Thursday, July 05, 2018

NYAFF ’18: Missing Johnny

If you want to see this film, you’d better catch it while you can. The Chinese Communist Party has already denied it permission to screen in Mainland theaters and it is probably only a matter of time before they start censoring films on airlines providing Chinese flights. After all, they recently mandated all airlines and hotels refer to Taiwan and Tibet as part of the one oppressive China. In this case, the controversy directly bears on Taiwan’s sovereignty. Lead actor Lawrence Ko expressed support for Taiwanese independence, as is his right as a citizen of a democracy. Of course, Beijing found that unacceptable and banned his latest film. The irony is there is absolutely nothing political about this debut film from a Hou Hsiao-hsien protégé. It is all about the difficulty of forging and maintaining human bonds (something the Chinese CP isn’t helping any little bit). Nevertheless, three young people will make connections in Huang Xi’s Hou-executive produced Missing Johnny (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

In this profound threat to Peoples’ Republic’s delicate self-esteem, a handyman living out of his car, an autistic son craving more independence, and a young woman working part-time in youth hostel try to navigate modern life in Taipei as best they can. Nobody is more disappointed in Hsu Zi-qi than she is. She lives in a flat mostly paid for by an arrogant boyfriend she rarely sees. Most of her time is spent with her parrots and answering frequent wrong numbers for a mysterious Johnny, until Chang Yi-feng starts working on her landlady’s next-door building.

Chang mostly crashes in his car, but he frequently eats with the family of a former teacher, who consider him part of the family. Unfortunately, it is a roaring dysfunctional family, whose meals often end in arguments between the aging mother and father. Nothing like that happens with Lee Li and his controlling mother, but he starts rebelling in quiet ways.

Admittedly, it takes a bit of time for Missing Johnny to get in gear, but that arguably makes its subtle payoffs all the more rewarding. It is tough to really connect, so if Hsu and Chang can do so, even to a modest degree, that is still something.

Needless to say, you can see Hou’s influence all over the film. In fact, one scene looks very much like a deliberate homage to the striking opening of Millennium Mambo. Yet, despite the characters’ past disappointments and Huang’s generally naturalistic approach, they film instills optimism and warm feelings, which are hard to find in any kind of cinema these days.

One thing can be said with certainty: Rima Zeidan is going to be an international mega-star. She has already justly won several awards for her luminous but acutely sensitive debut as Hsu. Ko, the trouble-maker, also gives a wonderfully understated yet richly complex performance as Chang (okay, he is a nice guy, but he’s more than that). Sean Huang gets much less screen-time in comparison, but he admirably avoids shtick, cliché, and theatrics, making Lee a fully dimensional person.

Missing Johnny is a deceptively simple, deeply resonant film. Banning such a humanistic work is truly an act of folly. There are no pat takeaways and not a great deal of closure, but Huang leaves us feeling like we can find meaning in the world—not a lot, but enough. Affectionately recommended for admirers of Hou and the cinema of the great independent nation of Taiwan, Missing Johnny screens this Saturday afternoon (7/7) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.