame, alternating between each side between and among conversations) with video montages of eyeballs (from Du's ophthamology practice), punctuated by a typically Taiwanese film trope: repeated shots of Du travelling by bus, watching the city pass by through the coach windows.
Lighting is brilliantly designed: dominated by subdued, soft blues and whites which pick out Liu, immersed in a pale and luminous world as if she were a fish in an aquarium, on display for our viewing pleasure. Which raises one of the film's central concerns -- the pleasures and dangers of watching and being watched. From the opening shot, in which the camera peers through a bathroom window and catches Liu undressing, the viewer is clearly implicated as a "voyeur". The film then articulates a complex structure based on voyeurism: with Du at the centre as both object and subject of the voyeuristic gaze, both of which positions seem to alternately empower and victimize her. She starts by quitting her job as ophthamologist: a technologist/enforcer of "correct" vision. She watches and listens to the parade of prospective suitors, enjoying their intimate revelations. She imagines herself under a similar scrutiny as she leaves a series of messages on the answering machine of her former lover. She finds herself the recipient of her former teacher's confidences. And finally, she discovers that someone completely unexpected is in fact monitoring the phone messages that she had left. There is a power in viewing, in manipulating the technologies of surveillance, but there is also, for Du, a liberating power in inverting this relationship, in being viewed: "I feel like a voyeur," she says, "he in the light, me in the shadows, but how do I get into the light?"
A colleague from Hong Kong complained that The Personals was too much of a "film critic's film" (director Chen Kuo-fu is also a prominent film critic in Taiwan), whose complex strategies of film style and structure draw attention to themselves, to the way the film functions as a Godardian film-essay, as a series of propositions to be argued and explored. While I can understand why one might say this, I'm not convinced. I think that the film's strength is that it is pitched at a number of possible audiences, and manages to works on many levels at once (Ru-Shou Robert Chen's article in the current issue of Cinemaya (no.45) explains exactly how The Personals became a hit in Taipei). For a Taiwanese film industry that's barely able to keep a domestic audience, even though it continues to reap attention, awards, and renown internationally, this can only be an encouraging development.
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all content © 1996-2002 Shelly Kraicer