×

Busan Film Review: ‘Partners in Crime’

Chang Jung-chi follows his Oscar-submitted debut feature with an atmospheric psychological thriller.

With:
Wu Chien-ho, Deng Yu-kai, Cheng Kai-yuan, Yao Ai-ning, Sunny Hung, Wen Chen-ling, Vincent Liang, Huang Tsai-yi, Frankie Huang, Lieh Lee, Ko Chia-yen. (Mandarin dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3415554/

A teenage girl’s suspicious death unexpectedly brings three male classmates together, then just as swiftly pulls them apart, in “Partners in Crime,” an artful and absorbing high-school thriller that ultimately feels stronger on hothouse atmosphere than emotional or psychological depth. Marking a considerable departure for rising helmer Chang Jung-chi after his crowdpleasing debut feature, “Touch of the Light” (which was selected as Taiwan’s foreign-language Oscar entry in 2012), this troubled-youth drama by way of a detective story is neither as insidious nor as penetrating as it could have been, but works nonetheless as a taut, teasing study of loneliness, alienation and the dangerous lure of fantasy. Currently enjoying a healthy festival run, the film opened Sept. 26 in Taiwanese theaters.

For Western viewers, “Partners in Crime” is best understood as a “Veronica Mars”-style juvenile murder mystery that swerves abruptly into “Mean Creek” territory; in either mode, it has something essential to communicate about the cruel anxieties afflicting so many contemporary teens. Something seems eerily amiss from the opening frames, and not just because they force us to survey the bloody corpse of Hsia Wei-chiao (Yao Ai-ning), a poor little rich girl who has taken a fatal dive off her bedroom balcony. Making the gruesome discovery are three other students at her high school: tough, jockish Yeh Yi-kai (Cheng Kai-yuan); quiet, bookish Lin Yong-chuan (Deng Yu-kai); and pensive, hard-to-read Huang Li-hai (Wu Chien-ho).

None of the boys knew Hsia, and they barely know each other, but from the surreal, dreamlike way they stumble upon the body — their grim-yet-curious faces popping into the frame ever so slowly, one by one — it’s clear their fates are bound from this moment forward. One of the charms of the screenplay (credited to Monica and Shaballe) is that it doesn’t waste time emphasizing its protagonists’ obvious personality differences, but rather shows how easily bonds can form among unlikely individuals, under the right set of traumatic circumstances. Sitting together through perfunctory grief-counseling sessions and watching the news as Hsia’s death is ruled a suicide, Yeh, Lin and Huang decide to play detective, convinced that there’s more to this tragedy than meets the eye.

Popular on Variety

Interestingly, it’s Huang, perhaps the most reticent and withdrawn member of the trio, who pushes their sleuthing to ever riskier and more dangerous extremes. Ingratiating themselves with Hsia’s mother (Lieh Lee) and breaking into the girl’s bedroom is one thing; playing an exceptionally nasty prank on Chu Chong-yi (Wen Chen-ling), the classmate they’re convinced drove Hsia to her death, is quite another. It’s at this point that “Partners in Crime” starts to make good on its title, plunging its central male trio into a maelstrom of mutual guilt, suspicion and terror as one tragedy begets another, and the cruel atmosphere of gossip and rumor-mongering they were once investigating now threatens to ensnare them as well.

From there, various nooses begin to tighten, with Huang’s younger sister (Sunny Hung) and Chu taking on expanded roles in the drama, though the film itself maintains an only intermittent grip. The skill and intelligence of the performances can’t entirely bring these underwritten character types to fully compelling dramatic life, and the major second-act development feels like a carefully worked-out twist, rather than the inexorable outcome of the characters’ unhealthy psychological dynamic.

Where “Partners in Crime” proves most effective, and where Chang shows notable filmmaking progress, is in its expert control of mise-en-scene. Production designer Wu Rou-yun presents the school as a nondescript network of classrooms and corridors, but the campus walls are surrounded by miles of dense green forest — wild, untamed, and with an undercurrent of erotic danger, it becomes the staging area for the characters’ most profound and dramatic transformations. Jimmy Yu’s widescreen images skillfully delineate and negotiate these two worlds: In the forest, the camera follows the boys underwater as they thrash joyfully about in a river; at home and at school, select interior shots are tinted in moody fluorescent hues. Disparate though they may seem, these visual choices cohere beautifully in a film with a finer grasp than most of the fact that adolescence is hot, humid terrain.

