The renewal of Asian cinema continues. Films like Lee's Adventure, Pk.com.cn and Honey PuPu have been leading the way, now Taiwanese director DJ Chen (sometimes credited as Yin-jung Chen) joins this nice group with her latest film, Sao Ren (Young Dudes). It may not be entirely up to par with the films I mentioned here, but its clearly part of the same movement and it houses the voice of a new generation of film makers. For that reason alone it's worth checking out.
I hadn't seen any full-length features by DJ Chen yet, but she certainly caught my attention in Taipei 24h, delivering by far the most stunning and mesmerizing short of that anthology. Getting a hold of her earlier films proved to be rather tricky, luckily her newer work is a bit more accessible to Western audiences (DVD/release-wise at least).
Thematically Sao Ren is a film with two distinct faces. The first part of the film is a pretty straight-forward, light-hearted youth drama, not unlike Xi Men Ding and other recent Taiwanese dramas. We follow two good friends who share an apartment together. Guy is the mature one of the two and works as a carpentry instructor, Adam is the wild one and tries to get his music career off the ground. One night they meet up with a Ukrainian girl, who moves in with them before the two are well aware of what is going on.
But then the film changes directions. The three hit it off and start their own little commune. First it's just for kicks, with a (semi-drunk) video manifest posted on YouTube, but soon they become a world sensation as their movement is featured in news broadcasts all over the world. From there on the film shapeshifts into an urban fantasy (not unlike The Wall-Passer) which lasts until the end of the film. A pretty unique experience and a twist that saved the film for me.
Chen showcased her skills in Taipei 24h, demonstrating she had an excellent eye for beautiful shots and strong use of color. With Sao Ren she delivers in spades. From start to finish, the film looks absolutely lush. Most shots bathe in an amber/purple hue, the camera work is agile and free, the editing crisp and snappy. When the film shifts focus halfway through the visuals get even tighter, resulting in pure, visual bliss.
The soundtrack is less pleasing. The score itself isn't too bad, featuring a few simple but atmospheric instrumental pieces, but the majority of the soundtrack is dominated by cheesy pop(rock) tracks. Not really my kind of music and somehow not too fitting with what is happening on screen. While the use of songs is toned down in the second half of the film, the finale is set to what is probably the worst of the bunch. A missed chance.
Luckily the acting is pretty solid. Edison Wang and Tsuyoshi Abe make a fun and youthful duo, while Larisa Bakurova (Ukrainian-Greek actress living in Taiwan) is a rather weird but pleasant addition to the film. The three of them are visibly having fun, which helps a lot in establishing the film's friendly atmosphere. Secondary roles are few and far between as this trio is basically carrying the film on their own.
Sao Ren is pretty short film, lasting only 76 minutes. Story-wise it's not the most coherent film out there, but as I explained when I reviewed Honey PuPu I see it as a clear sign of the times, something inherent to the coming generations. Atmospherically though everything gels together quite well, creating a strong and unique experience. The second part of the film is definitely my favorite, a sweet little mindfuck where the journey is more important than the end point.
It's a shame it takes a little too long before the film gets really going, because Chen is obviously a very talented director. She has a very fresh and youthful style of directing, an original approach to structuring her film and an impeccable feel for visuals. The soundtrack was a little downer, but apart from that Sao Ren is definitely a film worth seeing. The next step in what is hopefully a bright future for modern Asian cinema and proof that female directors can kick ass.