Monday, October 10, 2011

Taiwan Film Days ’11: Formosa Mambo

Toro’s business is one of the few not feeling the pinch of the financial crisis. He runs a boiler room for telephone and internet fraud. He does it well. It is a much different story for the amateur kidnappers he targets in Wang Chi-tsai’s zeitgeisty dramedy Formosa Mambo (trailer here), the opening night film of the San Francisco Film Society’s 2011 Taiwan Film Days.

A well educated loser, A-kang was amongst the first wave of layoffs at his former company. A terrible interviewee, he cannot even make of go of it as a street vendor, much to his wife’s frustration. However, he gets something of a dubious break when his childhood friend Toro, a.k.a. “Mosquito,” stops at his food cart. He needs a new employee for his scam operations, which has a big deal brewing. They are scheming to intercept the ransom payment demanded by a trio of unemployed migrant workers, who have kidnapped the son of Huang Shu-li, a friend of A-kang’s wife.

Initially, Mambo appears to be one of those slice-of-urban-life films with braided storylines and characters who keep crossing paths but never significantly interacting. Refreshingly though, Wang and co-writer Cai Deng-ciao draw their motley crew together rather quickly and tightly. In fact, after the first act set-up, they no longer rely on coincidence, but karma is definitely knocking on the door.

Mambo is a surprisingly slippery film to get a handle on. At times, it seems to be going for a breezy cynicism, while borrowing elements from disparate films, like Jimmy the Kid and High and Low. Never abandoning the black comedy, it eventually takes a detour through class-conscious naturalism on its way to an ironic punchline. Yet, the way Wang keeps viewers off balance while maintaining the brisk pace is strangely effective.

Chen Yi-wen (a well established filmmaker, not to be confused with the lovely Miss Chinese Taipei), is masterfully roguish as Toro, appropriately delighting in skullduggery, even as he hints at the stirring remnants of a conscience. By contrast, as A-kang, Chu Chung-heng’s guilt-ridden angst routine gets a bit old after a while. Still, he has some nice quiet moments with Jin Siao-man’s Sha-sha, the gang’s staff seductress and computer hacker.

In a way, Mambo is a morality play that forgets to end with a neat and tidy morale. Frankly, it breaks a lot of rules of canned screenwriting, but that is a good thing. Quite clever in an admittedly idiosyncratic way, Mambo is definitely an interesting choice to kick-off this year’s Taiwan Film Days, which has quickly become the top showcase for contemporary Taiwanese cinema in America (including New York). It screens twice this Friday (10/14) at the New Peoples Cinema, the new home for SFFS programming.