Monday, December 22, 2008

Singing Chen's GOD MAN DOG

Reaping the benefits of other people's access to films, I took note that the Taiwanese film God Man Dog showed up on a few 2007 lists. It had obviously caught a few people's attention at Pusan and Vancouver, both festivals know for their eclectic Asian film selections. When it came out in Taiwan in an absurdly over-packaged deluxe edition, I quickly added to cart. If I had a dollar for every special edition DVD I bought that I was disappointed in, I could probably afford to buy a couple more special edition DVDs.

Although God Man Dog hardly lived up to my expectations, it is appropriate to put this film in a context. Ask anyone to pony up what they know about film in Taiwan and most will come up with Hou Hsiao Hsien, Tsai Ming Liang, and, now that he's dead, Edward Yang. (And I guess we could throw in Ang Lee for good measure.) But after that? An industry that is trying not to be smothered not only by Hollywood, like most markets, but also the ravenous competition from Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and even big bad Mainland. Taiwan film fare tends to target the young audiences with good-looking young men and women and a little light comedy, a little light romance, and a little light drama. God Man Dog is clearly attempting to do more, and I think this is why critics took note.

God Man Dog weaves together three concurrent storylines. On a small island like Taiwan, six degrees of separation probably turns into more like three degrees. As done with so many other films before it, the characters are linked without really knowing it. Their connections are only happenstance and never burden the narrative with a forced scenario. First, we have a young well-to-do couple with their new baby. The mother is a stay at home wife suffering from depression, with little or no acknowledgement from her husband. Second is a lower icome family torn apart by the fathers alcohalism. Their teenage daughter has moved away from home, but longs to come home to stability. And third we have Yellow Bull (played by the amazing Jack Kao), a man with a prosthetic leg who plays servent to the gods. He collects and repairs discarded Buddhist idols and give them a home in his temple on wheels. He drives his huge truck displaying the idols from festival to festival to earn money. He also feeds the dogs wandering the countryside. Yellow Bull is our man between the gods and the dogs.

Yellow Bull is the heart and soul of the film. A selfless man who simply wants enough money to replace his deteriorating prosthetic leg. He adopts a wandering young man who hijacks his way around the country in the luggage compartment of buses and earns his money from eating contest winnings. The relationship that is formed between these two misfits feels genuine and sincere. As does the story about the man fighting his addiction to alcohol. He finds strength in his wife and the hope that his daughter will come home, only to fall off the wagon with any sign of despair. Their daughter can't bare watching him destroy the family, and is fighting to find a way out of that life. It is the depiction of the young couple that drags the film down. They are both mired in their own selfish worlds, it is hardly possible to imagine why they are together in the first place. The disaster of a relationship seems nothing more than trumped up melodrama, bolstered by bold tragedy.

God is omnipresent, with both a capital "G" and a little "g." The alcoholic looks to the church for support and for help. As does the wife in dealing with her depression, that for a short moment starts to resemble Secret Sunshine. But it is the man with the god of little "g" who has an aura of peace. The Christian church gets kind of a bad wrap in God Man Dog as it fails to give the characters what they need to move on or grant them any serenity. However, it shows the Church's flaws without being patronizing. It also leaves our protagonists with little resolution. Yellow Bull still doesn't have a new leg. The young couple are miles away from figuring out their problems. And the father succumbs to the pressure of drinking again. It is hardly as hopeless as it sounds, but honorably pragmatic about the world and the troubles that try men's souls.

Despite narrative conundrums, the film is a diverse blend of rich characters and smart pacing. God Man Dog has a big heart that ends up being lackluster. Well made and subtle in its beauty, the film shows that Chen, in only her second film, has a knack for creating a pastiche drama, but simply fails to pull the parts together at the end.

Watch the unsubtitled trailer here.

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