EXPECTATIONS: Typical art-house drivel.
REVIEW: Slow is deliberate. Beauty is substance. Silence is emotional. If you are wondering about what I mean by those statements, I am talking about art-house expressions, told in simple layman terms. Why am I mentioning this? Because the term “art-house” applies to the film, Thanatos, Drunk. Winning many awards at the 17th Taipei Film Awards and the 52nd Golden Horse Film Awards, it did get my expectations up. But I have been fooled by critically acclaimed art-house films before. Despite all the film-making prowess that you can muster; it can result in nothing pretentious stylistic flourishes and an astounding lack of substance in getting ANY audience to care. Case in point: some of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films like The Flowers of Shanghai. So when I started to watch Thanatos, Drunk, I was afraid it might be a chore to watch. But to my surprise, it was worse.
Synopsis from FilmBizAsia: Whenever Rat (Lee Hong-chi), who works at a market stall, visits his alcoholic mother (Lü Hsueh-feng), a former actress-turned-mama-san who lives by the banks of the Tanshui River, she nags Rat to get a proper job and stop hanging out with Shuo (Chen Jen-shuo), an underworld gigolo whom he looks up to and with whom he shares a flat. Shuo’s girlfriend, a club dancer, is Rat’s cousin. Rat’s older brother, Shang-ho (Huang Shang-ho), had earlier upped and left one day for the US; now he’s returned, after losing his boyfriend there. He stays with Rat and gets a job with a film company in Hsimenting district, urging Rat to cut down on his drinking and also find a steady job. One night, Rat rescues a mute young prostitute (Chang Ning), for whom he has a soft spot, from a violent client, cutting him with a hooked knife he carries. The two gradually fall for each other. Meanwhile, Shuo finds his past catching up with him; he’s beaten up and also told that Rat will pay for the scar he caused. Back at the flat, Shuo has his wounds tended by Shang-ho, who then starts coming on to him.
The film starts off with a long-winded prologue about Rat’s mother droning on and on about her suffering while recounting her life story before giving birth to her two sons. Which, by the way, you can tell that the microphone is being covered when you hear the actress’ dialogue being muffed. Then it jumps (I don’t know how far in time, the editing is unclear in a lot of scenes) to the main character, Rat, working, and looking outside a window of his friend’s home, seeing a rat dying outside, while his friend Shuo is banging his cousin. That’s when I knew, I was not going to like this film. Rat seeing a dying rat, while he mopes around in his drunken stupor? Could that not be any more obvious as a metaphor? It also has characters staring into the horizon or the sky as some sort of emotional reflection. It may have some effect on me if the characters were defined, but they remain annoyingly one-dimensional. Rat is meant to be the main character, but his actions are so random in their purpose, he just looks like an complete idiot, especially in scenes where he is playing with ants or pig heads.
Other characters such as Shuo and Shang-ho are just as ill-defined. In the case of Shuo, he is a ladykiller, but when he encounters Shang-ho, it is so obvious that he is somehow attracted to Shang-ho, but the direction from Chang Tso-chi is so blatant instead of ambiguous that when the so-called crescendo of the two happens (with a strong sex scene), it comes with a finality that the audience can appreciate just so we can get on with the film. It does not help that the acting is quite mixed. Lu Hsueh-Feng is over-the-top as Rat and Shang-ho’s mother to the point that her character could be the reason that her sons are messed up. Director Chang sure as hell does not know for sure. Lee Hong-chi plays his role just fine, portraying the rebellious nature well, but he can’t add inner life to his character that makes him sympathetic or even grounded. The biggest impressions goes to Chen Jun-shuo and Chang Ning, since they either are animated or add life to their roles, especially in the case of Ning, who is basically the only source of hope in this film.
Since the acting is quite flawed, the characters should make the journey worthwhile, but it never happens. Like many films of this type, it suffers from characters who are wholly unlikable, irresponsible and downright implausible in their motives. A character in the film gets pregnant and yet they attack their partner for their faults in their position. Do not expect much of the audience to care about characters who know the ramifications of their actions, yet they do them anyway, and expect them to care. It just makes them look like total idiots, or people who have off-screen head injuries. The climax of the film concludes in gory moments, with plenty of stabbings and killings, but the result can be seen in unintentionally funny ways, since some of the execution (pun definitely intended) of the deaths is poor, particularly in a case of a suicide, which just looks really cheap. The storytelling is just as bad, since the time jumps are so out of order, I have no idea how much time has passed or know if a certain character died at that time or not.
I did expect the film to be a chore in terms of its art-house ambitions, but the characters make the film a lot worse to the point that I got a bit infuriated. Do not expect me to care if the badly-defined characters are their own faults of their incredibly stupid actions in their eventual fates. Thanatos, Drunk is just an empty shell of a film it wants to be and I’ll leave it on this note.
When your film has a sex scene between two men realizing their sexuality AND a gory climax and they both elicit unintentional laughter and relief, your film has serious problems.
Some of the acting, cinematography and music is good
Frustrating and pretentious storytelling
Insistent and blatant directing
Unsympathetic, ill-defined and idiotic characters
Cast: Lee Hong-chi, Cheng Jen-shuo, Huang Shang-ho, Lv Hsueh-feng, Wang Ching-ting, Chang Ning, Lin Chin-yu, Chin Tsu-yen
Director: Chang Tso-chi
Screenwriter: Chang Tso-chi