×

Film Review: ‘Thanatos, Drunk’

Taiwanese director Chang Tso-chi's latest drama wallows in the drunken misery of an anguished punk, his gay brother and their gigolo friend.

With:
Lee Hong-chi, Cheng Jen-shuo, Huang Shang-ho, Lv Hsueh-feng, Wang Ching-ting, Chang Ning, Lin Chin-yu, Chin Tsu-yen. (Taiwanese, Mandarin dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.berlinale.de/en/im_fokus/videostreaming/videos/06_streaming_listing_2015.php?item=17603&navi=3

Death and dipsomania get equally lifeless treatment in “Thanatos, Drunk,” Taiwanese auteur Chang Tso-chi’s muddled drama about how an anguished punk, his gay brother and their gigolo friend wallow daily in booze, brawls and sex. Other than an awkward foray into homosexual content, Chang pulls out stock tropes from his oeuvre, half-heartedly reshuffling themes of disability, dysfunctional families and underworld blues to lackluster, largely unconvincing effect. The director’s distinctly stylized visuals rep one of the few qualities that might extend the pic’s lifespan on the fest circuit and in gay niches, but commercial prospects look moribund.

After engagingly branching out into newer subjects like polygamous marriage (“When Love Comes”) and childhood innocence (“Summer in Quching”), Chang again falls back on his beloved demimonde of gangsters, gigolos and prostitutes, but struggles to find anything insightful to say about them. Although he depicted bromance with lyricism in “The Best of Times” and macho intensity in “Soul of a Demon,” his reshaping of similar elements with a gay twist expresses only anguish and brutishness, but no love.

The film begins with a quote from the poem “Bring on the Wine” by Tang dynasty poet Li Bai, who reputedly got his inspiration from the bottle. It’s true that the characters are habitually in a drunken stupor, but their misery is a far cry from the spirit of carpe diem that Li glorifies, and their inebriation never amounts to any kind of meaningful metaphor. Even the Chinese title — a four-word idiom that literally means “drunk, alive, dream, death” and figuratively implies a life of hedonistic escapism — evokes a state too refined to define their sordid existence.

The pic is bookended by two angry rows between an aging, alcoholic woman (Lv Hsueh-feng) and her two sons. In a prologue that drags on for more than 10 minutes, she fumes at her high-schooler son, Rat (Lee Hong-chi), for being a good-for-nothing and tries to stop him from going to Kaoshsiung for an outing with his buddy Shuo (Cheng Jen-shuo).

After a confusing leap forward in time, Rat, who now sells greens at the wet market, confesses his hero worship of Shuo, with whom he now shares a bungalow in Taipei. When Shuo’s not clinking glasses with his clients and fellow gigolos, he’s busy coupling with Rat’s cousin (Wang Ching-ting) in all corners of their shared home. His tawdry past catches up with him at intervals, as when his ex-wife turns up as a client, or when a mobster corners him to settle old scores dating from that trip to Kaohsiung.

Rat’s elder brother, Chang-he (Cheng Jen-shuo), who came back from the U.S. after splitting up with his b.f., moves into the bungalow and gets a job in film production in Ximending. Confidently out of the closet, he parties blithely at gay clubs and gamely flirts with Shuo, who doesn’t reject him outright. This runs counter to Shuo’s preening ladies-man image, but the screenplay fails to suggest the desired level of ambiguity with regard to his sexual orientation. As it is, when something does happen, the emotional, psychological and carnal undercurrents aren’t there to validate the behavior, while the general lack of tenderness or any sense of catharsis hints at the film’s own unresolved attitude toward homosexuality.

As for Rat, who’s supposed to embody the story’s central viewpoint, his actions are so devoid of purpose that he comes off as a total nuisance. The director’s attempts to highlight Rat’s maverick nature through his volatile temper and weird fixations only succeed in making him appear moronic, especially in scenes where he amuses himself with pet ants, pig heads and stinky, half-dead pomfrets. At one point he takes to a roughed-up deaf-mute sex worker (Chang Ning), who’s meant to represent Otherness like the many crippled, blind or terminally ill girls that have populated the filmmaker’s work. Giving a refreshingly natural performance, actress Chang exudes a delicate soulfulness that lifts the film out of its morose, life-loathing mood. Regrettably, Lee’s performance does not match hers in depth or complexity, and their rapport never feels more than artificial.

It’s one thing to depict rudderless characters unable to tame their own demons; it’s another when the helmer himself seems directionless. Never has Chang seemed so unsure about his characters’ raison d’etre or how the audience will perceive them — most obviously in the case of Rat’s mother, whose sob story and histrionics make one wonder if she’s the root cause of her sons’ problems, or if she’s just there just for gothic effect. It also doesn’t help that the passage of time is so poorly signposted. Rat’s actions are too rash and implausible to elicit sympathy, and too implausible by half. With little examination of the characters’ motives, the plot devolves into illogical chaos and bloodshed, culminating in a pointlessly stomach-churning climax.

