For some reason jettisoning the superior Chinese title that translates roughly to “Blood Queen,” Orz Boyz director Yang Ya-che steps out of his coming-of-age comfort zone with a clever riff on the gangster melodrama in The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful. Starring freshly minted Golden Horse best actress Kara Wai, firmly set in a mini career renaissance (Happiness, Mrs. K), the film tells an outrageously labyrinthine tale of power, corruption and lies pivoting on a ruthless matriarch and the daughters she is ostensibly gaining all her wealth for. Buoyed by a triumvirate of stellar performances, The Bold could nonetheless be hampered somewhat for overseas audiences who may have little to no knowledge of Taiwanese political history beyond Chiang Kai-shek. But corruption looks the same everywhere, and patient audiences and clever distributors will be rewarded with a solid crime pic; Wai’s name above the title will help in Asia. Heightened receptivity to more female perspectives on screens these days will help, too, and the film should fare well on the festival circuit in the immediate future.
The Bold frequently plays as a typical gangster drama, with the head of a powerful, feared and self-serving crime family puling strings in local government and threatening rivals to earn its fortune. The difference in Yang’s tale is the clan head: Madame Tang (Wai) is a shameless profiteer, exploiting illegal land speculation laws, playing political games and waging psychological warfare among her peers. Notably, most are women, and writer-director Yang revels in challenging our expectations of maternity and morality. Gifts are never given from the heart, advice is never dealt out without an ulterior motive and everyone is as shady as the next.
The family Madame Tang seeks to serve includes her older, foot soldier daughter Ning (Wu Ke-xi, excellent), morally and emotionally damaged beyond repair by her mother’s ambition, and the younger, more innocent Chen-chen (Vicky Chen, also a Golden Horse winner for supporting actress), who’s maturing quickly and getting a firmer grip on what’s going on in the Tang clan. The investigation into a car accident that killed one of Tang’s enemies and left his daughter in a coma soon morphs into a murder case, one that eventually brushes up against Tang’s illegal dealings. There is a wonderfully tragic, lurid, soapy reckoning.
As deliciously evil and manipulative as Wai is as Madame Tang, The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful is also egregiously complicated, with so many rival families, ministers and ambitious industrialists crowding the story (often for a single scene) they start to blur into one forgettable lump; there’s a fine line between enigmatic and obfuscating. Most criminally, however, is that the plot machinations detract from the film’s strongest elements — Madame Tang’s equally complicated relationship with her daughters and all three women’s performances. While the script can be a little on the nose with its imagery and metaphors, and traditional Hoklo-speaking narrators interjecting from a television studio to pass judgment on events are simply useless, Wai, Chen and Wu are so compelling, and their dynamic is so strong, they more than make up for the film’s hoarier elements and overly complex writing. Wai deftly keeps moments that require she look particularly shifty from teetering into histrionics (her eyebrows stay in place), but it’s Wu and Chen that really leave an impression. Wu finds impressive layers of nuance in Ning’s attempt at numbing herself, and relative newcomer Chen manages to be heartbreaking and sinister at the same time.
The pic is technically polished, with Penny Tsai’s production design bringing a tactile decadence to Chen Ko-chin’s feloniously lush images.
Production company: Atom Cinema
Cast: Kara Wai, Wu Ke-xi, Vicky Chen, Carolyn Chen, Chen Sha-li, Fu Jun, Ko Chia-yen, Mariko Okubo, Moon Wang
Director-screenwriter: Yang Ya-che
Producer: Liu Weijan
Executive producer: Dennis Wu
Director of photography: Chen Ko-chin
Production designer: Penny Tsai
Costume designer: Zoe Wang
Editor: Chen Chun-hong
Music: Blaire Ko
World sales: MandarinVision