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.
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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.