Of the fair to middling craft contributions, Hsu Chih-chun and Chang Chi-teng’s lensing is most uneven, impressing with artily saturated colors but also distracting with shaky handheld flourishes. The helmer’s love of water imagery is apparent in tepid shots of the bleak Tanshui River where Rat catches fish. Minimalist music composed by Lin Shang-te and Tseng Yun-fang maintains a light, enchanted ring, until a Taiwanese puppet-opera score swells shrilly in scenes with Rat’s mother.

Film Review: 'Thanatos, Drunk'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 12, 2015. Running time: 101 MIN. (Original title: "Zui, sheng meng si")

Production: (Taiwan) A Simple View Prods., Chang Tso-chi Film Studio production. (International sales: Swallow Wings Films, Taipei.) Produced by Kao Wen-hung.

Crew: Directed, written, edited by Chang Tso-chi. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Hsu Chih-chun, Chang Chi-teng; music, Lin Shang-te, Tseng Yun-fang; production designer, Chan Zheng-yun; art director, Chan Zheng-yun; set decorator, Lin Ting-wei; costume designer, Tina Chen; sound (Dolby Digital), Hsieh Hui-ching, Chang Tso-chi; supervising sound editor, Vicky Yang; re-recording mixer, Lin Shang-te; visual effects supervisors, Chang Chao-min, Wu Hsin-fei; visual effects, Simple View Prod.; line producer, Tsai Chia-ching; assistant director, Wang Tzu-chieh; second unit camera, Wan Kin-fai; casting, Gene Yao.

With: Lee Hong-chi, Cheng Jen-shuo, Huang Shang-ho, Lv Hsueh-feng, Wang Ching-ting, Chang Ning, Lin Chin-yu, Chin Tsu-yen. (Taiwanese, Mandarin dialogue)

More Film

  • sith trooper

    Sith Trooper Revealed From 'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker'

    “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” revealed a new storm trooper uniform Wednesday at San Diego Comic Con as part of a special exhibit celebrating the evolution of the storm trooper design. Dubbed the Sith trooper, the new uniform sports all-red armor plates with a matching red and black blaster. Also decorating the armor is [...]

  • Dunkirk

    Harry Styles Is the Perfect Prince Eric; Why He'd Rock 'Little Mermaid' Role

    Could Harry Styles be the perfect Prince Eric? One day after the announcement that the One Direction star is “in early negotiations to play the iconic ‘Little Mermaid’ role,” the internet exploded with speculation as to how he would portray the object of Ariel’s affections. “I can see lots of reasons why Harry is perfect,” [...]

  • The Lion King

    Film News Roundup: PETA Sponsors Rescued Lion in Jon Favreau's Name

    In today’s film news roundup, PETA honors Jon Favreau for “The Lion King,” “Tigers Are Not Afraid” gets a theatrical release, a Kirk Franklin biopic is in development and “The Sixth Sense” gets an anniversary showing in Philadelphia. HONOR The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is sponsoring a rescued lion to honor director [...]

  • Tokyo Director-in-Focus-at-Japan-Now

    Nobuhiko Obayashi set as Japanese Director in Focus at Tokyo Film Festival

    Indie director, Nobuhiko Obayashi will be feted as the director in focus at the Japan Now section of this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival. The festival will give a world premiere to his “Labyrinth of Cinema.” Supporting his art by shooting commercials, Obayashi is an indie whose dreamy works have influenced numerous other directors in [...]

  • Jimmi Simpson Joins Russell Crowe Movie

    Jimmi Simpson Joins Russell Crowe Thriller 'Unhinged' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jimmi Simpson will play a key role in “Unhinged,” Variety has learned. He joins an impressive cast that includes Oscar-winner Russell Crowe and Caren Pistorius. Solstice Studios is producing the psychological thriller, which is currently filming in New Orleans. “Unhinged” centers on a woman named Rachel (Pistorius), who leans on her horn at the wrong [...]

  • David Crosby

    David Crosby Says New Documentary 'Remember My Name' Is Like 'Being Naked in Public’

    “It’s not easy. It’s hard being naked in public,” David Crosby, the legendary troubadour of classic rock, reflected at Tuesday night’s New York City premiere of “David Crosby: Remember My Name.” “I don’t know what to do here. There’s no guitars, no drums,” he laughed. Directed by newcomer A.J. Eaton and produced by the legendary [...]

  • Javier Bardem Dune

    Javier Bardem in Talks to Play King Triton in Disney's 'Little Mermaid'

    Javier Bardem is in talks to play King Triton in Disney’s live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid.” Halle Bailey will portray the Ariel, a mermaid princess who dreams of being a human, while Melissa McCarthy is playing her evil aunt Ursula. Harry Styles is also in early talks to play Prince Eric. “The Little Mermaid” [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content