Chen Mei-li (Rene Liu) comes from a middle-class family in which the father is embittered and distant, the mother preoccupied with her own worries. Lin Mei-li (Tseng Tsing) lives in more threadbare but warmer circumstances. Her dad’s a supportive construction worker; her grandmother, the family matriarch, clings to nostalgic dreams of her long-dead husband.
Helmer Lin spends pic’s first hour carefully sketching the characters and milieus of the two Mei-lis (the name means pretty). As in other Taiwanese films, including Lin’s well-received 1996 debut, “A Drifting Life,” the approach is oblique and atmospheric, balancing a melancholic view of family relations with a portrayal of individual lives that stresses the inscrutable ways of fate.
Eventually, as Lin draws together his dramatic threads, the girls end up working with each other in the close confines of a movie theater box office. There, talk of their families, of work and school and other mundane matters leads to more intimate topics, including boys, sex and (in dialogue that’s striking for its length, detail and psychological resonance) menstruation.
While this growing closeness does result in a sexual encounter, the fleeting incident is anything but the tale’s point. Rather, it sensitively redirects the viewer’s attention toward the themes — the mesh of family, society and individual — that have been building throughout. The final effect is both thoughtful and quietly moving.
Though Lin’s spare, nuanced style, with its motionless camera, naturalistic photography and avoidance of music, owes obvious debts to certain senior Taiwanese directors, he exercises it with impressive authority and conviction. Especially compelling are the vibrant, finely shaded perfs he gets from Liu and Tseng as the Mei-lis.
Tech credits are equally strong, with special kudos going to Tsai Cheng-hui’s ace lensing.