Still from "I WeirDo."
In this series of film reviews, I'll go over three East Asian films: "I WeirDo" from Taiwan, "Kakera: A Piece of Our Life" from Japan, and "Suburban Birds" from China. Please be aware that there are SPOILERS, so if you're not ok with plot reveals, then you may want to refrain from reading below.
I WeirDo (2020)
After flipping through a number of films on my flight to Taiwan, saw this one and I decided to finish watching it because it's 4:3 aspect ratio (the squarish framing that was used for TV shows before high definition) caught my eye. The atmosphere of the film was also very quirky and fun.
The cute premise, two individuals with OCD fall in love, carries the film only for a little while before it begins to get a bit repetitive. For the first chunk of the film, we get to see them live their lives as an OCD couple, cleaning daily and challenging themselves to face their anxieties. I was worried that the film may continue without any major conflict until the view of the film widens literally into 16:9 aspect ratio when one of them suddenly loses their OCD.
Having a few OCD tendencies myself, I felt that this was a lost opportunity to show others how to combat OCD and eventually reach a level of normality. The challenges they do are reminiscent of cognitive behavioral therapy, i.e. sitting in the presence of whatever it is that makes you uncomfortable without reacting to it, but no connection is made that these exercises translated to an improvement of behavior. Also, when we learn that the second half of the film can be interpreted as a premonition or dream, it takes away the dramatic gravity of what we’ve experienced thus far.
I feel like there’s some interesting moments: two germaphobes kissing for the first time, traditional genders roles such as the man at work and woman at home dynamic, adjusting to the outside world after losing OCD…but the overall film feels like it’s just brushing the surface of the deeper themes that it presents.
“I WeirDo” reminds me of “The Lobster” but it lacks the biting humor and social commentary of the latter. "I WeirDo" drastically switches from a romantic comedy to a sad drama in way that feels a bit forced and perfunctory. The main thing is that “it was all a dream” bothers me and really takes me out of whether I should care about these characters or not.
Kakera: a Piece of Our Life (2009)
There's something deeply painful about this film. It's about a young woman who looks for love in all the wrong places.
What I find refreshing about this film is that instead of finding solace in others, she instead has to face this gaping hole inside of her.
There is also a very disturbing scene with an abusive partner that I don't feel is given enough weight in the film. I think this expresses particular differences in how some Japanese view consent, it seems that the line is pushed further down in Japan, whereas it would've been crossed earlier here in the states.
The film meanders into different vignettes, side characters, and sometimes it's hard to place how these detours serve the main story. I feel that the main lead is a strong performer, but there's a certain passivity to the character I wish that she was able to break out of more.
Aside from that, the film is a strong exploration of this deep need we all have for love.
As the main character expresses in a heartbreaking scene: "I want to be...loved."
This film also expresses how this need can lead into dark spaces. Similar to the lead in "Shame" seeks to cope with sex, in this film the lead seeks to cope through toxic relationships. She's addicted to being desired even if the other person that desires her is terrible for her.
I would recommend the director's next film 0.5 mm which she made with her sister Sakura Ando (the lead). I feel she's able to express her craft stronger in that film and the meandering storytelling is more fun to watch. "Kakera"–欠片–which means "fragment" in Japanese (thus the sub-title of the film) touches on a number of themes with empathy and is worth watching.
Suburban Birds (2018)
"Suburban Birds" is a contemporary Chinese film that follows in the similar vein of "Kaili Blues" with its cyclical and dream-like structure. The past and the present collide between two main storylines: a young boy named Hao and an older 20 something year-old with the same name circle each other throughout the film and almost cross paths begging the question, "Are they the same person?"
The older Hao's storyline has some key emotional moments in the beginning, with his co-worker getting upset about a girlfriend and Hao sharing his dream with his surveyor friends, yet it begins to drag towards the end as the purpose of the film seems to become more and more opaque. I wasn't sure what Hao's emotional void or main struggle was and instead of a character study, the film seems more interested in it's bifurcated storytelling. Hao was well acted by Mason Lee, son of filmmaker Ang Lee, but the lack of exposition of his internal struggle made it hard for me to emotionally connect to the character.
The children's story arc in contrast was much more engaging and was so fresh and exquisitely acted. It reads like a mythology with its cast of colorful characters and the group of them off to find birds' nests and their journey to visit a friend.
The metaphor of loss and running astray resonated with me and made me nostalgic for my own childhood. Pervading both timelines is this ominous sense that the world is crashing all around them represented by the sinking buildings or family relocations to make way for construction.
Director Qiu seems influenced by Wes Anderson's dry wit and Hong Sang Soo's zoom-in cinematography. It works for dark comedic effect yet the zoom is used in certain moments during the film where it doesn't land any impact.
Overall a beautiful film and a strong debut. The story could be tighter, but I look forward to more films from this director.