A neatly assembled coming-of-ager set in a provincial Taiwan high school, “Winds of September” is a promising first feature by Cal Arts film grad Tom Lin that only lacks originality and characters to root for. Paced somewhere between a commercial feature and an accessible art movie, the film presents a familiar roundelay of teen bragging, bullying and first love without pushing the envelope much further. Winner of the top prize in the Shanghai fest’s New Asian Talent competition, “Winds” looks set to breeze through fests but not into theatrical beyond Asia.
Though not originally intended as such, the pic has become the first part of a loose trilogy focused on young people in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China initiated by Hong Kong actor-producer Eric Tsang. Released locally in early June on three screens, “Winds” has taken a fair NT$2 million ($65,000) in its first three frames.
Large number of protags — seven boys and two girls — unnecessarily dilutes the drama and, with names in short supply in the subtitles, makes it initially difficult to work out who’s who. The film’s early fulcrum is Cheng Hsi-yen (Eurasian actor Rhydian Vaughan), a baseball obsessive with all the smiling attitude of a young Tom Cruise.
Yen is the leader of the pack, beloved by cute student Hsiao Yun (Jennifer Chu) and best pals with the shyer Hsiao Tang (Chang Cheh). When Yen dallies with another femme, her hard-assed b.f. mistakenly beats up Tang, and the two buddies fall out when Yen hardly seems grateful to his pal.
Also angered by Yen’s casual treatment, Yun writes him a “Dear John” letter and asks Tang to deliver it. But Tang, who also holds a torch for Yun, never does. When Yen ends up in a coma after a scooter crash, the gang of seven slowly fractures without a clear leader, and (in the pic’s most dramatic section) violence rears its ugly head.
Semiautobiographical story, set and filmed in the helmer’s hometown of Hsinchu, west of Taipei, takes place over nine months (September 1996-June 1997) leading up to the boys’ graduation ceremony. More importantly, the period encompasses a notorious Taiwan baseball scandal — referenced in TV news clips — that brought down many of the island’s leading players. Device is meant to mirror the male protags’ disappointed dreams, but isn’t developed enough to mean much to anyone beyond local auds of a certain age.
Vaughan is a striking screen presence as the cocky Yen, but the character is hard to engage with emotionally. Chang is more likable as Tang, who finally becomes the heart of the movie, but is too passive. Other male protags strike occasional sparks; on the distaff side, Chu is given little to work with.
Technical package is thoroughly pro at all levels. Trimming by five or 10 minutes would be an asset.