Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jul 04, 2018 1:15 pm 
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Chinese gangster ladies in a gaudy-gorgeous Taiwan film

This Eighties family crime picture from Taiwan is gorgeous, lurid, and camp. On one level it is little more than highfalutin trash, soap opera with better production values. But with its multiple formats and lush mise-en-scène, more often than not more visually complex than it needs to be, it's a delight to the eyes - whether one follows the complicated subplots from the history of Taiwan's political corruption or the mannered dialogue or not. Perhaps better not.

But what one can't miss is, this posh gangster family is female-only. The trio of leads, all juicy roles, are three generations of the Tang family. At center stage is Madame Tang, played by Kara Wai, in the midst of a late-career resurgence. While her cover is an antiques dealership, she really works full time to profit by questionable land speculation laws, cultivates corruptible politicians madly, acting as a go-between for them and dirty businessmen, and waging psychological warfare on any competition.

Madame Tang's daughter Ning (Wu Ke-xi) is her chief partner in crime, but also a liability due to her Valley-of-the-Dolls-style drug use as well as sexual overindulgence. This is lightly sketched in mostly with conversation, and her always having a cigarette in her hand and looking dreamy, but it's hinted that Ning is emotionally as well as morally damaged beyond repair by her mother's machinations. Chen-Chen (Vicky Chen, who's only fourteen, and who, like Kara Wai, got a Golden Horse award), the "innocent," doughty but slightly creepy girl in sailor-boy school uniform or puffy dresses, represents the third, youngest generation of Clan Tang.

There is a mind-boggling, but fun, opening series of multiple formats thrown at us, including a wall of TV screens showing different new stories pertaining to the principals and Taipei politics, then a TV studio set as cluttered and pretty as anything in a film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, with an old lady plucking an antique stringed instrument and a man on the right chanting narration in traditional Taiwanese-Chinese dialect, as a framework of the main story. Then comes a fancy but tainted teatime gathering for the grand and elegant Lady Wang (Chen Sha-Li), wife of a Speaker expected to become the top local politician. It's tainted by invasions from reporters, the daughter's odd behavior, and a costly gift that arrives with the hand broken off.

In anticipation of a major developed project, Madame Tang has guided her political associates to buy up parcels in an otherwise sleepy rural district, using shell companies.

Tea with Lady Wang is an over-elaborate but culturally nuanced mood-setter that would be worthy of a Godfather epic, were the filmmaking on a higher level and the plot richer. It shows, as Zhuo-Ning Su explains in his Film Stage review, that behind the "fake smiles, every word, gesture, look is code." Behind the elegant tea-time rituals, deals and bribes are being set up. Madame Tang speaks "Mandarin, Taiwanese, Japanese and her native Cantonese, which in itself fills in a lot of blanks with regard to her character’s back story, " Su notes, as well as indicating her level of ambition - information that provides a hint of how much the non-Taiwanese non-Chinese speaker may miss beyond the visual surfaces of this eye-candy movie.

A big plot complication comes, the next day, with the massacre in their home of local bank director Lin along with his entire family, except for young heiress Pien Pien, left in a coma. Conveniently, the chief suspect is a groom, now disappeared, who was having an affair with one of Lin's daughters. Other deaths turn up. This morphs into a murder case - yes, it's a little bit police procedural too - and brings out Madame Tang's criminal activities, a process leading to what Elizabeth Kerr in her Hollywood Reporter review calls "a wonderfully tragic, lurid, soapy reckoning." Actually the ending is a little weak and anticlimactic, however.

The summing-up by David D'Arcy in his Screen Daily review, "While grim, this story can also be wonderfully camp," is stating the obvious. This is at best a guilty pleasure, but one must give credit to the production crew and the actors and whoever thought up all the different visual formats to gild the overripe lily. Kudos to production designer Penny Pei-Ling Tsai and dp Ko-Chin Chen. Whatever its flaws, this movie leaves a strong impression.

The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful / 血觀音 Xuè guān yīn ("Blood guanyin [goddess]"), 112 mins., debuted at Busan Oct. 2017 and showed at Taipei, Rotterdam, Singapore, Seattle, and Buenos Aires, and was screened for this review as part of the New York Asian Film Festival, where it's showing July 5 at 2:15 p.m.

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