Having previously worked together in shorts and other art forms as well, multihyphenates Ouchul Hwang and Ho Wen-shing make an adventuresome first-feature collaboration with “Takao Dancer,” applying a freewheeling battery of stylistic gambits to a “Jules and Jim”-type story tracing three Taiwanese youths from inseparable childhood to conflicted adulthood. In outline, this is standard tragic-triangle-melodrama material, but the ever-stimulating presentation keeps the pic aesthetically if not always emotionally involving. It’s a natural for experimental and new-director showcases.
First met when very young, Chi (Ed Pan), Yi (Kly Huang) and Kong (Yu-ting Kuo) are an exclusive trio despite their different circumstances: The first two are from poor families, while Kong is a rich kid. Yet Kong is also the most rebellious and discontented among them. It’s his idea when they reach adulthood to use his fish-farm-owning father’s savings so the trio can relocate to the big city, ostensibly to facilitate Yi’s singing career. But that harebrained plan goes awry, and through no fault of his own, Chi is the one who ends up an “eternal fugitive” from charges of murder, theft and arson.
Years later, he’s turned his talent as a diver toward looting booty from shipwrecked vessels at the bottom of the Taiwan (aka Formosa) Strait, and as such is the mystery criminal hotly sought by authorities for “loss of national treasures.” In particular he’s hunted by Kong, now a police detective living with Yi. Chi begins leaving untraceable notes for Yi, whom he still loves — and vice versa, though she still proceeds with plans to marry her other life love, his former best friend. The three finally have a reunion/confrontation on a yacht after the wedding itself.
The film’s second half, which settles into a present-day timeframe after prior episodes that jumped forward several years at a time, offers a somewhat more straightforward narrative. But throughout, the directors’ restless imaginations keep “Takao Dancer” from becoming the over-familiar romantic meller its plot basics would suggest. The tone unpredictably lurches from farce to thriller and beyond. While Hwang’s colorful abstract paintings are perhaps the most conspicuous visual element in a presentation that often verges on cinematic collage, the kitchen-sink approach also encompasses time-lapse photography, tinting, black-and-white, photo montage, puppetry, superimposed and solarized images, even interpretive dance.
The soundtrack is equally busy, with multi-voice, stream-of-consciousness narration, willfully disembodied post-dubbed dialogue, and in particular Dylan Taylor’s score making an impression, the latter wringing infinite variations on traditional folk song “The House of the Rising Sun,” from reggae to psychedelic to drone.
The result has an action-painting spontaneity that’s bracing if also, finally, a bit wearying. Despite game performances, the human element here takes a decided backseat to auteurial bravado, making for a film that’s not so much a character/narrative-based journey as a giddy demonstration of hand-crafted stylistic techniques that can be applied to the medium. As such, “Takao Dancer” offers a refreshingly playful break from cinematic storytelling conventions.