This is a rare and perversely kind of cherishable film: one that attempts to slather its shortcomings in preposterously overreaching style. The setting is Taiwan in the bad old 1980s, when an eerily perfect family with their finger in every honey pot conspire to ram through a crooked land deal. Then murder intervenes. And family revelations. And a blind minstrel, to deliver said revelations in a Greek chorus-type approach to narration.
Fault director Yang Ya-che, perhaps, for turning a conceivably interesting puzzle of a story into a murky and incomprehensible wreck. Don’t fault him, though, for lack of ambition: The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful may be batshit crazy, but it does craziness elegantly. The overwhelming impression is that Yang cared not in the slightest for the twistiness of his script nor its nods at political context, and instead treated this as a chamber piece, a hothouse to push his stylistic impulses to the extreme. What this looks like in practice is the crispness of Jiang Wen circa Let the Bullets Fly, mixed with the over-the-top formal precision of Park Chan-wook, particularly in its would-be risqué ‘sexiness.’ There are even hints of Kim Ki-young, in the unabashedly florid treatment of its female-centred material. Yang has a fine visual sense as director: the meticulousness of the colour and set design are stunning, and the cinematography is hard to fault. The dialogue is a sophisticated melange of Mandarin, Taiwanese, Cantonese and Japanese, suggesting a depth and complexity never delivered upon. Sporadically, these elements result in such a good scene that it adds to the disappointment that the film never coalesces, or begins to make sense.
As for the actors: the three superb female leads struggle against the thinness of their roles. Kara Hui, a Hong Kong action star in the ’80s, commands authority as the demented matriarch. Wu Ke-xi, fresh from her transnational indie film collaborations with Myanmar-Taiwanese director Midi Z, turns in a delirious performance that articulates her character’s neuroticism; and Vicky Chen’s star continues to rise.
This is ostensibly a family tragedy, but its post-modern remove leaves it with little meaningful to say about family. Character development is neglected across the board. In execution, it’s messy and misguided, but The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful at least delivers two hours of unfiltered opulence.