Tuesday, May 02, 2017

LAAPFF ’17: Taxi Stories

New York subways are a great leveler. On any given car, a titan of industry could be seated next to a homeless person. However, the social-economic order is clearly demarcated in cabs: the worker bee up front and the conspicuous consumer in back. Frankly, the really wealthy would probably have their own drivers or at least a regular car service, but why let class warfare ruin a perfectly decent opening? In any event, social divisions will emerge in sharp relief during three hired rides in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Jakarta during Doris Yeung’s Taxi Stories (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.

In Jakarta, young Adi drives a bajaj when his uncle is too drunk to do his shifts, which is often. Technically, the covered three-wheel scooter is not a proper taxi, but whatever. Since the death of his mother, a maid working in Hong Kong, the lad has carried a great deal of anger in his heart. He has a weird half-mothering, half-flirtatious relationship with a local prostitute, but he rather forgets her when a Naomi Watts-looking Australian tourist turns his head.

Meanwhile, Dewi is an Indonesian maid working for a wealthy couple in Hong Kong. Monica and her husband Kenneth have difficult retaining servants, for reasons we can probably guess. However, after the mega-pregnant Monica leaves her wallet in a taxi (which only serves as a catalyst for this narrative arc), Dewi comes to her rescue just in the nick of time. The two women subsequently start to bond, much to the displeasure of Kenneth and his domineering mother Joyce.

Over in Beijing (where it is night, even though there is no time difference with HK), Zhang a cab-driver on the down-low, has picked up Nick, the entitled gay son of a nouveau riche tycoon. When the hard-partying Nick rebuffs Zhang’s advances, the ride quickly turns tensely ugly.

Of the three city-stories, the best by far is Hong Kong, the least “taxi” of them all. Partly, this is because the stakes are arguably highest for Devi. Up-and-coming model and DJ Corallin (Cora) Cao is terrific as the emotionally complicated Monica, while Shanty [Paredes] is pretty darned devastating as Dewi. The rapport they develop together is difficult to pin down, but awfully potent.

In contrast, Beijing is the slightest storyline that depends on some impulsive decisions that are hard to fathom. This puts Jakarta somewhere in between. Although Adi’s story has a legitimate payoff, there is some creepy sexual content that mars the entire film.

Frankly, Yeung was right to not slavishly tie her film to the taxi cab conceit. It helps differentiate it from Jarmisch’s Night on Earth, which we might argue never really landed as solidly as our critical brethren suggested. If you want to see a movie about cabs, hail Jafar Panahi’s Taxi instead. Shanty is already a huge pop-star in Indonesia and Cao is poised to break out throughout Asia, so they will generate interest for the film, but they are indeed the highpoints. A mixed bag that is probably just too inconsistent, Taxi Stories screens tomorrow (5/3) as part of this year’s LAAPFF.