Wednesday, February 01, 2023

Taiwan Crime Stories, on Hulu

This series rips crimes from the headlines, but the resulting drama that unfolds is much more tragic than the average episode of Law & Order or Dragnet. They are also set in the independent nation of Taiwan. The Taiwanese government has made tremendous progress, but there remains a legacy of corruption from the old regime (which now favors cozier ties with the CCP). Four crimes and the devastating consequences that follow are explored from multiple perspectives in the 12-episode Taiwan Crime Stories, executive produced by Ron Howard and Brian Glazer (yes, them), which premieres today on Hulu.

The first three-episode arc, “Derailed” (written by Liu Tsun-han and directed by Aozaru Shiao), is a bit of a riff on
Double Indemnity, but much angstier. A mysterious saboteur who has repeatedly targeted Taipei’s train rails has struck again, but this time he finally caused fatalities. One man is dead and Qiu Wen Qing’s husband has been rendered comatose, with a grim prognosis for recovery. As fate would have it, she works as an insurance inspector for the company, where the deceased just took out a suspiciously large accidental death policy. Her former boyfriend, Yu Chen Lang, also happens to be the prosecutor assigned to the case.

Despite their obvious glaring conflicts of interest, Qiu and Yu will dig into the incident, uncovering the ostensive victim’s alarming debts to “underground” banks and their past connections to the rail service. It is hard to believe either of them would be allowed to work this case, but it makes for pretty good television. Allison Lin and Welsh-Chinese Rhydian Vaughan are both highly compelling navigating the noir intrigue and their guilt-ridden mutual attraction.

“A Matter of Life and Death” (written by Shih Hong-ruh and directed by Hung Tzu-hsuan) is an old school gangster payback thriller, in the best way possible. Shen Chang Rong was supposed to be the bodyguard of a mobbed-up financier, but he was convicted of massacring the man and almost his entire family. Only the young son survived. Something about the official accounts do not add up, so journalist Lee Po Sheng wants to pry the truth out of Chen. Of course, his old gangster-colleagues want to keep him quiet.

“Matter” is a wild ride, filled with beat-downs, prison fights, and double-crosses. As Chen, Frederick Ming Zhong Lee is massively cool and steely. Frankly, these three episodes are as satisfying as any genre gangster movie, but Shih and Hung invest it with an elevated sense of grand tragedy.

Tragedy does not even begin to describe “Gravity of Sin” (written by Lin Yu Chen and David R. Liu and directed by Yang Chung Fan). Shockingly, we witness two socially shunned middle school students brutally murder their popular teacher. Then we follow her devastated father, police detective Wang Ying Min, as he tries to solve the increasingly cold case. These three episodes are agonizingly hard to watch, but Chen Yi-wen is absolutely terrific as Detective Wang and Vivian Sung is maybe even more remarkable as the victim, Wang Yu Xuan and her grieving twin sister, Zhong Hui, giving two very distinct and powerful portrayals.

Crimes Stories
takes a turn into A Few Good Men territory with “Dark Currents,” in which Zhang Ming Cheng, a rebellious young soldier serving his mandatory enlistment, finds himself accused of a grisly child murder. Unfortunately, he fails to the polygraph, because he is protecting his fugitive brother, Zhang Ming Jie, whom he sheltered in the base’s abandoned barracks. Political War Officer (PWO) Gao Yan Zhen has an ominous sounding rank, dating back to the Taiwanese Army’s Mainland days, but she is the most progressive officer on-bass and the only one willing to consider Zhang’s innocence.

The idea of Gao and Zhang’s criminal brother working together might sound unlikely, but Chen and Liu sufficiently build the circumstances that allow us to buy into it. Admittedly, this storyline is not favorably inclined towards the Taiwanese military, but a lot of the corruption it suggests, well-predates the current freedom-valuing administration. There probably is a lot of KMT rot that needs to be cleared out.

Regardless, Patty Lee and Fu Meng Bo both give breakout performances. There is an awful lot to this episode thematically, directly addressing abuse at various levels (child abuse, military hazing), as well as public corruption. If these three episodes had been stitched together into a feature, it would earn raves from socially conscious film critics. More importantly, they are relentlessly tense and suspenseful.

Although there is some inconsistency to
Taiwan Crime Stories, the general level of quality remains impressively high throughout. Viewers looking to cherry-pick should start with “A Matter of Life and Death” or “Dark Currents,” but “Derailed” also has considerable merits. It just maybe isn’t quite as grabby. (“Gravity of Sin” showcases a lot of good work too, but, boy, is it a downer.) Highly recommended altogether or arc-by-arc, Taiwan Crime Stories starts streaming today (2/1) on Hulu.