Wednesday, December 10, 2008

WINDS OF SEPTEMBER (2008) by Tom Shu-yu Lin, (How a Film Just Missed Being Spectacular)

Say It Ain’t So, Tom. Say It Ain’t So.

WINDS OF SEPTEMBER (2008), Tom Shu-yu Lin’s feature debut, is not a film that’s shy about its earnestness as it well shouldn’t. After all, it's a movie about young people and that’s what being young is. The film, which is in Mandarin and is playing now in Hong Kong, tells an episodic coming-of-age story set in 1996 in a provincial town in Taiwan, and follows a tight-knit pack of seven high school boys in the months leading up to graduation.

The film is best in its early moments as it relishes in its episodic storytelling and leisurely shows the boys engrossed in their youthful adventures. They go to professional baseball games and cheer on their heroes, one of whom is the slugger Liao Min-hsung. They break into a swimming pool at night and go skinny-dipping. They ride around in motorcycles. They horse around and crack jokes. They cut school. They smoke, curse, and drink beer. They get chewed out by the school disciplinarian. Through it all, the camaraderie and joy of youth comes across loud and clear. This may not provide dramatic thrust in the conventional sense, but the energy and charm in these scenes more than make up for this.

Meanwhile, the film gradually focuses on two boys in the group: Yen (Rhydian Vaughan), the handsome playboy, and his best friend Tang (Chang Cheh), a shy boy with a more serious outlook than the others. It’s a familiar dynamic seen often in high school stories—I don't know why, but the film kept reminding me of John Knowles’ A SEPARATE PEACE.

After Yen’s womanizing causes problems for the boys as well as Yen’s girlfriend, Yen and Tang grow apart. Each starts to suspect the other has betrayed him. Overall, the performances of these young actors are convincing. And the script skillfully shows how minor things can be the catalyst for big emotions during adolescence.

But the final third of the film loses steam, precisely because of a contrived narrative device, which then becomes the vehicle on which the story is towed rather clumsily to the finish line.

What is this contrived narrative device?


It's clear that the point of the movie is to show the disillusionment of young men and the repercussion of that disillusionment on a so-called band of brothers. But must that disillusionment stem from a totally contrived motorcycle accident and a boy falling into a coma? Can't adolescents grow disillusioned simply from seeing the grown-up world at large?

The motorcycle accident scene rings false on so many levels that I won't even try to list them here. Put simply, the scene is when this movie morphs from a promising film into a Korean soap opera of the worst kind--the kind in which main characters spontaneously combust and suffer from amnesia, cancer, and blindness all at the same time, and then learn that they are actually related to their lovers. It's phony and contrived tragedy that startles momentarily but ultimately precludes the outpouring of any real empathy with the characters.

Since this misplaced and wholly unnecessary inciting narrative device is false, every narrative beat depicting its consequences also rings false and the performance of the actors falters drastically in the scenes that follow. I’m not saying that all bad acting is due to a flaw in the script, just that most is. Whatever the case, it’s a shame the film takes this direction, since it clearly didn’t need to.

Meanwhile, interspersed throughout the film are news clips of another betrayal, a baseball scandal, in which professional players, including Liao, are revealed to have thrown games for money. It’s abundantly clear the film means for the baseball scandal to echo and heighten the "loss-of-innocence,"--I hate using this term but couldn't think of an adequate substitute--that the young characters experience. But this only works in theory. Indeed, it's truly amazing how one wrong turn in the story can destroy a movie and make it so difficult for audiences to empathize with the characters on screen.

In the end, despite all the outbursts of intense emotion from the ensemble cast over what true friendship means, the film fails to pack an emotional punch. It’s really too bad because with a few small modifications in the script, this film could have been something spectacular.

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