One of the prime survivors of Taiwan's most recent cinematic renaissance is Mong-Hong Chung. He may not be the most productive director, but whenever he releases a new film I take notice. Needless to say I was quite eager to get my hands on his latest, Yi Lu Shun Feng [Godspeed], a decidedly more genre-focused effort that sprung from his mind (and pen). While not entirely up there with his very best, there's still plenty to love here.
It's not that Shi Hun or Di Si Zhang Hua are completely without genre influences, but the balance definitely shifted with Godspeed. It still isn't your typical crime film, for that Chung's trademark style is way too pervasive and demanding, even so Godspeed shows all the traits of a typical crime film. It makes it a rather difficult film to market, but if you're in the camp that liked Chung's previous films then there's very little to be worried about.
It takes a while for Godspeed to get going. Chung isn't really interested in easing people into his film, instead he starts with a couple of different angles that are poised to come together later on. But Chung tends to meander a little, letting scenes determine their own rhythm rather than construct a sensible plot structure from them. That's a bit of a problem if you don't like being left in the dark, personally I like it when a director deviates from classic narrative-driven structures. It reminded me of the work of Hiroyuki Tanaka, though the mood here is completely different.
Godspeed follows Na Dow, a somewhat lackluster criminal who ends up making drug pickups after reacting to an ad in a local newspaper. On his way to the pickup point, he is scouted by an older taxi driver looking for an extra buck. The two head off together on a lengthy journey through China, but things don't go quite as planned. Various drug gangs are eyeing each other's territory and the two end up in the middle of a violent gang dispute. Afraid they might anger their bosses though, they push through.
Chung's films are in part known for their visual excellence and luckily Yi Li Shun Feng is no exception. Chung took the cinematography upon himself again (under his Nagao Nakashima moniker — but don't be mistaken, it really is him) and delivers another stunning-looking film. Not quite up there with his best work, but with great framing, strong use of color and lighting and some very nice compositions Yi Li Shun Feng has plenty to offer for the more visually inclined film fan.
The music is up to par with the visuals. Maybe it's not the most memorable score as there aren't any stand-out compositions or pieces you can hum along to, but as a whole the soundtrack gives off a very unique vibe. Dark and ominous, but not without a touch of light-heartedness. It's really a perfect match with the film, underlining the absurdity of some moments while effectively building up tension a couple of scenes later. It's the kind of score that reveals a director who cares about the overall quality of his film.
I'm not sure if Na-Dou Lin is a perfect fit for Na Dow or whether he shaped the character to fit his style, but he does a great job as the film's lead. More remarkable is the casting of Michael Hui as the cab driver though. Hui is a well-known and well-respected comedy actor, who's given a perfect stage here to show that he has more qualities beyond drawing a couple of laughs from the audience. The two are aided by a strong secondary cast, with Leon Dai and Matt Wu in strong supporting roles.
Godspeed isn't a comedy, though there is a strong comedy vibe running underneath the film. It's quite black and deadpan, also a little absurd, but never as extreme as seen in Ming-liang Tsai's films. Don't expect any overt jokes or laugh out loud moments of wit, but there is plenty of room for some sly smirks. It's also very possible some people won't ever pick up on the comedy, simply because it is so subtle and subdued. It does give the film a little extra flair though, further elevating it above the typical crime films it borrows from.
Depending on where you're coming from, Godspeed is either a superb crime flick or an ever so slightly disappointing Mong-Hong Chung film. Not that the film has any obvious weaknesses or comes out short on anything it tries to do, but compared to Chung's previous films it's just a smidge less of everything. That still leaves a beautiful, unique and quirky genre film that should do well with people who aren't too attached to rigid narrative structures and one that's easy to recommend if you don't mind a good crime film.