There’s a memorable line from “Missing Johnny”: “When people are too close, they forget how to love each other.” That largely sums up this elegantly composed mood piece about family ties, the power of memory and human reaction to the getting, giving and loss of love. Centered on three young people whose paths cross in Taipei, “Johnny” is a tad too low-key at the outset but gathers momentum nicely as details of its characters lives are revealed. Female writer-director Huang Xi, an associate of Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien (serving here as executive producer), has delivered an impressive feature debut that likely won’t set the box office ablaze but has art-house designs both domestically and regionally. Local release is set for Dec. 15.
The film’s title is a McGuffin; “Johnny” is an invisible character whose name is mentioned in phone calls received by Ms. Hsu (Rima Zeidan), a young woman who recently moved to Taipei and works at a backpacker hostel. Throughout the film various friends and relatives of “Johnny” enquire after him, yet none seem concerned about reaching a wrong number. Huang cleverly uses Hsu’s conversations with the callers to comment on the troubles and hopes of the film’s real characters.
In the intriguing opening sequences Hsu carries a caged parrot from Taipei’s subway to her apartment, where she keeps other birds. Fascinated by her feathered creatures is Lee (Huang Yuan), the autistic son of Hsu’s landlady, Mrs Lee (Kay Huang). Meanwhile, a beat-up old car driven by construction worker Feng (Ko Yu-luen — better known to Western viewers as Lawrence Ko from “Lust, Caution”) breaks down on busy Jongping Road.
Huang slowly draws these lives together in scenes that are never less than interesting, but are played at such a gentle pace some viewers may become a little impatient and wonder where everything is heading. Things fall nicely into place once Feng begins working on a building that’s owned by Mrs. Lee and located virtually next door to her apartment block. An escaped bird brings Hsu into contact with Feng and Lee, who join forces to catch the critter.
With Lee floating in and out of the picture at very well judged intervals, shy guy Feng and the more outgoing Hsu begin to talk. It’s not exactly a romance, but there’s something very appealing about the way in which these strangers begin to enjoy each other’s company. These sweet moments are deftly edited into a narrative that slowly and very surely informs viewers of emotional issues both are facing. Hsu’s relationship with rich, out-of-town boyfriend Zhi-wei (Tong Chi-peng) is in its death throes. At a key moment, Hsu is revealed to harbor a heartbreaking secret.
Much is learned about Feng, and indeed about family life in Taipei, from his brother-like bond with childhood friend Hao (Duan Chun-hao). Details of Feng’s troubled past and Hao’s fractious relationship with his cranky old father, Chi-yuan (Chang Kuo-chu) bring considerable emotional heft to the tale. Here, and everywhere in Huang’s richly layered screenplay, the message is that love is the epicenter of human existence.
Multilingual Taiwanese-Lebanese model Zeidan delivers a natural and convincing performance in her feature acting debut. Equally impressive is Ko as the melancholy guy taking his first steps toward a happier future, and Huang Yuan as the young man whose view of events around him comes powerfully into play later in the proceedings. Huang Xi’s meticulous direction of the entire cast is noteworthy.
In creating a film that’s much more about atmosphere than traditional plot, Huang is very well served by the classical framing of DP Yao Hung-i, and a haunting piano and guitar-based score by Point Hsu and Lim Giong. All other technical aspects are also spot-on.