The Taiwanese revival came fast and was rather short-lived, but it was a necessary reboot for Taiwanese cinema, allowing it to finally break loose from the Tsais and Hous of the past. What it didn't manage to do was broaden its range of genres. Taiwanese cinema is still very much all about drama, especially when talking about films aspiring international appeal. Well, Jung-chi Chang's Gong Fan (Partners in Crime) might be a good step in the right direction.
It's not that every Taiwanese film is 100% pure drama of course, but the scales have always tipped to the drama side. Films like Xiao Shi Da Kan (fantasy/mystery) and Chuan Qiang Ren (scifi/romance) did throw some other genres in the mix (with incredible success I might add), they just never dominated. That's where Gong Fan is different. While the dramatic impulses are still definitely there, they have become secondary to the thriller elements and serve more as little breathers in between.
Most of the dramatic tension comes from Gong Fan's setting and its protagonists. Much like Japan, Taiwan loves its high school students and features them prominently in their films. Gong Fan doesn't deviate from the norm here, with a group of three young boys going through a life-altering experience together. The film does take its time to highlight the boys' emotional responses to what is happening around them, but makes sure to keep the mystery at the core of the film.
The mystery comes in the form of a suicide. The three boys meet each other for the first time when a girl jumps out of her window, right into the alley where the boys just happened to pass by on their way to school. They end up feeling sorry for the girl's mother and they decide to attend the funeral. But as they find out more about the suicide, signs seem to point in the direction that someone else might be involved in the death of the girl. The three boys vow to uncover the truth and set out to seek this mystery person.
On the visual side, Gong Fan is very much part of the Taiwanese film school. That means delicate camera work, strong use of color (lots of whites and greens) and stylish compositions. The editing distinguishes itself tough. It's a little faster, edgier and more nervous, which goes a long way in building up the tension. It all comes together in a very tight and balanced package, but that's something I've come to expect from Taiwanese film makers over the years.
The soundtrack goes down a very similar path. There are lots of cues taken from typical drama soundtracks (there's no lack of piano and string music, all very soft in tone), but spruced up with more distorted, grimmer sounds in between. The result is a darker, more mysterious atmosphere that's a much better fit for the tone of the film. In itself it may not be a very spectacular soundtrack, but as part of the whole it more than fulfils its function.
The acting is top notch too. The three boys are all strong and convincing, Kai-Yuan Cheng in particular shows great promise for the future. Ai-Nin Yao is also very impressive, even though she's only featured in a couple of scenes. The secondary cast shows little to no weakness either and each actor seems to bring something worthwhile to the table. If this is any indication for a new generation of Taiwanese actors, the future looks pretty rosy.
The biggest problem with thriller/mysteries is that they either reveal their secrets too soon, or they end up with a silly twists that's simply too far-fetched. Chang expertly side-steps these pitfalls by slowly expanding the mystery. Each revelation introduces a new question, which helps to keep the tension alive. There is a little twist at the end though, but it doesn't feel forced, nor does it try to be earth-shattering. Instead it's a more dramatic spin on the events that unfolded before (not quite unlike the way Spanish horror cinema likes to incorporate drama).
Gong Fan is quite the calling card for a director like Jung-chi Chang. After directing some shorts and documentaries (and one full-length feature), he's establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with. Gong Fan is a stylish, balanced and subtle thriller with strong visuals, a worthy soundtrack and a young but talented cast. It may not be pure enough as a genre film to say that Taiwan is finally establishing itself beyond the realm of drama cinema, but it's definitely a step in the right direction.