Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Taiwan Film Days ’11: Honey Pupu

Don’t worry, the apocalypse is not imminent. Then again, maybe it is. A group of alienated chatroom visitors experience a post-modern hipster variation of the Left Behind phenomenon in Chen Hung-i’s Honey Pupu (trailer here), which screens this Saturday during the San Francisco Film Society’s 2011 Taiwan Film Days.

There will be no proper names, thank you very much—just chatroom aliases. This will get a bit confusing since handles are apt to change. Cola stands pat with his moniker though. A respectable sketch artist, he is quite taken with his buddy Assassin’s girlfriend Money, a punk drummer formerly known as Cheesebaby. The ranks of their chatroom have thinned dramatically lately, most notably with the disappearance of Dog. Feeling heartsick and abandoned, Dog’s girlfriend Vicky joins the chatroom to enlist their aid finding him. She also needs help reading the contents of an old school floppy disk he left behind, so to speak.

Throughout Honey it is not clear whether the disappearances are metaphorical or metaphysical. Regardless, most of the aimless slackers are not particularly alarmed by them. They simply share a morbid fascination with the passage of time. Sometimes, this manifests itself in cool ways, such as Cola’s sketches of the Taipei of times past juxtaposed against the same present day locations.

Stylistically, Honey is the cinematic equivalent of a long string of text messages. Indeed, these characters hardly ever talk in complete sentences. They are in perpetual motion, yet never en-route to anything specific. They do not so much yearn for meeting as mark its passing (somewhat ambivalently).

Indeed, this is a world where nobody works, except for Vicky, who hosts a freeform radio show after being let go by a publisher. Everyone is artistically inclined or a street punk, but with an arty Clockwork Orange sort of flair. Of course, Chen is not interested verisimilitude (except perhaps with respect to the street-chic environment these characters inhabit), eventually exploding his already fractured narrative into an indeterminate challenge to objective reality.

Still, Chen frames some arresting visuals, given a truly seductive sheen by cinematographer Fisher Yu. Nihilistic ennui never looked so inviting. Despite its self-conscious hollowness, Honey is a fully realized cinematic experience, perfectly underscored by classical music of Beethoven, Bach, and Saint-Saëns, as well as the original techno-ambient music composed by Chang Wu-wu.

The ensemble cast is also largely solid, including a particularly fine performance from Lin Chen-shi, who is exquisitely restrained but evocatively expressive as Money. Likewise, Lin Po-sheng elevates Assassin’s self-destructive thuggery to high tragedy, but Chiu Sheng-yi is a bit bland and colorless as the relative nice guy Cola. In what seems a strange bit of categorization, Nikki Hsieh won best actress honors at the Taipei Film Festival for her work as the ambiguous deadly femme fatale Playing. Clearly a supporting role, she is nonetheless quite alluring and a bit unsettling as the woman who makes men “disappear” after sleeping with her.

Honey seems like a guaranteed sell-out, because it squarely appeals to the universal urban scenester vanity. Chen unquestionably pulls the audience into his stylish vision, but never really delivers lasting substance. A flawed film amply displaying the wild talents of its filmmaker, Honey Pupu screens this coming Saturday (10/15) as part of SFFS’s Taiwan Film Days at the New Peoples Cinema.