Ellie Bamber, Justin Chon
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Such ironic distance may be intentional, even laudable for some, but it nevertheless makes for an empty, vacuous experience, even if vacuity is the point.
When Tao Lin released his novel Taipei, it was to much acclaim (in certain circles) and he was lauded as a bold, new creative voice in literature. Though many critics dismissed him as a product of a younger, more vacuous generation with nothing on its mind except nothingness, he was largely regarded as a self-promoter, ever-present on a litany of social media platforms, cultivating most of his writing by recording and re-examining his own life experiences and filtering them through a dissociative, ironic gaze which in turn would give birth to a style of writing not dissimilar from the endless and overly detailed monologues deployed in American Psycho by author Bret Easton Ellis. It’s worth noting that Tao Lin’s own physical voice tones are themselves droll and monotone. It’s at this point that Jason Lester (son of Commando director Mark L. Lester!!) adapts Taipei, significantly reworking the material but keeping the central characters and core plot and themes.
The film begins with Erin (Ellie Bamber), having just ended a relationship, wandering into a book signing by author Paul Chen (Justin Chon), of whom she is a huge fan. Erin meets Paul, in something of a ‘meet-cute’ and soon the pair are swept up in a self-introspective whirlwind of circular conversations about relationships, life and existence. The pair take drugs, A LOT of drugs, in fact Paul’s imbibing of everything from Ecstasy to Xanax, to Adderall and cocaine becomes so ubiquitous it ceases to hold any sense of reality.
Paul decides that they should document their relationship on his laptop using the webcam, recording their waking moments and their descent into drug-addled self-obsession. Erin plays along, literally, with the pair becoming locked in a strange performance art-piece of a sort, playing the roles of star-crossed lovers in a self-aware, hyper-conscious artwork that exists only on Paul’s laptop. Drugs fuel their adventures, which they record, which then inspire them to take more drugs to fuel continuing hijinks and deliberate, pointed bad decision-making. Though it’s when Paul decides to take Erin to Taipei to meet his parents that things start to unravel.
Jason Lester has given himself a difficult task in taking on Taipei as a film adaptation. The book’s stream-of-consciousness first person perspective is not something that is ripe for a drug-infused Before Sunrise style walk-and-talk with dreamy music and visuals. Lester’s cinematic ambitions are decidedly European, though not consistent, he manages to cultivate a dreamlike atmosphere at times, ably assisted by composer David Harrington and Cinematographer Daniel Katz.
Visuals aside, there’s an infuriating emotionless void at the centre of the story. As Erin, Ellie Bamber feels galactically miscast, her performance (though solid and well-performed) just doesn’t engage; there’s an emotional disconnect as if her performance is viewed through binoculars. As Paul (an avatar for Tao Lin himself, in the book as well as in this film), Justin Chon delivers an impersonation of Tao Lin, which, as mentioned earlier, means he has a strangely monotone, droll voice. For the unaware viewer, this translates as a stilted and oddly bizarre performance choice. This isn’t helped by the script which translates the stream-of-consciousness prose from the book into a two-hander featuring characters who behave counter-intuitively, feel deeply unrelatable and are prone to delivering ‘word salad’ non-sequiturs of ripe, over-written dialogue.
Ultimately, it’s the inscrutable characters that frustrate any attempt at viewer empathy or even interest. We don’t need to ‘like’ a character, we simply need to understand them in order to engage with the story. Such ironic distance may be intentional, even laudable for some, but it nevertheless makes for an empty, vacuous experience, even if vacuity is the point.