Shot in stark, formal black-and-white 35mm, “Doctor,” Chung Mong-hong’s enigmatic U.S.-set docu, juxtaposes the destinies of two teenage boys — one a doctor’s dead son, the other that same doctor’s dying patient seven years later — without fully articulating the links between them. Curiously, pic’s avoidance of explanations seems to leave viewers free to read all kinds of positive messages in the interstices. At a time when dead children form the emotive center of an astonishing number of Hollywood films, Chung’s strangely indirect, deconstructive approach sounds a fascinating, if decidedly non-commercial, note.
Sidestepping temporal and spatial clarity, docu opens with a 1996 homemovie celebrating Dr. B-Chen Wen’s then 13-year-old son Felix’s first shave. Only gradually revealed (in offhand asides well into the film) is the fact that Felix has died, and the manner of his death is not directly dealt with until docu’s final half-hour. In the meantime, oblique references, homemovie clips and sudden glimpses of Felix’s accomplished but disturbing artwork appear at odd moments amid another narrative altogether.
Pic posits a present tense in 2003 Miami, where Wen and his family have relocated after Felix’s traumatic death. There, Wen treats Sebastian Tarnawiecki, a 13-year-old lung cancer patient brought to America by his parents from their home in Lima, Peru (American-set Taiwanese pic manages to evoke a wealth of cultural displacement).
Chung suggests tacit connections between the two boys by repeating certain motifs: Sebastian’s fascination with snakes that swallow their prey whole is mirrored by Felix’s drawing of the last thing a mouse sees before it dies (a view from inside a serpent’s mouth). When Ivan Tarnawiecki comments that he never really appreciated his son’s myriad interests until he fell ill, it echoes Wen’s fear that he sought to understand his own son too late.
Yet the more pic dwells on Sebastian in the hospital or plunges into the artifacts of Felix’s obsessions, the more different the kids appear. Sebastian displays a vitality and curiosity typical of his age, a fondness for fables and stories of his homeland and that peculiar serenity commonly seen in kids with grave illnesses. Meanwhile, Felix, obviously extremely bright, happily functions on a very different plane, beamingly demonstrating his new project to the family — a drawing of his tomb — and ennumerating all the objects therin.Tech credits are striking, with especially vivid lensing, the whole greatly enhanced by music that inventively alternates Bach with Cage.