“Wolves Cry Under the Moon” is an allegorical black comedy that goes in as many circles as its characters. A collection of character studies loosely strung on a semi-road movie clothesline, Taiwanese pic starts intriguingly but starts running out of gas well before the halfway mark. Foreign sales look minimal.
Working again with novelist Kuo Cheng, who scripted his previous feature, the pointed but over-arcane “18” (1993), director Ho Ping constructs a potentially loaded yarn about the island’s bottled-in, feudal mind-set, resulting as much from its geographical isolation as from its political non-status during the past half-century. Opening has the government suddenly announcing that the north-south highway, the island’s main transportation artery, is to be closed for 12 hours beginning at 6 p.m. Result is chaos, with all overnight traffic forced onto minor roads.
Various characters come into focus: a young hit man (To Tzong-hua), who has just iced a politician and hijacks an empty bus driven by an older, married man (Gu Bao-ming); a Gen-X hooker (Annie Shizuka Inoh) who steals a car and builds a cellular-phone relationship with its owner (composer Jerry Huang); and a high-strung chauffeur (Chang Shih) who hates his servile job and becomes more manic as the movie progresses. Also milling around like a Greek chorus are three traditional puppeteers with no wheels of their own and little idea of where they’re headed.
During its first half, the film is a clever, sometimes funny commentary on the fracturing of Taiwan’s social order following its transition to democracy, the aimlessness of its younger generation and the frustrations of a people with too much wealth and energy and too little room and social smarts. But the malaise of the characters soon afflicts the movie itself, when it becomes annoyingly clear that Ho and Kuo have no idea how to combine these strands into a single movie or develop the characters beyond their initial quirks. The puppeteers’ scatological humor will mean little to auds not versed in the island’s local dialect, Hokkien.
Most substantial relationship is between the hit man and bus driver, a meeting between young and old that sums up the change in social attitudes; liveliest character is the trashy hooker who, as played by Inoh (a local pop star more often in subdued roles in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s pics), remains watchable even when she’s doing nothing new. Final reel briefly re-stirs interest when the reason for closing the highway is made clear, but at over two hours it’s a long wait for a punch line.
All technical credits are fine. Chinese title roughly means “The National Way is Sealed Off,” punning on the island republic’s lack of escape routes.