The winner of this past year’s Golden Horse Awards Best Picture is shockingly bad. Generally considered the top awards body for Chinese language film, The Golden Horse has a sterling reputation, though perhaps that is unearned. Looking back over recent winners reveals more than one questionable decision (2013’s win for Ilo Ilo over A Touch of Sin, Drug War, Stray Dogs, and The Grandmaster in particular stands out). The Awards are based in Taiwan, and tend to favor Taiwanese film, but considering that two of The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful‘s top rivals for the 2017 award, Sylvia Chang’s Love Education (also playing here at SIFF, along with another Best Picture nominee, Angels Wear White) and the grimy indie The Great Buddha+ (which has inexplicably yet to appear on Seattle Screens) are also Taiwanese, that can’t be the reason for its win. Honestly, I’m baffled.
A convoluted story of political corruption and its parallels in the corruption of a family, the film almost exclusively focuses on women, led by Kara Hui, who began her career as a martial arts star in a series of films directed by Lau Kar-leung in the late 70s and early 80s (Dirty Ho, My Young Auntie, The Lady is the Boss) and has in recent years become one of the more respected actresses in Chinese film (The Midnight After, Mrs. K). She picked up the Golden Horse Best Actress Award, which unlike the Best Picture win was well-deserved, playing an antique dealer with ties to local officials who are engaged in some kind of land speculation deal. All the corruption is opaque, taking place in coded exchanges at parties and meals, with the trading of a statue of the goddess Guanyin meaning. . . something. The details of the scam, and its undoing after a betrayal and the slaughter of one of the involved families, aren’t particularly important, but neither do they make the least bit of sense. The film instead focuses on the corruption in Hui’s family, as her daughter (Wu Ke-xi) and (spoiler I guess but like every supposed twist in the film it’s blindingly obvious from the beginning) grand-daughter (Vicky Chen) become involved to various degrees in Hui’s scheming, leading one to drug addiction and promiscuity and the other to a general kind of psychosis.
Director Yang Ya-che throws a lot of bells and whistles at his basic scenario: cutting indiscriminately around in time, deliberating excising exposition in favor of dreamy montages of people looking pensive, adding a goofy narration by an elderly couple who play stringed instruments and sing the story as it unfolds maybe in a TV studio, but none of it really works. All the officials are corrupt in the same ways, and the extent of Hui’s involvement is treated as a major reveal but isn’t the least bit surprising. The youngest girl for the most part is our window into the world, which might explain the inexplicability of many of the crimes, as we wouldn’t expect her to understand it all. But then it turns out she actually does know everything her elders are up to, and anyway, we get also a bunch of scenes that she couldn’t possibly have witnessed that don’t really explain anything but instead just further cloud the plot.
The film is bright and colorful, with deep yellows and reds that are a welcome respite from the orange and teal and gray that infests so much contemporary cinema. And there’s a kernel of an interesting idea here, in that the film focuses its admirably nasty crime family/political corruption saga entirely on the women, not just Hui and her family but the wives of all the officials involved are the real drivers of the schemes, negotiations and power plays, their husbands blank slates receding into the background. But with no likable women or heroic figures (the only stand-up person in the movie is a man, a cop who fruitlessly investigates), the story we ultimately get is of a gang of greedy, amoral harpy women who have too much power in the workplace and have therefore ruined both society and their families with their independence.