Wednesday, September 10, 2014

TIFF ’14: Partners in Crime

Taiwan must have the worst school counselors in the world. The trauma intervention three teenagers receive after discovering a dead schoolmate is more like detention than treatment, but they are not very disturbed by the experience anyway. In fact, it initially appears to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship before things take a dark turn in Chang Jung-chi’s Partners in Crime (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.

As the poster art makes abundantly clear, there is no mystery regarding the cause of Hsia Wei-chao’s death. Just why she presumably threw herself out of her mother’s upscale apartment is a different matter. Hsia was pretty, rich, reserved, and therefore highly unpopular. When Huang, Lin, and Yeh stumble across her body in the street, they dutifully call the police. Strangely, it is a bonding experience for the trio, especially the constantly bullied Huang. Yet, even Yeh the tough guy-slacker and Lin, a popular kid in a geek-chic kind of way, find they can relax in each others’ company.

Even after their pointless counseling sessions, the boys keep meeting to share the information they turn up on Hsia. Huang is an especially good investigator. Before long, they are clandestinely hanging in Hsia’s room while her sort of grieving mother is away on business. Believing he has identified the classmate who drove Hsia to suicide, Huang hatches an elaborate revenge plot. It will definitely not end as he plans.

It seems student dramas are perennially popular in Taiwan. Some are upbeat and endearing, like Hou Chi-jan’s When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep—and some are not, like Partners. Think of it as a Breakfast Club with dead bodies. It is more of a why-dunit than a whodunit, but there are still some unsettling revelations to ferret out. Yet throughout it all, Chang shows a rather deep and forgiving understanding of the messiness of human nature.

There are at least six meaty roles for Chang’s high school-aged cast (or so they certainly look) and he gets solid to hauntingly good performances from them all. Chang is no stranger to young people’s stories, having broken through internationally with Touch of the Light, but this is a far more taut and murky affair than fans of his previous film would expect, despite the occasional stylistic excess here and there. Arguably, it should hold greater appeal for NYAFF/Fantasia patrons than for anyone looking for a date film. However, its tragic nature should lead to some nice local box office change nonetheless.

Ultimately, Partners resists easy sentimentality, reminding viewers how difficult it is to truly understand peoples’ lives from a distant outside perspective. However, it is not a Rashomon like exercise problematizing truth as an objective standard. Instead, that might be something that can eventually be sussed out with sufficient time and sensitivity. Recommended for fans of mysteries and teen dramas with savage bite, Partners in Crime screens again tomorrow (9/11) and Friday (9/12) at this year’s TIFF.