Anchored by an outstanding performance from Taiwanese actress Rene Liu, “The Personals” is a funny, sad, beautifully observed study of modern-day sexual relationships centering on a young woman who places an ad for a life partner. Shot and scripted with a precision and dry humor that recall Hal Hartley, and thankfully free of the introverted anomie that has infected Taiwanese cinema during the ’90s, this is the first fully mature pic by critic-turned-helmer Chen Kuo-fu, and looks to be a frequent guest at festivals this year. Limited commercial play is also not out of the question in the hands of the right distrib. The movie, which has yet to open locally in Taiwan, world preemed in Hong Kong late last year.
Chen, a leading critic during the ’80s, has had an up-and-down helming career, over-stretching himself with the ambitious semi-fantasy “The Peony Pavilion” (1994) and coming closest to hitting the mark with “Treasure Island” (1993), an interesting riff on the alienation/gangster genre then in vogue. “The Personals” reps a complete change of course: a cleverly constructed, ironic comedy of manners that’s highly accessible to upscale Western auds without compromising its identity.
Wu (Liu), a pretty but far from glamorous woman of around 30, is a comfortably-off professional who feels her youth slipping away. An ophthalmologist in a prestigious hospital, she’s advertised in the personals for a prospective husband, and has so far received more than 100 calls. She deliberately hasn’t asked applicants to send their photos, and neither has she supplied hers. Each meeting, therefore, starts off at ground zero for both sides.
Pic has a rondo structure, largely composed of Wu’s rendezvous with various men (mostly in a quiet, traditional teahouse in a tony Taipei suburb), separated by sequences of her at work, confiding in a male friend or to her diary, and musing offscreen over traveling shots of the city at dusk. Just when the structure threatens to become repetitive, the script introduces a wild card that helps to explain some earlier puzzling moments: The apparently spotless Wu, it seems, is not everything we’d been led to believe.
The guts of the movie are the meetings, with each applicant introduced to the audience with an onscreen caption listing his name, age and job. Characters range across the spectrum, standing not only for sexual or behavioral types but crystallizing the mix of traditional and modern Chinese values in contempo Taiwan society. There’s a guy with a fan and straw hat who sings old-style songs for her and claims to have studied everywhere; a restaurant manager who’s a shoe fetishist; a glorified pimp; a boyish-looking lesbian who discreetly tries to hit on her; a guitarist (played by well-known rock musician Wu Pai); a high-strung, sensitive young writer who brings along his mother; a nervous, middle-aged primary school teacher (Chin Shih-chieh); and, in the jokiest sequence, a guy (Niu Cheng-tse) who turns out to be an actor in disguise.
As Wu works her way through the applicants, she begins to think it’s something within herself, rather than the shortage of suitable men, that accounts for her inability to find the right partner. Partly in desperation, she picks a handsome young guy to whom she feels sexually attracted; but then she meets a blind musician who quietly moves the picture’s emotional goal posts.
Aside from the perfs, the movie’s main pleasure is its dialogue, which sometimes has an improvised feel but is most likely just carefully scripted and played. Few Chinese movies (and none from Taiwan) during the past decade have shown such a delight in the grace notes of language and hidden meanings, or such generosity toward their characters. It’s a script the actors visibly relish.
Liu, who’s quietly been doing sterling work for several years (most notably for foreign auds in Sylvia Chang’s “Siao Yu”), gets the part she’s been waiting for here. Onscreen the entire time, she’s riveting; the nuanced role requires her to play straight woman to a variety of turns (by often seasoned performers) without losing the developing thread of her character, the heart of the movie. It’s a lustrous performance, savoring the individual rhythms of each sequence and always alert to the ironic comedy behind the words.
Casting of her potential mates is on the button, with especially good playing from Chin as the teacher and Niu as the actor (though the latter is more of a local industry in-joke than anything else).
Pic is precision-tooled at every level, from Ho Nan-hung’s beautifully lit, warmly textured lensing to editing, music and costumes. Liu Sze-wei’s score, featuring punchy, big-band jazz interludes, gets the movie off to a flying start and later recedes as the second half takes on a slightly darker edge. For a few moments in the final reel, the film feels over-extended and loses its tightness, but in general the pacing is fine, especially given the repetitive structure.