Mapping how a painter, her boxer b.f and her tour-guide brother make their bumpy passage through adulthood, “Murmur of the Hearts” is suffused with elegiac yearning. This introspective drama marks a transition for actress-helmer-scribe Sylvia Chang, from rapt romances (“Tempting Heart”) and family dramedies (“Tonight Nobody Goes Home”) to complex intergenerational dialogue. Set extensively on Taiwan’s Lyudao, a prison island with strong metaphorical resonance, the film represents an impressive comeback for Macanese actress Isabella Leong with an engrossing emotional arc, though its magical-realist touches, including phantoms and mermaids, are a tad forced. The pic should elicit respectable responses in Chinese-speaking territories and find appreciation from non-arthouse fests.
The screenplay by helmer Chang and Taiwan-based Nipponese thesp Yukihiko Kageyama employs a sometimes needlessly intricate structure, shuttling between the protags’ quasi-fantastical childhood memories and their restless present-day lives. Siblings Yu-mei (Leong) and Yu-nan (Lawrence Ko) were born on Lyudao, or “Green Island,” off the east coast of Taiwan. They grew up listening to fairy tales about mermaids told by their mother, Jen (Angelika Lee Sinje). Now a painter based in Taipei, Yu-mei is in a rocky relationship with aspiring boxer Hsiang (Joseph Chang), who channels all his energy into training.
It’s agonizing to see Yu-mei, for all her talent and beauty, tiptoe around the gruff, self-centered Hsiang, and the film implies, in stylized yet palpable fashion, the toll that it takes on her creativity and well-being. She’s also haunted by unresolved resentment toward her mother, who took her to Taipei, leaving Yu-nan behind. Still radiant after a six-year break from acting, Leong (“Isabella,” “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor”) brings a mature and thoughtful sensibility to her performance.
It’s hard to imagine any bloke would prefer getting punched in the eye to getting laid with the goddess-like Yu-mei, but Hsiang, too, had an unfortunate childhood, burdened by the impossible expectations of his sailor father. Just as Yu-mei’s neurosis is mirrored in her aggressive new painting style, so Hsiang’s spiritual malady reveals itself in his failing eyesight and losing streak. While Joseph Chang has honed his silent, sensitive image in a number of romantic weepies and closeted gay roles (“The Stolen Years,” “Girlfriend, Boyfriend”), just as in “Soul,” he exhibits a perturbing dark side, yet still elicits sympathy for his pain and struggle. Hsiang’s bruising yet tender relationship with his coach (Wang Shih-hsien, superb) poignantly accentuates his need for a surrogate father.
Living an equally lonely existence in Taitung is Yu-nan, who regularly leads package tours to Lyudao. At 30, he appears to lead a purposeful, self-contained life, but his reluctance to go to Taipei to look for his long-lost sister suggests an emotional stumbling block that stems from his estrangement from his parents, a feeling shared by Yu-mei. Unfortunately, this is one of the flattest roles of Ko’s remarkable career, and his performance is too opaque to engage until a cathartic scene close to the end. Even the dream and fantasy sequences that symbolize the unspooling of his ordered life are awkward and archly whimsical, making this character arc the film’s weakest link.
Obviously too sensitive and dreamy for the grassroots existence she’s been born into, Jen recalls director Chang’s other heroines, stifled by stagnant marraiges or stranded in society after divorce. However, her fallout with her boorish, noodle-vending husband (Julian Chen) and affair with onetime prisoner of conscience Shen Chong (Tsan Cheng-chu) are divulged in splintered flashbacks, which obscure rather than reveal her inner world. How she hooked up with Shen, who moves in an entirely different intellectual and social sphere, is intriguing and begs further elaboration. As a result, Jen is merely a symbolic figure, though Lee’s soulful gaze and ethereal presence still mesmerize on a cinematic level.
The film’s Chinese title, “Nian nian,” echoes a range of feelings, from memory or nostalgia to attachments or hang-ups. It alludes to the protags’ personal regrets, as well as the crippling anger held against their less-than-perfect parents, while ambivalently invoking the buried love that eventually helps them make peace with the past and move on. Although their paths meander for too long before merging, their final reconciliation is still profoundly moving.
Sylvia Chang, who hasn’t helmed a feature since her 2008 fatherhood dramedy, “Run Papa Run” treats parent-child issues with a pensiveness that heralds a quieter timbre in her filmmaking. The work is most lyrical and affecting in its silent scenes, as when a clasp of the hand expresses repressed love, or in the sensuous sex scenes, which deftly distinguish between Hsiang’s physical urges and Yu-mei’s more emotional desires. Elsewhere, however, overlong voiceovers and dialogue-heavy scenes leave too little to the imagination.
Leung Ming-kai’s handsome lensing employs a profusion of closeups, often in shallow focus to accentuate the characters’ solitude, while Hou Hsiao-hsien protege Yao Hong-yi’s underwater cinematography conjures an otherworldly universe. Costume designer Sharon Wei’s purple-and-fuchsia color scheme further infuses the lensers’ lush palette with romantic vibes. However, for a site that for decades served mainly as a prison, and as a metaphor for exile or spiritual confinement, the visuals of Lyudao only seem to highlight its beauty as a tourist attraction.
Tu Duu-chih’s eclectic mix of ocean and nature sounds reverberates on a subliminal level; fragments of aboriginal song in Chen Yang’s score, however, are too fey. While the film’s English title may echo that of Louis Malle’s “Murmur of the Heart” (1971), the stories bear little resemblance.