Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Taiwan Film Days ’11: Ranger

After twenty-five years of incarceration, the recently released ex-con Lin Wen-sheng understands how to take a beating. It is a skill he tries to teach to a gangster’s abused pre-teen in Chienn Hsiang’s Ranger, the powerful concluding film of the San Francisco Film Society’s 2011 Taiwan Film Days.

In contradiction of established film noir conventions, Lin did not leave prison looking for revenge or redemption. Having enduring the assaults of rival gangs for a quarter century, he is essentially dead inside. Though the aging crime boss Dragon intends to look after him, Lin is left forgotten in a corner, next to the beaten and battered kid the mobster never wanted.

After a particularly rough beating, Lin takes the child to the hospital. Of course, this necessitates a police report, setting in motion a chain of events Lin will be largely oblivious to. Reluctantly though, he starts to care for the vulnerable youngster, perhaps seeking to make amends for his crimes or to compensate for his estranged relationship with his own father.

Ranger is about as grimly deterministic as a film can get. Yet, its view of humanity is not unremittingly pessimistic, showing many small but touching acts of kindness, as Lin marches towards his destiny. Indeed, it blends naturalism and humanism into a strange cocktail that ultimately represents Taiwan and Taiwanese cinema quite well.

The winner of the Taipei International Film Festival’s best actor award for Ranger, Wu Pong-fong’s Lin is viscerally intense but scrupulously understated. His work with the film’s adolescent costar is also rather honest and poignant. In fact, Ranger might herald the arrival of a considerable young star in the making, yet the nature of the performance is such that it is difficult to discuss without spoiling a major development.

While periodic flashbacks establish the crushing weight of the past, former cinematographer Chienn Hsiang sensitively helms Ranger, allowing its quiet moments to blossom organically. It is a film that a distributor like Magnolia ought to take a serious look at, since they could position it either for the serious art-house market or as a gritty genre gangster movie. Regardless, it is a very accomplished film. The highlight and fittingly the closing selection of the SFFS’s Taiwan Film Days, Ranger is quite highly recommended when it screens this coming Sunday night (10/16) at the New People Cinema.