The two Americans at the center of “The Taiwan Oyster” moved to the eponymous Asian hot spot to escape responsibility, spending their time abroad getting wasted and smoking pot, but responsibility is what they find after tragedy curtails their carefree ways. Disguised as a drunken cartwheel through expat paradise, Mark Jarrett’s striking feature juggles questions of mortality along its rowdy cross-country path. Though the film will likely see more play from international fests than from domestic exhibs, it helps that Jarrett knows the territory from personal experience, drawing from literature and life to bring resonance to his evocatively exotic debut.
Leading with a quote from William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying,” the film packs more soul than the hedonism of its early scenes suggests. “I feel like a minor character in someone else’s novels,” opines Simon (musician Billy Harvey), a Midwestern boy who cut ties back home in order to find himself abroad, coasting by teaching kindergarten at the same school as Darin (Jeff Palmiotti). Though they both share the same party-hearty spirit, there’s a brooding darkness beneath Simon’s laid-back facade. Darin, by contrast, is an open-book extrovert and instigator, catalyzing many of the scrapes that follow.
Both men are part of a larger phenomenon that brings like-minded people to this oasis on the other side of the world, gathering regularly with other expats to drink and socialize. It’s a night like any other when their friend Jed (Will Mounger) makes the reckless decision to jump from the rooftop to a balcony across the way, only to miscalculate and end up falling to the alley below. Though Simon hardly knew the guy, who had no relatives to claim the body and spare him an anonymous state cremation, he enlists Darin to help him obtain Jed’s remains and give him a proper burial.
What follows is one of the strangest and most invigorating heists in ages, a cross between an old Laurel and Hardy routine and the scrappy anarchy of early Wes Anderson, especially “Bottle Rocket”: Two Americans stroll into the morgue, trying to look respectful in their flip-flops and makeshift suits. While the first attempts to negotiate in broken Taiwanese (per subtitles, he mistakenly asks for his friend’s “meat”), his partner makes eyes at a comely employee, Nikita (Leonora Lim). After the authorities deny their request, the duo creep around back and boost the body anyway, picking up the girl on the way out.
Ashes might’ve made things easier, but then the “As I Lay Dying” connection wouldn’t have held up. For the allusion to work, the boys must cart Jed’s corpse clear across Taiwan in a coffin, or barring that, in a huge freezer big enough to keep the body — and all the booze they can carry — on ice. Eccentric details, like the fact that seductive Simon has torn the sleeves off every shirt he owns, may make the characters sound silly on paper, but in practice, such specificity is what allows auds to accept them as real. Though the film doesn’t necessarily explain the customs on display (the Taiwanese are deeply superstitious about the dead, which accounts for the burning of fake money), it clearly comes from Jarrett’s own experience abroad.
The helmer, who co-wrote this existential screenplay with his brother Mitchell Jarrett and longtime friend Jordan Heimer, understands the road-movie genre’s imperatives to enlighten as well as entertain, and “The Taiwan Oyster” manages to do so with great originality, owing largely to its unfamiliar surroundings. Shooting on 5D and 7D equipment, d.p. Mike Simpson could point the camera almost anywhere and come away with stunning imagery, and yet, he and Jarrett have carefully pick the strongest locations and angles possible. The “Bottle Rocket” analogy extends to the film’s entire visual design; Jarrett shares Anderson’s meticulous attention to composition, if not necessarily the particulars, displaying a fresh aesthetic all his own.
The sheer beauty of Simpson’s frames often stands in direct contrast with the delirious indulgence on display, a spirit matched by both its guitar-driven score (composed by Austin musician Dylan Jones) and its slightly off-balance editing. Simon seems to be in a race to rock bottom, and Darin can match him drink for drink. Though Nikita had no idea what she was in for when she hopped aboard the guys’ pickup truck, she serves as an audience proxy of sorts, stunned by their behavior but too smitten by their charm — and, to some extent, by the nobility of their mission — to abandon them.