There’s no denying the exquisite artistry in Yu-Chieh Cheng’s “Yang Yang”, the best film in this year’s 1st Taiwan Film Festival at the Shangrila in Mandaluyong City. The film depicts how a young half-French Taiwanese girl Yang Yang (Yung-Yung Chang aka Sandrine Pinna) deals with her seemingly half-charmed existence.
As the film opens, Yang Yang’s mom marries Yang's track-and field coach. Twenty year old Yang is one of the team's rising stars. Her half-sister Xiao-ru is the team’s top athlete, but jealousy is creeping slowly between them. At the fore of this sibling rivalry is Xiao-ru boyfriend Shawn (the adorable Bryant Chang) who treats Yang Yang like a delicate princess, his attraction is quite palpable between their silent scenes together. And at night, Shawn pleasures himself while watching porn videos of a girl in Yang Yang’s likeness. One night, Yang Yang decides to consummate her mutual attraction with Shawn, as long as he agrees to her condition: “Let’s forget who we are – but just for three hours.” However, Shawn is infatuated, intoxicated, he offers to break up with Xiao-ru. Yang Yang declines his offer of commitment, and she steers clear from Shawn.
At the track-and-field meet, Yang Yang wins the competition, but hell hath no fury like a scorned half-sister who eventually finds out about the betrayal. Yang Yang gets kicked out from the team (she was found positive of steroid use, thanks to Xiao-ru). She accepts her fate dejectedly and runs away from home. She hooks up with the slithery Wu Ming-ren (Chien Wei-Wang), a talent manager who’s open to pimping his wards when the occasion calls for it.
Like Manila’s half-breeds, Yang Yang is gradually accepted by the film industry. She appears in print ads, and is starting up on films. But one night, Yang Yang meets a cunning casting director who sweet talks her to join him at his pad. Ming-ren, who took her there, unexpectedly walks away saying, “You’re a grown up lady. You decide if you wanna walk away.” What happens to drunken Yang Yang, who’s gradually falling in love with her talent manager? Will Yang Yang prevent herself from swirling down the slippery slope?
The beauty of this film lies in the authenticity of its characters. It joins a short list of new wave realist films where no character is black or white, but anywhere between hues of gray. This keeps its audience guessing, making this film irresistibly watchable. You didn’t wanna make a run to the loo for fear of missing salient scenes that give clues to each of the character’s motivations. Every character is beautiful, sympathetic, unpredictable – and scary. Check out Chien Wei-Wang’s Ming-ren, for example, who absolutely threw me out of the loop. He deserves to win an award for his performance here (he only got a best supporting actor nomination at the Golden Horse - Taipei's month-long year-ender Chinese-language film festival, when I looked it up). When Shawn finally catches up with Ming-ren who refuses to share Yang Yang’s mobile number, the two guys roll down the floor, and a fisticuff ensues. “Did you sleep with her?” asked Shawn. “I’d rather sleep with you,” replied Ming-ren as he makes a dash out of the restaurant.
Bryant Chang is quite a looker, he reminds me of Korean superstar Rain. I’ve seen him in the suspense-thriller “Invitation Only” and the pink film, “Eternal Summer”. But the greater news is, he is such an insightful actor he was in perfect synergy with Shawn’s conflicted, tormented soul. And I’ve never seen agony this handsome too, which is such a bonus. And you understand why girls throw themselves at him. I am not aware of a lot of Taiwanese actors except Jerry Yan and his crew, but this film highlights the best of the best of Taiwan’s mostly sappy melodramatic film industry.
Now let me move on to Sandrine Pinna – aka Yung Yung Chang – who paints her cinematic palette with complicated hues of a grief-stricken half-French girl who can’t speak French, and who bitterly fights off any emotions related to references of her French father whom she never knew. Like Bea Alonzo (who’s half British), Sandrine Pinna (who also starred in director Yu-Chieh Cheng’s first feature “Do Over”) can act up a storm. Her emotive ability is intricately heightened and masterfully delineated. Maybe Survivor’s Solenn Heussaff (who’s half-French) would make a terrific actress, was what I was thinking, in awe of Pinna’s superlative performance. The last scene is quite powerful, and when it’s really just a quite walk away from the camera, you would know the strength of its actor (or actress, for this one).
Director Yu-Chieh Cheng employs the use of a handheld camera, further enhancing the voyeuristic experience as we watch Yang Yang’s life unfold before us. The director also succeeds to join this elite list of new wave film makers that I am watching out for. The script is tight and maintains dramatic tension rife with perceptively low key, albeit powerful scenes. If there is only one film to watch at the 1st Taiwan Film Festival at Shangrila, “Yang Yang” should be a no-brainer.
Go watch! No, run, now! Taiwan Film Festival ends on Thursday, September 28th.