Accentuating Trauma and Longing: "White Ant "
When a film critic goes for a film, he or she knows that “there is nothing wrong with being a consumer guide” as Andrew Sarris said, because “the best writers [are] also the best consumer guides”, a truism that holds for the film festival circuit as well. So in highlighting one film from among the eleven first- or second-features comprising the “New Currents” section of the 21st Busan International Film Festival, one is on a guiding mission for the film, as its festival selectors probably are as well.
Chu Hsien-Che is a director who has been making documentaries for more than twenty years, some of them winning major awards at home and abroad. White Ant (Bai Yi, 2016), the debut feature by the Taiwanese director, marks a creative shift in his capability as a filmmaker. The film defies the stereotypical practice of mixing of the real and the fictional. By successfully doing away with the usual blurring of documentary and narrative constructions, its inherently dramatic twists and turns make it a worthy new beginning for the director.
White Ant is set in an urban milieu, and in its overall ambiance of realism is perfectly attuned for a psychological insight. The film is essentially a two-episode drama. The first part is about Bai Yide, a young bookstore worker who lives alone in a Taipei neighborhood. The second part focuses on Tang Junhong, a young university student who happens to video-record Bai as he’s involved in a certain sexual fetish. At first Junhong becomes a clandestine threat to Bai’s mental state, only to suffer later due to his inevitable doom.
The film starts amidst dusky stillness with the lanky young man stealing a set of female lingerie hanging in a window in the courtyard of a dreary apartment building. He is a social recluse, secretly deriving sexual pleasure by keeping all the women’s underwear he has been lifting apparently for a long time. The film takes a turn when he receives a DVD containing that particular moment of his act of stealing. It instantly makes Bai nervous and, fearing trouble, he parts with the loads of lingerie he had been hoarding. The DVD was sent by Junhong, who happened to record Bai’s act on her mobile phone.
With help from her classmates, Junhong keeps sending more copies of the DVD as a message of warning, but it actually does more harm than good to Bai. He grows distracted, loses his job and is fatally hit by a car. On the other hand, the unfortunate incident unsettles Junhong, creating a rift with her disapproving friends and burdening her with guilt, thereby forcing an emotional change in her outlook towards life itself. The focus at this point is on the once-playful girl who by now has become a tormented soul.
As a director, Chu proves his maturity in dealing with the major players as they deliver nuanced performances without tipping into melodrama. While the characters of Bai and Junhong are well played, respectively, by award-winning actor Wu Kang-Jen and Zhong Aviss, who left modeling for TV and film acting, a third character of Bai’s mother, Lan Tangyuan (portrayed by veteran performer Yu Tai-Yan, a famous singer in the Chinese-speaking region) gives the most vital thrust to the entanglement of this threesome. White Ant’s crucial moment comes when a repenting Junhong meets with the inconsolable mother Lan. Junhong comes to know about Bai’s past by making close contact with the lady, working at the latter’s wedding dress shop.
The screenplay allows for a shift in gear as the writer-director opts for toggling back and forth between past and present after the unexpected and tragic end to the young man’s life. Bai’s abnormal obsession, as well as his rebellious attitude towards family bonds, is presented as a result of the childhood trauma of accidentally seeing his mother having sex. Thus the psychological and behavioural problems of Bai stem from a deep sense of shame and fear of losing even further dignity. In contrast, the other two characters suffer from a heavy burden of guilt, sense of loss and helplessness. The meticulous build-up to the moment of Lan’s shocked realization that Junhong is the person who sent the DVDs to her son – presented with a minimalist approach that many cinephiles are likely to appreciate – is a revelation itself.
As Bai turns out to be a victim of isolation and suppressed loneliness, the vices that are central to human nature form the core of the film’s subject. But people around him also suffer from a Faustian outlook which is similar to a gnawing “white ant” within one’s self. In that sense, the white ant is a metaphor for the irritating, unwanted and destructive biological presence that is again a part of nature. “What secretly gnaws within devours them all” – Junhong’s self-realization goes deeper from the surface emotional level that is represented by a deep-sea diver with a tendency for philosophical soliloquys.
Multiple scenes of the seabed show the white coloured bubbles of liquid carbon dioxide incessantly venting from seafloor hot springs. This unusual and comparatively newly discovered natural phenomenon adds a fresh approach and interpretation to psychological and existential questions. The underwater scenes provide a leitmotif for Junhong’s remorse so genuinely enacted in the second half of the film – a contrast to the first half where she stubbornly refuses to harbor guilt for what she is doing. The transition also provides succour to the viewer’s mind, as what began as an examination of fetishism as a factor of perversion and pleasure catapults into another direction – an examination of repentance and catharsis following the demise of one character.
The narrative conveys a strong feeling that personal traumas could run the risk of getting exposed when perversion collides with trespassing. Lan and Junhong’s relationship conceals their longing to heal and a shared awareness of unintended wrongdoing that eventually destroyed a life as well as their own peace of mind. Chu is crafty in that he has the actresses play their emotions close to the vest, gradually and quite unpretentiously building to a delicate crescendo. The film ends with the deep-sea diver removing her mask on the shore. When the diver’s face is revealed, it is none other than Junhong, who appears to have resolved to face her surrounding reality with a new outlook.
The director has done a commendable job adapting to the demands of film narrative. The way he frames every shot with minute details is likely a sign of his background in documentary filmmaking; but he immerses his experience in the gripping psychological style he adopted for this coming-of-age social drama. Chu Hsien-Che seems to have the skill to explore the potentials of the medium with relative ease, even though he came late to fiction filmmaking – exactly 15 years after his Pick of the Litter-Stray Dogs won the Golden Horse for best documentary.
It’s too early to speak of Chu as representing the future of Taiwanese cinema, filling the shoes of, say, Hou Hsiao-Hsien or Edward Yang or Tsai Ming-Liang, directors who could provide a fascinating chronicle of the country’s modern socio-economic and political transformations with aplomb. White Ant is not “Taiwanese” in terms of exploring local themes. But otherwise the 85-minute film can be seen as a fresh contribution to the cinema of the land.
Edited by Michael Sicinski
© FIPRESCI 2016