Reviewed at the 1998 Toronto International Film Festival by Shelly Kraicer
Ah Fen (Chen Hsiang-chyi) waits anxiously in Taipei for her brother Chuen-sheng's (Lee Kang-sheng) return home from military service. But he seems ready to resume his vacant, aimless lifestyle: he steals money from his father's house, then spends it on a sequence of seedy flop houses and prostitutes, while half-heartedly trying to get work as a saxophone player. Ah Fen, meanwhile, develops a phone relationship of sorts with a young prostitute, Meili. The latter has found Ah Fen's cell phone and takes to calling its owner during dull tricks. Out of money, Chuen-sheng returns to his sister, while, coincidentally, he meets and falls in love with Meili. The family secrets he tells her, however, threaten to drive him and Ah Fen apart once again.
Sweet Degeneration is director Lin Sheng-cheng's third feature film, and it is his most complex, most ambitious work. From an austere, seemingly minimalist beginning, with his Hou Hsiao-hsien-influenced first film A Drifting Life (Chen hua meng lu, 1996), Lin hit his stride with the fully accomplished Murmur of Youth (Meili zai chang ge,1997), a story about the intimacy that develops between two young women working in a Taipei movie theatre. The balance, the tautness of structure that graced that film, however, eludes Lin in his latest feature.
Sweet Degeneration is apparently semi-autobiographical (Lin has said that Chuen-sheng's semi-delinquent, directionless life might be based on a younger version of his own). And the problems inherent in grappling with material this close to one's own life become evident. The structure of the film is loose, meandering, sometimes wandering off in episodes whose significance isn't made clear; some characters (especially the mysterious, almost invisible Wai, Fen's first boyfriend, and in some sense Chuen-sheng's inspiration) are only tangentially worked into the narrative; their significance only lightly implied by what we see.
There is a compensatingly rich (almost too rich) symbolic system layered over the film. But early images such as the striking vision of trapped beauty (the butterfly Ah Fen catches in plastic) are not sustained, only fitfully connect with the core of the film.
The straightforward chronological narrative is broken, occasionally, by short black and white flashbacks, Ah Fen's memories of her childhood, which eventually culminate in a pivotal moment between her and Chuen-sheng. But, again, the sense that we are being given certain privileged moments of a life doesn't fully compensate for the sketchy way that Lin has written these characters, no matter how well the fine cast animates them.
And a closing section, with the characters on the road, searching for each other (or their new, provisionally shattered,not yet reconstructed selves) seems too tentative, too abrupt: it would have made a perfect opening scene, whose significance could then have unfolded as we watched the ensuing story.
But Sweet Degeneration offers much to admire, many pleasures that more than make up for my sense that it is still an unfocused, unachieved work. The photography, by Lin's regular d.p. Tsai Cheng-hui, is always beautiful: elegantly framed and lit so that strikingly clear pools of almost tangible, gentle light pick out each scene. During the opening hour or so, a constant rain is audible (much like Tsai Ming-liang's new The Hole[Dong, 1998]), and the film's transparent blue and green tones reinforce the effect, of an urban population swimming, drowning in a luminous sort of self-imposed solitude.
Lee Kang-sheng, who is Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang's constant leading man, here gives a performance in his usual style: Lee is the quintessentially disoriented, spiritually impoverished, socially isolated contemporary Taipei man. But we've seen this before from him. Lin Cheng-sheng ups the sex quotient, though, from what we've grown to expect from Tsai and Hou's films.
But the star of the film is Chen Hsiang-chyi, who is nothing short of brilliant as Ah Fen. Followers of Taiwanese film might remember her in Edward Yang's Confucian Confusion (Du li shi dai, 1994), as the preeminently dimpled and loveable Qiqi, who managed gracefully almost to steal every scene she was in. Here she deepens her range, and invests a character that is insufficently realized (in the screenplay) with depth and palpable sympathy.
[Readers who don't want to learn too much of the plot in advance might want to check out here]
In some ways, this might be the film that Lin Cheng-sheng has been working towards, from the beginning. He seems obsessed with a certain thematic structure: how the absence of certain "normal" emotional connections, bonds that nurture early in life (a wife dying young in A Drifting Life, leaving a husband alone; disconnected, disfunctional family relationships which both women of Murmur of Youth flee from) produces a neediness that finds realization in an unsanctioned, "illicit" -- or rather, unorthodox -- relationship (the husband's new lover in A Drifting Life; the two women's passion for each other in Murmur of Youth). This theme is finally fully expressed, in its most taboo form, in Sweet Degeneration, as an incestuous passion between brother and sister conceived of as a repudiation of other, absent, loves.
Lin's films map this absence/presence of love onto a rural/urban axis, where rural equals lifeless (obsolete) tradition and urban corresponds to vital, yet possibly degenerate potentiality. It is quite a suggestive theme, that resonates not only with issues of individuality -- how an individual can possibly re-construct a damaged or incomplete personality in an era which is incapable of lending support -- but also with Taiwan's crisis in confronting its future, as it lurches utterly unprepared from a pre-modern rural society directly into a post-modern, urbanized one. It's a shame that when confronting this schema most directly, in Sweet Degeneration, Lin Cheng-sheng seems imperfectly in control of the material. But this film has so much insight, so many beautiful moments on display, that it demands close attention and rewards a sympathetic viewing.
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