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   Best of Times  


Best of Times

Reviewed by O Thiam Chin

Chinese Title: Meili shiguang
Director: Chang Tso-Chi
Writing Credits: Chang Tso-Chi
Genre: Crime Drama
Cast: Fan Wing, Gao Meng-Jie, Yu Wan-Mei, Tien Mao-Ying, Wu Yu-Chih, Chang Shang-Ting
Country: Taiwan
Language: Mandarin
Year Released: 2002
Duration: 109 mins

A touching, imaginative, elegiac film that allow a penetrating view into the solipsistic and reckless lives of two cousins, Wei and Jie, as they navigate their way in the society, bumming around, collecting debts, smoking, daydreaming and indulging in the excesses of their youth. Mingled with touching vignettes and bittersweet insights into their lives, are their touching interactions with different members of their extended family.

The film opens with a long scene of the family preparing for a festival, each of them busy with routines and activities. The camera lingers, at an intimate distance, minutely observing their actions and interactions, which are set against the backdrop of a large, bluish fish tank in their living room and the bluesy guitar strumming in the background. The effects of these elements imbued and floated the atmosphere in a languished tone and mood.

Like Wei, and the other characters, who had so often stood at the big fishtank, watching the fishes, playing with them, absorbed by the life and vibrancy of the life in the tank, the viewer becomes the ‘Weis’ of the film, taking a long, hard and fascinating look into the life of the family, of the cousins, of the troubles and heartaches and growing pains that they go through.

Like the fish tank, where the different kinds of fishes live and have their being, within the small contained amount of water and space, likewise, the family, especially Wei and Jie, are put under the spotlight and scrutiny of the viewers, whereby they lived out the life in the society that they exist, with its social ills and flaws, in the best way they could, given the circumstances and societal constraints. Even as violence escalates and threaten to overwhelm them towards the end, the boys are allowed space in the film where their avid imagination mingled freely with the reality, creating a surreal element in the film, especially in the ending, which show them swimming underwater, as if in a fishtank, cajoling and playing freely with one another. Even in the harshness of their circumstances and tragic ending, their unbridled imagination and innate freedom of their youth are captured and shown in this bittersweet ending of the film.

Numerous coincidences and filmic motifs are placed in the first half of the film, like visual and narrative signposts to guide the viewers along, and which only derives its most potent and significant meanings towards the end of the film when the different elements are brought into a coherent and imaginative whole, like pieces to the puzzle. The fishtank, the street light in the alley leading to their house, the scene at night when two men alleged jumped into the river, with one man looking like Jie, the magic of Jie which were realized fatally with the a ‘magic’ gun shot. Visual cues like these lifted the film, beyond the standard run-of-the-mill juvenile delinquent movies, into one that pulsated with native life and youthful energy and are fleshed out with the sights, sounds and flavors of a Taiwanese family.

Through their lives and struggles, one feel along with them, laughing, cursing, crying, day-dreaming, hoping; their lives become an open book to which to examine our lives and our times.

While these might not be the best of times, with the war and SARS, this film resonantly examines how the best and worst times of youth and family are often inextricably and resolutely bounded up, and carried with them, moments of sadness, remorse, rebellion, imagination and death.