Busan Film Review: 'Partners in Crime'

Reviewed at Busan Film Festival (A Window on Asian Cinema), Oct. 9, 2014. (Also in Toronto Film Festival — Contemporary World Cinema; Taipei, Tokyo, Hawaii film festivals.) Running time: 89 MIN. (Original title: "Gon fan")

Production: (Taiwan) A Warner Bros. (in Taiwan) release of a BenQ Entertainment, Jet Tone Films, Double Edge Entertainment, Fox Intl. Channels, Taipei Postproduction, TC-1 Cultural Fund, Arrow Film Prod. Co., B'In Music Intl. presentation of a Double Edge Entertainment, BenQ Entertainment production in co-production with JHT Entertainment. (International sales: Double Edge Entertainment, Taipei.) Produced by Wolf Chen, Jacky Pang. Executive producers, Rick Lei, Chan Ye-cheng, Crystal Chang, Charles Hu, Max Fang, Lin Tien-kuei, Ason Chen, Tung Szu-mei. Co-producers, Mimi Wang, Tony Hu, Michael Tseng, Julia Hsieh.

Crew: Directed by Chang Jung-chi. Screenplay, Monica, Shaballe. Camera (color, widescreen), Jimmy Yu; editor, Nyssa Li; music, Wen Tzu-Chieh; production designer, Wu Rou-yun; art director, Wu Rou-yun; costume designer, Luke Huang; sound, Tu Duu-chi, Subrina Wu; visual effects supervisor, Chieh Cheng-yi; line producer, Denise Lin; associate producers, Tung Szu-mei, Shawn Chuang; casting, Shirley Chien.

With: Wu Chien-ho, Deng Yu-kai, Cheng Kai-yuan, Yao Ai-ning, Sunny Hung, Wen Chen-ling, Vincent Liang, Huang Tsai-yi, Frankie Huang, Lieh Lee, Ko Chia-yen. (Mandarin dialogue)

More Film

  • Goldie Review

    'Goldie': Film Review

    Slick Woods plays the titular streetwise 18-year-old New Yorker in “Goldie,” a character who’s constantly running toward, or away, from things — a life of perpetual motion that doesn’t actually get her anywhere. In the confident hands of Dutch writer-director Sam de Jong, Goldie’s story is one of big dreams and harsh realities, and the [...]

  • Charades Scores Flurry of Sales Across

    Charades Scores Flurry of Sales Across Prestige Animation Slate (EXCLUSIVE)

    Charades, the Paris-based sales company behind the Oscar-nominated “I Lost My Body” and “Mirai,” has closed a raft of deals on high-profile animated features, including “Little Nicholas” and “Marona’s Fantastic Tale.” Anca Damian’s “Marona’s Fantastic Tale,” which world premiered in competition at last year’s Annecy Film Festival and was nominated at the European Film Awards, [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Federation Entertainment Acquires Alejandro Amenabar’s ‘Thesis’ for Series Adaptation (EXCLUSIVE)

    Paris and Los Angeles-based Federation Entertainment has acquired the TV format and remake rights to Alejandro Amenábar’s debut feature, “Thesis.” It’s a prime example of the value of key older movie titles from standout younger foreign-language auteurs. Producer of “The Bureau,” “Marseille,” “Bad Banks” and “Hostages,” Federation Entertainment will produce a drama series based on [...]

  • European Film Market Berlinale Berlin Film

    Berlin: NL Film, Hupe Film Board 'Life Through a Dead Man's Eyes' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Amsterdam-based NL Film and Hupe Film in Cologne have boarded Jo Baier’s upcoming Nazi war criminal horror thriller “Life Through a Dead Man’s Eyes.” The companies join co-producers Films in Motion (FIM), the Berlin-based shingle run by American producer René Asch, and Angelika Mohr’s Morefilms in Munich, which is also handling world sales. German thesps [...]

  • Luna Nera Netflix Italy

    Italy's Women Filmmakers Set to Make Waves

    The Berlinale in recent years has been a prime launching pad for Italian films directed by women, which though fewer in number to their male counterparts, make up a considerable portion of the country’s representation on the festival circuit — Alice Rohrwacher (“Happy as Lazzaro”) at Cannes, Susanna Nicchiarelli (“Nico”) at Venice, and Berlin regular [...]

  • Bad Tales Italian Cinema

    Italian Programmers and Directors Take on Top Jobs at International Fests

    Though hiring a foreigner to run a national institution such as the Berlinale in Germany is rather rare, it’s been happening to other Italians lately. Carlo Chatrian at Berlin is the most prominent case. But there are several more. In 2018, Italy’s Paolo Moretti, who now heads the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, became the first non-French [...]

  • Scandinavia's Snowglobe Shows Knack for Auteurs

    Scandinavia's Snowglobe Shows Knack for Auteurs

    One of the hippest, most international Scandinavian companies, the Copenhagen-based Snowglobe, is the 5-year-old banner behind “Wildland,” the female-powered crime film set to world premiere at the Berlinale. Starring Sidse Babett Knudsen (“Borgen”) as a mafia ringleader and introducing Sandra Guldberg Kampp, “Wildland” was written by Ingeborg Topsoe (“The Charmer”) and directed by Jeanette Nordahl. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content