Finished a year ago, and only now hitting the international circuit, “The Moon Also Rises” won’t do much for the fading rep of onetime fest fave Lin Cheng-sheng (“Murmur of Youth,” “Betelnut Beauty”). Small-scale family drama, set in early ’60s Taiwan, starts impressively but jumps the rails in its later stages with an excess of mannerisms and psychological implausibilities. Trimming by some 15 minutes would considerably improve its chances for more festival exposure and some specialized tube dates.
Adapted from a story by well-known Taiwan female scribe Li Ang, tale is largely set near the southeastern coastal town of Taidong, in the countryside home of Chen Pao-chai (Yang Kuei-mei). Her 20-year-old daughter, Hsi-lien (Lin Chia-yu), is about to start work as an elementary school teacher. Despite opposition from Pao-chai, Hsi-lien is stuck on marrying a cousin, Chen Jun-ming (Chen Te-lieh), who secretly meets her at a rendezvous by the coast.
Shot in a clear, lustrous style, and nicely composed without too much lingering, these early scenes have a lovely sense of stillness, of life in a quiet backwater gently proceeding despite family tensions. Hsi-lien is dutiful on the surface but, as mom discovers when secretly reading her letters, rebellious on the inside: The two young lovers are determined their happiness should not be affected by what Jun-ming calls “the problems of an older generation.”
However, what exactly those problems are is never made very clear, especially for foreign auds. Pic is actually set during Taiwan’s so-called White Terror period — still barely explored by Taiwan filmmakers — and Hsi-lien’s father, it turns out, is a longtime political prisoner. There’s also some talk about Pao-chai’s early years in Tokyo, though it’s never exactly explained what this has to do with her absent husband or tensions within the extended family.
What is clear is that Pao-chai is a cauldron of repressed emotion, just about held in control by her strict adherence to Buddhism. Hsi-lien tells Jun-ming she’s always been afraid of her mom, even though she’s never been ill-treated.
When Jun-ming goes off and marries another woman and Hsi-lien starts to fall for a Mainland-born colleague at work, Chu Cheng (Shih Yi-nan), however, pic veers off into an increasingly artsy melodrama that stretches the delicate emotional fabric — and the character of the mother — to the breaking point. Final reels are an uphill slog.
Yang, a regular in the films of Tsai Ming-liang, is fine in the first half, convincingly playing a woman older than her age. But later on, even she can’t handle two of the silliest erotic scenes of the past year.
As the daughter, Lin is much better, with a character that at least remains consistent within its limits. The men are both bland.
Period look is detailed, if artificial looking — though it at least fits the film’s slightly stylized approach — and songs are used flavorsomely throughout. For the record, Yang won best actress at last December’s Golden Horse Awards (Taiwan’s Oscars). Chinese title means “Under the Moonlight, I Remember.”