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.
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Interestingly, it’s Huang, perhaps the most reticent and withdrawn member of the trio, who pushes their sleuthing to ever riskier and more dangerous extremes.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.