Education

He’ll Get Your Head Shaking: Surveying the Start of Chung Mong-hong’s (Likely) Great Career

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A fresh Taiwanese upstart who always serves as his own rather remarkable cinematographer, Chung Mong-hong makes movies in a vat boiling with equal parts melancholy lyricism and head-shaking genre turnabouts. He has a completely original sensibility — which is one way of saying you never quite know where his movies are going or what they’ll say in the end. His three fiction features — preceded by a heartfelt documentary, Doctor (2006) — are radically distinct from one another, but they’re all so abundantly gorgeous you can feel the films making a kind of cosmic sense that the stories keep secret.

His most recent, Soul (2013), is paradigmatic of Chung’s oddball thinking. A young sushi chef (Chang Hsiao-chuan) passes out at work and is sent to his family’s remote orchid farm in the mountains to recuperate — except he quickly butchers his sister (offscreen) and announces to his tough-skinned father (Yu Wang) that he’s actually some kind of rogue soul inhabiting the son’s body. The dad matter-of-factly cleans up and locks the maniac in a shed, but between them more bodies pile up and more shallow graves get dug, while Chung mixes in hints of metaphysical ordeal, psychological mystery, and the lurking, crawling fauna of the humid forest around them. A murder by shovel cuts to a fat beetle dangling by a single leg from a flower. Is the son possessed, insane, a metaphor, or what? Chung is fascinated by lost men and boys, and here the lostness pertains to the film as well.

Doctor was a disarming launch pad — a sympathetic portrait of a Taiwanese cancer doc in Miami, whose happy but death-obsessed son had hanged himself years earlier. Motifs from it — including a detailed pencil sketch of an uncircumcised penis — show up in The Fourth Portrait (2010), a disarming saga about an eleven-year-old boy sent to live with his hostess-hooker mother and her homicidal husband. But it’s far from the familiar abused-childhood Sturm und Drang; Chung poeticizes the boy’s journey with sulfurous sunsets, hyperreal exposures, disorienting compositions, and ghosts, all of it frequently salted with inappropriate comedy. Chung makes strange narrative choices, but his eye for the revelatory image is electric.

Chung’s sole international hit, Parking (2008), may be the easiest to digest. A deadpan farce modeled on Scorsese’s After Hours, evoking the dreamlike anxiety of not being able to get home, it stars Chang Chen as a troubled husband who finds his car blocked by double-parking on one of the quietest streets in Taipei. His endless journey into soul-searching limbo ropes in two crisscrossing gangster herds, a beleaguered Chinese prostitute, a one-handed barber with a secret past, an executed murderer’s family and orphaned daughter, a cranky baker, a series of beatings, and a mishandled fish head. If it sounds like a yuk-fest, it’s not always — often the vibe is chilly and grieving, with marital sadness and economic desperation woven into its fabric. You’re never quite sure how to react, even when the stone-faced Chang finally wakes up in a sewer trench with a busted face and lights a cigarette.

Chung Mong-hong

BAM, November 30–December 2