Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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CHANG YAOSHENG: A LEG 腿 (2020) - NY Asian Film Festival (Aug, 6-22)



Vicissitudes of a wayward life concentrated in a limb

Chang Yaosheng has distinguished himself in Taiwan as a novelist, then a screenwriter. In the past few years he has begun directing. He seems to have a particular concern with couples and the afterlife. His previous feature, bluntly entitled in English See You After Life, has been described as a tale in which "The murdered father's ghost comes home to drag the mother to the very end." The new one, a drag in its own way, described as "a dark romantic comedy," is based on the experience of the filmmaker's own parents. It concerns a wife, Qian Yu-Ying (the dryly ironic Gwei Lun Mei of Wild Goose Lake and Black Coal, Thin Ice), who hounds the hospital to give back the amputated leg of her dead husband Zheng Zi-Han (the dangerously handsome Tony Yang/Yáng Yòuníng) so that he can be cremated whole. Chang's own parents hadn't been on good terms for some time. When the leg was restored and the body cremated, Chang said in an interview,* his mother felt disposed "for him to go a long way away and never come back." In this screen version Qian may be vainly seeking to bring back the man she loved. But as their relationship unfolds, perhaps it's to achieve a wholeness that never was. On CineFiles, Alex Brannon breaks down this frantic search into "a quirky take on the denial phase of the grieving process." That too, no doubt.

Qian's partly Kafkaesque, partly ludicrous pursuit of the missing limb alternates with a story in flashbacks of the couple's life together. Whether that's drawn from the filmmaker's family, we don't know. It's a tale both romantic and tangled and interlaced with Chinese aphorisms. Though Zi-han gets to narrate his life with Qian Yu-Ying, it turns out there's a lot more than a limb to put together in their crumbling marriage, and his wayward, irresponsible life. First they met, through Zi-han's photo studio friend from high school, John (Zhang Shaohuai), on a ballroom dance floor. He was a competitive dancer, and in her he found the perfect partner. By what conceit was that enough excuse to marry? Through the desire to make a lot of money and make Qian happy, Zi-han falls in love with the mystery and danger of high stakes gambling. That indirectly causes him an unwise jump that ends his dancing career and so they open a ballroom school, but his unwisdom continues. Zi-han has a real gift for wrong decisions (and Chang Yaosheng for making them up).

One of my favorite scenes is the one where the couple come home and find their new house, bought out of foreclosure, occupied by a dozen shirtless, tattooed young gangsters. That'll change a room. (Wrong kind of foreclosure.)

The cinematography of Chung Mong-hong gives us grace notes, enhanced by the sets that include on-the-run things like the hallways of a hospital and the ballroom of an actual dance contest in progress. This dp knows the value of blurs of red around dancing figures. Chris Doyle might approve.

A Leg 腿, 115 mins., cowritten with Chung Mong-hong, as was the latter's award-winning, Oscar-shortlisted 2019 A Sun , debuted at Taipei 2020, receiving multiple award nominations; also shown at Tokyo and Hong Kong, all in Nov. 2020. Taiwan theatrical release Dec. 2020. Screened for this review as part of the 2021 NY Asian Film Festival (Aug. 6-22).

*So Chang recounts in the NYAFF Q&A with David Wilentz.

Wikipedia entry for A Leg.

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