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Wolves cry under the moon.

by Robin Wood

The cinema of Taiwan continues to astonish: so small a country, so many remarkable directors, so many densely worked, intelligent, complex, intellectually and aesthetically sophisticated films, not one of which, aside from Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman, has been honoured with North American distribution. When shall we be allowed to see, outside the festival circuit and a very few of the more adventurous repertory theatres, the works of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-Liung? Tsai's Vive L'Amour is now available on video, for anyone who can afford $90 U.S. Otherwise, a total blank, and for most of us some of the finest work being currently produced anywhere in the world is beyond our reach. Should we add Ho Ping to the above list? He is, at the lowest estimate, promising. I have not seen his first film, 18, but Wolves Cry Under the Moon strikes me as among the most interesting, and certainly among the most overlooked, films in the 1997 Toronto festival. I attended both of the film's screenings, each time with a very small audience; the film received very little advance publicity, and few people I spoke to seemed to be aware of it. The film is audacious and striking; I am less certain whether it is entirely successful, but this uncertainty may be a necessary consequence of its stance. During its latter half the spectator experiences a rising frustration. The film is built upon the journeys of its numerous characters, to whom many strange and unpredictable things happen, yet one gains the paradoxical impression that it is essentially static: all these people, all these events, but nothing really changes, no one develops, no one learns: everything happens, yet nothing happens. I put this to the director during the question session following the second screening, and he agreed: Taiwan is a small island, the only possible movement is circular, getting nowhere, and this becomes a metaphor for the country's current sociopolitical situation. The main body of the film covers a single night; there is a daytime prologue and epilogue. The prologue establishes the film's dual starting-point: (a) the main highway is closed off, and travellers are advised to use the smaller side roads; (b) a young man assassinates the chief of police. The killing of the Symbolic Father signifies the end of `normality' (the vast daytime traffic jams), order and rationality (such as it is), announcing the night when (metaphorical) wolves cry under the moon. We follow three main characters on their journeys out of Taipei and into a world of chaos and fantasy, magic and madness: the fleeing assassin, who hijacks an empty bus and becomes involved in an ambivalent relationship with the middle-aged driver, a self-proclaimed `family man' whose sense of satisfaction and security becomes increasingly eroded; the chauffeur of a wealthy businessman, angry and bitter, loathing his work, ready to steal the car and disappear yet continuing to hallucinate his boss on the seat behind him; and an unpredictably freespirited young woman, Jade, who steals a car then starts up a relationship with its owner over his car-phone as she drives. There are also a trio of puppeteers and a mobile brothel. All the characters are connected to the film's dominant themes: journeys to nowhere; getting lost; the lack of certitude or aim. The film begins as a `realist' (if complex and extravagant) drama, then moves progressively into a fantastic world as night falls and the characters move on to largely deserted side roads; the progression into this night-world is heralded by Jade's fantasy, watching the scene the car's owner is describing over the car-phone enacted in the middle of the empty road. Dawn brings a return to reality and traffic jams, but only the assassin's story reaches any sort of definite conclusion, by courtesy of a police bullet. I found the film, with its continuous invention of incident and detail, its unpredictability, fascinating; yet the pleasure it gives is curious, since it is inseparable from frustration. However, any Cinematheque preparing a season of Taiwanese cinema should certainly consider it for inclusion.

Robin Wood has completed his final book of film criticism; it will be published by Columbia University Press in the spring of 1998.
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Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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