Though the basic material contained in “The Best of Times” — the misadventures of a couple of teenage boys who become involved with gangsters — represents nothing particularly new, writer-director Chang Tso-Chi brings a welcome freshness and unpredictability to the well-worn themes. That plus the excellence of his two lead actors will help make the film essential viewing for Asian movie buffs, festival programmers and TV bookers.
Chang, whose previous film, “Darkness and Light” (1999) won a clutch of important Asian awards and was selected for the Directors Fortnight at Cannes, is not yet as well known as compatriots Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-Hsien or Tsai Ming-Liang; but is gradually producing a body of work that will stand comparison with the best of Taiwanese cinema. In particular, his skill with non-professional actors imbues an energy and a realism to his work, though less successful is his penchant for combining edgy realism with poetic fantasy.
Wei (Fan Wing) and Jie (Gao Meng-Jie) are inseparable friends. The 19-year-olds live close to one another in Taipei and, though their personalities are very different, they still have a great deal in common.
Both their mothers are dead and they live with their fathers and siblings. Wei’s father (Tien Mao-Ying) has never recovered from the death, by cancer, of his wife; he spends much of his time gambling and drinking.
To add to the family’s woes, Wei’s twin sister, Min (Wu Yu-Chih) is dying of leukemia, and Wei himself is beginning to show symptoms of the disease (though this is one element of the narrative that, disappointingly, remains undeveloped).
Jie’s father (Lin Hen-Bao), on the other hand, is a devout Christian and a former soldier in the KMT army; he was forced into exile on Taiwan when the Communists came to power in 1949, and is still bitter about the past.
Despite his problems, Wei, a Bruce Lee fan, is easygoing and sees himself as well-adjusted; he’s not a dreamer, he notes (via voice-over translation) — unlike the spiky-haired Jie who is obsessed with showing off his modest talents as a conjurer and who displays a volatile and mercurial character.
Wei has a job working as a parking valet at a nightclub owned by a gangster, but Jie is too flighty to hold down any meaningful form of employment.
However, Wei succeeds in getting a more responsible job both for himself and for his friend. They are hired as debt collectors for the gangsters, and even given an apparently unloaded gun plus one bullet. It isn’t long before Jie uses the gun, killing a rival gangster and initiating a cycle of revenge that will prove deadly for the friends.
After an awkward first reel, in which the various characters are haphazardly intro’ed, the film settles down to explore the lives of these two youngsters and their families. Scenes with Min are touching, as it’s revealed she had left the stifling confines of the family to live her own life with a boyfriend, but returned to the family home after contracting the disease.
Intriguing, too, are the layers which unfold in scenes such as the one where Jie’s bitter father goes to a run-down retirement home to collect the belongings of one of his former comrades in arms, who has died in poverty.
Water imagery abounds. Min has painted a seascape, and Wei is fascinated by the tropical fish in a tank in his home (Min’s ex-boyfriend, who helps the boys after the killing, has an identical tank). Water also features in the film’s concluding sequence, which opts for fantasy rather than realism and, to a degree, detracts from the overall impact of the basically tragic story.
Fan Wing is charismatic as the more sophisticated of the two youths, but Gao Meng-Jie steals the film with a vibrant performance as the wild, irresponsible Jie.
Pic is visually strong, with good use made of the cramped narrow alleyways in the part of the city where the friends live. Unusually, guitar music is used instead of a more traditional score.