Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 10, 2020 9:48 pm 
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SHIH LI : WILD SPARROW 野雀之詩 (2019) - virtual NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL (AUG. 28-SEPT. 12, 2020)


Beautiful losers

In his little feature debut Wild Sparrow Shih Li has made a partly beautiful and graceful film, with poetic moments but also dissoluteness and ugliness. The handling of images, scenes largely without music and a major character who rarely speaks, is elegant and minimal. But the story told is largely ordinary and uninteresting, a little short on distinctive storyline and with parts that never quite fit together.

It's a film of jarring contrasts and tonal unevenness, though its clashes are largely the point, one supposes: between the fey, mystical rural mountain world and the disheveled, corrupt world of the city, between being a mom and being a whore. The little boy, Han (Kao Yi-hsia) caught in the middle, whose point of view is central to the tale, is discovered living an idyllic life in the mountains with his great-grandmother (Chen Shu-fang). A slim, graceful waif, as it were a numb, Asian Peter Pan, Han is brilliant in school and a sensitive observer of nature, who can stand and watch the insects and birds for hours and then write poetry about them.

But as Han Cheung points out in his Taipei Times review, the Taiwanese countryside is mostly a place of poverty and old people, the younger ones having all gone to the city for work. So not surprisingly Han's school is shutting down and during a visit from his mom, Li (Lee Yi-chieh), it's decided that he will join her in Taipei City to go to school. But Han is as lost as a sparrow, a caged wild one that, in the titular metaphor, has to be set free for money, a way of exploiting Buddhists.

He travels to the city on his own. He is silent and shy, but the young actor is good enough to convey his reactions while maintaining an enigmatic exterior. The boy is obviously not enthusiastic about leaving his observations of sparrows (one of which he has ceremonially buried) and the quietude and the warmth and folk wisdom of his great-grandmother in the mountains. And we soon see how right he was. In the tiny apartment he is forced to hear his mother, the pretty, also waif-like Li have noisy sex with an ugly old man, her current date, in the next room. This unpleasantness is all the uglier became of the delicate touch of what has led up to it, the first big shift of tone. It almost makes you sick, or ready to walk out of the virtual theater. But we're meant to feel Han's shock. The city world is a harsh, ugly place of dirty alleyways and neon. One of the few attractions is boys break dancing out the window, whom Han sometimes tries to imitate.

Li is soon disabused of the notion that this "Uncle" may become Han's new "father." Though he spends some time with Li and Han, teaching Han how to cut a piece of steak, buying him gifts and Li a nice dress and playing carnival games with them, he receives some complaining calls on his cell phone and soon heads out for the country to tend to his factory, and presumably his family, and is not seen again. Li has to return to her job as cocktail waitress/call girl again, and there's more loud sex Han has to listen to. There's also a similarly pretty and waif-like young man (Teng-Hung Hsia), a waiter at the bar who lusts for Li and also wants to be her pimp. Their involvement gets him fired. His pimping soon leads to conflict with Li.

Han is a largely silent victim of these activities, constantly taking refuge in his room. His mother loves Han like a friend, or like a pet. She wants to care for him, but she's a child herself, and her lifestyle gets in the way. There are no fights, no reproaches, except between Li and the waiter.

All these events are beautifully staged and shot, but don't seem especially memorable. There is one scene, though, when Li returns to the apartment drunk, not for the only time, and confronts Han, who's up late working on a poem about the souls of animals. Li begs him to read it to her but he won't. In her drunkenness she seems to chide him and at the same time exclaim at his specialness. Is she mad at him, contemptuous, or in awe? Her drunken raving makes it hard to tell. She raves on about him as he retreats to his room, then he returns and recites his poem to her. But she can't listen. This is a troubling and distinctive moment with an originality the others lack. Here but elsewhere too Li comes across as a complicated and confused person and Lee Yi-chieh sparkles in the role enough to have won an acting prize at the Taipei Festival.

Also unusual is the last part of the film, which completely drops the problems of the earlier part. In the summertime Li sends Han back on the bus by himself to see his great-grandmother, and when he gets there she's lying dead and he just lies down beside her. In a dream sequence, he meets with her for a talk and ramble in the woods and slopes. She tells him the sparrows (repeatedly shown in flocks flying overhead in the mountain sequences) are dead souls that return to watch over the living, as she will come back to watch over him. This is followed by the wake for the great-grandmother, with Li and the pimp, who're apparently back together on good terms now, making paper lotuses to be burned by Han in a bowl for the great-grandmother. The ghostly great-grandmother hobbles off into the rain, and the wild sparrows flock in the sky. All very nice, but I have the distinct feeling that these are all parts of a whole that doesn't fit together. The poetry and the sparrows don't resolve the mother's disheveled life and this boy's uncertain situation. Maybe he'll get a scholarship and go to Eton? Shih Li has a delicate and beautiful vision and thinks up some provocative characters and situations. Better luck at integrating them next time.

Wild Sparrow 野雀之詩 ("Poem of the Wildfinch"), 94 mins., debuted at Taipei June 2019, nominated for several awards there, with Lee winning Best Actress, then showed at Busan, Vancouver, Kaohsiung,and Chicago in Oct. 2019. It opened in Taiwan theatrically in July 2020. It was screened for this review as part of the virtual 2020 New York Asian Film Festival (Aug. 28-Sept 12).

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