Ah Chung Liu Sheng-chung Mother Chou Shio-min Grandfather Lu Ying Little Brother Ho Huang-chi Sister Chang Chiao-ming Father Tsai Chieh-der
Another feather in the cap for Taiwanese cinema, this powerful drama about a dysfunctional family living in a seaside shantytown on the edge of Taipei should travel the fest circuit and be snapped up by adventurous TV networks. Handsomely photographed and intelligently staged, it’s a moving though decidedly downbeat story that transcends its familiar themes of alienation and strained family ties.
The film centers on the titular Ah Chung, a disaffected teenager who reckons he was born unlucky. He lives with his mother, who threw out her husband after he raped her daughter by an earlier marriage. Also living in the house is Ah Chung’s increasingly senile grandfather and his cheerful but slightly retarded kid brother. His step-sister, who hasn’t fully recovered from being raped, is running with a wild gang and frequently comes home drunk.
Hoping to restore the family fortunes, Ah Chung’s mother has them change their surname from Li to Yang, which is her family name, and her son feels disoriented as a result (his peers tease him about the switch). She also insists he join a religious group known as Ba Chia Chiang, who travel around giving performances for the gods that involve self-flagellation and wounding. Writer-director Chang Tso-chi stages scenes of this strange troupe performing with an awed fascination.
The film revolves around a seemingly aimless series of events that affect the life of its hero. The area in which he lives is seriously polluted (cats die after eating fish taken from the canal; the kid brother is nearly killed by a truck that has been dumping illegal waste). Ah Chung tries to care for his little brother, often taking him fishing for crabs. He also tries to help his clearly distressed sister, and keep company with his grandfather, who loves to play on a tuneless tin whistie and reminisce about happier times.
Ah Chung’s relationship with his taxi-driver father is almost non-existent, and the young man finds it difficult to stay apart from the gang warfare that’s impinging on the area.
Chang Chan’s beautifully lit and framed camerawork makes a major contribution to this grim but impressive portrait of a society in steep decline. Performances are natural and affecting down the line, direction is intelligent and editing sharp. Though seemingly specific to the fringes of Taipei society, Ah Chung’s story has a universality that makes this modest production worth seeking out.