(Hokkien, Mandarin and Japanese dialogue)
Adeeply felt, quietly horrifying look at Taiwan’s White Terror of the ’50s, through the memories of an old man searching for a dead friend’s grave, “Super Citizen Ko” is a slow but mesmerizing entry from middle-generation New Waver Wan Jen that should build a solid rep on the fest circuit.
Since the lifting of Taiwan’s 38-year martial law in 1987, and the growth of political pluralism, local filmers have gradually started to pull back the covers on the verboten period, starting with Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “City of Sadness” (1989) and most recently in Hsu Hsiao-ming’s “Heartbreak Island” (1995). Present item is not only the most unflinching look at the KMT’s anti-commie witch hunt of the period but also broadens the political discussion into a general one of the much-colonized island’s “identity.” Wan co-penned and co-produced the pic with Liao Ching-song, ace editor behind the Taiwan New Wave.
Result is uncompromising on several levels and is not an easy ride, even for specialists. A tighter version for offshore showings, with an explanatory opening caption, would heighten the pic’s emotional impact and benefit sales, which are most likely to center on discerning Eurowebs and ethnic channels.
Wan’s previous pics have tapped various sociopolitical undercurrents within dramatic frameworks, such as early U.S. “colonization” of the island (“The Taste of Apples” in the compilation “The Sandwich Man”), the legacy of earlier Japanese colonization (“Ah Fei”) and the island’s uneasy social mix (“Super Citizen”). “Super Citizen Ko” started as a ’90s update on the last movie but developed into a quite separate, serious work.
The time is the recent present. Central character is Ko (veteran TVactor Lin Yang), who comes home to live with his daughter (Su Ming-ming) after 16 years in prison for minor leftist activity followed by more than a decade in a secluded nursing home. Ko is obsessed with finding out what happened to his ’50s friend Chen (Ko Yi-cheng, seen in B&W flashbacks), who was summarily shot for “subversive” activities.
A picture of the period is pieced together as Ko visits former colleagues, one of whom is half-nutty (claiming the KMT planted an anti-political thought device in his brain). The officer who arrested Ko, now owner of a noodle stand, admits they often hauled in the wrong people.
Despite anonymous threats to his life, Ko travels to the south, where a colleague produces a list of executed prisoners. Ko manages to track down Chen’s grave, one of hundreds hidden away in a hillside bamboo grove and, in the pic’s most moving sequence, finally pays his respects to his old friend.
Parallel to the horrifying political story (larded with facts and figures), the movie fills in the background of Ko’s family life, from the tragic fate of his wife (the excellent Chen Yen-chiu) to the resentment his daughter holds against the old man for his earlier selfishness.
In pacing and precision look, the movie most closely resembles Wan’s 1984 debut feature, “Ah Fei,” a fine showpiece for his regular leading lady, Su, who has now grown into an actress of stature. Veteran Lin is a fairly neutral center of the pic. But the somber tone is quite new and, at two hours, unrelieved. Pic could easily lose 20 minutes.
Tech credits are tiptop, with Dolby sound done in Australia (a favored post-production destination for East Asian filmers), and Shen Jui-yuan’s lensing is standout in its use of light and shade. Especially notable are the flashbacks involving the mother, processed in tones midway between color and B&W to evoke half-faded memories of the period. Dialogue is mostly in the local Hokkien Chinese dialect.