Monday, April 27, 2015

LAAPFF ’15: (Sex) Appeal

This Taiwanese film fully capitalizes on Taitung’s scenic backdrops and its protagonist is often seen listening to headphones. Superficially, it might look a lot like the popular and critical hit The Most Distant Course, but this is a radically different film. For one thing, the young woman in question is not trying to hear a human connection in mysteriously provided audio recordings. Rather, she is trying to blot out the outside world after suing the popular professor who raped her in Wang Wei-ming’s (Sex) Appeal (trailer here), which screens tomorrow during the 2015 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.

Even though Pai Hui-hua is from Taipei, she is one of the most innocent new arrivals at her Taitung liberal arts college. On the train, she meets cute with Wang Mu-hung, but she is not convinced he is serious enough for her. Like many freshmen, she is in awe of orchestra director Li Jen-fang, so she understandably accepts his potentially problematic lunch invitations. Unfortunately, Li soon forces himself on her in his office. Confused about her feelings for the married professor and ill-equipped to deal with his behavior, Pai lets the situation continue until she finally attempts suicide.

In a massive conflict of interest, the campus victims’ advocate happens to be Li’s wife, criminal law professor Lin An-ni. Instead of representing Pai, she will essentially prosecute the damaged student when she finally presses charges. Frankly, her attorney is also somewhat problematic. Fang An-yu is something like a Taiwanese Gloria Allred, who has been opposing the university in a murky land use litigation that is never coherently established. She only took the case at the insistence of Pai’s counselor, Wang Wen-hui, a former friend with whom she had a falling out years ago.

Aside from Fang and Wang’s overly melodramatic spats, (Sex) is an unusually mature and challenging drama. Granted, there is never any question Li is guilty, but it vividly demonstrates how ordinary human weaknesses can be exploited after the fact. Pai becomes a victim several times over, pushing away Wang Mu-hung (whom viewers become rather attached to), because that is the sort of thing that happens in such situations.

Those who primarily know Amber Kuo from the Tiny Times franchise will be floored by the power and vulnerability of her performance as Pai. She has some tough scenes with no place to hide, but she forces the audience to watch and feel her torment. Likewise, Vivian Hsu is terrific as Fang, at least when she is not clawing with counselor Wang. Yet, it is TV star Yuan Huang’s Wang Mu-hung who serves as the conscience of the film. His sensitive portrayal makes it impossible to dismiss (Sex) as some sort of anti-male polemic. Indeed, it is about a host of unequal power relationships, starting with teachers and students, but also incorporating the popular versus the unpopular and the well-connected versus the socially marginalized.

(Sex) features some very big names (Kuo and Hsu) working at the top of their games. It is hard to watch at times, but it deftly reflects the manner in which insanity is apt to run unchecked through university campuses. Highly recommended, (Sex) Appeal screens tomorrow (4/28), as part of this year’s LAAPFF.