Ace Taiwan New Waver Edward Yang’s first movie in three years, “A Confucian Confusion,” is a dense, talky, often blackly comic brain-tickler that’s as likely to confuse as to enlighten. This challenging, multicharactered rondo on aspects of contempo Taiwan society should find plenty of play on the festival circuit but looks unlikely to broaden Yang’s B.O. appeal beyond the limited number drawn to his previous “A Brighter Summer Day.” Locally, pic is going out under the Warner Asia banner.
Long-in-the-works pic started out as a “little comedy,” in the director’s words, but underwent a radical rewrite following last year’s demand by several East Asian countries (including China and Singapore) for modification of the Intl. Declaration of Human Rights on the basis of cultural differences. Basic message of Yang’s movie is that it’s time for newly wealthy (Confucian-influenced) Asian societies, like Taiwan, to stop limiting themselves and rethink traditional molds.
First few reels seem deliberately designed to confuse viewers, opening with chaotic rehearsals for avant-garde playwright Birdy’s first commercial production and then segueing to a long sequence in the office of rich-kid Molly, head of a PR company funded by rich businessman b.f. Akeem. Almost a dozen characters are introed in the movie’s opening reel, with backgrounds, connections and relationships often obscure, despite yards of dialogue.
As the mists slowly part, it’s clear everyone’s connected by either longtime friendships, sexual partnering or blood ties. Molly’s good-hearted assistant, Qiqi, is a lower-middle-class pal from school days who’s engaged to fellow classmate Ming, a low-rung government bureaucrat who lives with his parents. Molly’s business manager, Larry, is a buddy of Akeem and basically runs the company. Molly’s elder sis, once engaged to Akeem but now married to an existential writer, hosts a top-rated TV talkshow. Aspiring actress Feng is biding her time in Molly’s company till her big break, in between romancing Larry. And that’s just the main players.
Catalyst to events is Molly’s firing of Feng over a misunderstanding — an action that causes the former to start questioning her lifestyle and exacerbates her distrust of human relationships. Qiqi quits and worsens things by introducing Feng to Birdy, who’s ever keen to take on a new actress. Akeem, meanwhile, is finding it harder and harder to pin down Molly to a wedding date.
Tangled skein of developments, all set during a couple of days, includes Molly bedding the upright Ming, Birdy going through a major artistic crisis (in some of the pic’s few overtly comic scenes), and the existentialist scribe undergoing a Road to Damascus conversion after a traffic accident. Latter sequence, played as ripe comedy in a crowded nighttime street with a bozo cab driver, is the movie’s philosophical nut — that it’s time to cut through the structured Confucianism and go for honest, upfront relating.
It’s a tribute to Yang’s high-sheen technique and ensemble direction that the movie holds the attention even when the viewer is still grappling with character relationships and the highly refined ideas being tossed around in the script. But whereas the equally complexly constructed “A Brighter Summer Day,” set during Taiwan’s underdeveloped early ’60s, had the bonus of period atmosphere for more general viewers, “Confucian Confusion” pivots on the special characteristics of Taiwan’s recent economic miracle and may prove simply too arcane in its resonances for non-specialists.
In feel, Yang’s fifth feature partly evokes his 1985 “Taipei Story,” though with a lighter tone and a less navel-gazing approach to his favorite subject of modern Taiwanese identity. Though the pic is always solidly cinematic, there’s also a legit feel to the loquacious script that perhaps reflects the helmer’s detour into penning two plays (“Likely Consequence,” 1992; “Period of Growth,” 1993) since “Day.”
Thesp Ni Shujun, who’s had uneven parts since her recent bounce-back, is terrific in the key Molly role, all yuppie dress code and uptight insecurities. Newcomer Chen Xiangqi, from Yang’s two recent plays, shadows Ni perfectly as her best friend and all-round nice person who’s content to go with the flow. There’s not a weak link in the rest of the cast, with Wang Weiming solid as the moralistic Ming and Chen Limei strong as Molly’s talkshow host sister.
Technically, pic is all of a piece, despite four directors of photography contributing, with immaculate compositions and striking use of light and shadow in interiors that also recall “Taipei Story” and parts of Yang’s first feature, “That Day, on the Beach.” Production design, by a team including Yang and his wife, Tsai Chin, is clean. Music, sparely used, is pointed. Though sound on mono print unspooled at Cannes is fine, pic will be available with a Dolby soundtrack beginning in August.
Original title literally means “Age of Independence,” with the Chinese word for the latter having a political as well as personal connotation.