Who would have thought a romantic comedy on the pain of being different could become such ironic and timely viewing in a global pandemic? In “I Weirdo,” a kooky and innovative debut by Taiwanese writer-director Liao Ming-yi, a couple with OCD trying to fit in to so-called “normal” society now looks like social-distancing heroes in our Covid-hit, locked-down lives. Shot and edited by Liao using the iPhone XS Max, the production looks no less vibrant for it. The movie’s undiluted cuteness sometimes gets on one’s nerves, but the age-old message that love ails without change and tolerance is given such a fresh spin, it attests to the creativity and increased sophistication of Taiwan’s new generation of filmmakers.
Despite international festival setbacks, “I Weirdo” is off to a good start in the world, winning two major prizes at the Udine Far East Film Festival and the Netpac Award at the Bucheon Fantastic Film Festival. It has a busy festival schedule ahead and should easily land on a streaming service given it’s uncanny relevance to our current quarantine mentality.
After starting out as an music video director for top artists in Taiwan, Liao built a portfolio in romantic comedies and chick flicks, most notably as executive director of “You Are the Apple of My Eye” (2011), one of the most successful romcoms among millennials in Asia. Given that background, he couldn’t resist imbuing his debut feature with a fairytale air and adolescent humor.
Chen Po-ching (Austin Lin) suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, which keeps him homebound. His daily regimen consists of incessant hand-washing, sanitizing every corner of his house and keeping all objects in precise order, arranged by symmetry and coordinating colors. On the 15th day of every month, he kits himself out with mask, gloves and a raincoat, and ventures out to buy food and a cocktail of disinfectants from the supermarket.
Given the protagonist’s compromised immunity to social life, romance should be outside his radar, but the film presents an aptly unconventional meetcute. On the way home from his medical checkup, Po-ching spots Chen Ching (Nikki Hsieh), outfitted just like him, inside a subway car. He breaks his own routine to follow her, which leads him to a supermarket, where he becomes a hapless accomplice in shoplifting. Ching’s OCD symptoms are kleptomania and skin rashes when in public.
Like long-lost peas from the same pod, they quickly become soulmates and move in with each other. The script keeps up the comic momentum in their dating scenes, such as going on “filth challenges” to test their germaphobic thresholds.
In pre-Covid times, the protagonists may have come across as freaks to many, but now that frequent hand-washing, deep-cleaning, masking up and being shut in are the new normal, their predicament should be a lot more identifiable. Nevertheless, the relentlessly breezy tone and pace has the effect of downplaying the uncontrollable anxiety that triggers obsessive-compulsive behavior, thus sugarcoating a mental health issue as endearing eccentricity.
At the 45-minute mark, a miracle happens which disrupts the pattern of the couple’s life. The theme shifts from how it feels to be different to the hardships of co-habitation, and ultimately, to the mutability of love. Kudos to Liao for touching on the darker aspects of emotional co-dependence, although his philosophy is still quite superficial, and he overloads the plot by weaving in a second switcheroo that requires better exposition.
Lin, who sports a Spock haircut, exudes boyish charm in spades, whereas Hsieh bravely breaks the mold of typical Taiwanese romantic heroines by pushing her character’s traits to unlikable levels.
“I Weirdo” is touted as the first Asian fiction feature to be shot entirely on an iPhone (as many as four of the devices were deployed in some scenes). The subject matter is particularly suited to this format. The narrow vertical frame of the iPhone XS Max gives visual parameters to OCD patients’ boxed-in existence, and when the camera rotates horizontally at the 45-minute mark, the widening frame size (aspect ratio 1.85:1) mirrors how one protagonist’s world expands along with his changed condition.
The picture quality is so satisfactory one hardly notices the change, except for the way a character sometimes lurks at the edge of the frame. The camera’s size allows for extremely low-angle shots that convey the protagonists’ topsy-turvy mental activity. Art director Wu Chung-hsien dresses the couple and decorates their homes in bright, warring colors. Audiences may feel like they’re inside a giant bag of M&M’s, which surely leaves a sharp impression.