In the opening scenes, we see Li Qi (Shen Shi Yu) put on clown makeup and perform with a seal. We then see him after the performance, alone except for his animal partner. He washes off his makeup and cleans his clothes in the sink with soap. He pauses to look at the soap bar, almost finished. The next day at the market, he sees someone he recognizes. He follows this person, hiding something behind his back that looks like a machete. After attacking him (the attack isn’t shown: the screen fades out as the machete comes down, and then reappears with Li Qi covered in blood), he marches around the corner to face the group of men who were with the man he killed.
The movie then travels back in time, and it is in these past moments that The Taste of Betel Nut shows itself to be directed by a steady hand. We meet Ren Yu (Zhao Bing Rui) receiving a flashy jacket. Ren Yu works the beaches as a karaoke singer, charging for people to sing and take photos with him. He gets a haircut and next is getting a blowjob and fucking the hair dresser behind a curtain at the hair salon. Li Qi and he are a polyamorous couple, though Li Qi seems to have no flings.
Ren Yu doesn’t have a permit for his line of work. Neither, too, does the older woman who operates the food stand where Li Qi and Ren Yu hang out after his gigs. During the summer, her niece Bai Ling (Yue Ye) comes to help out. The duo of Ren Yu and Li Qi soon become a trio. After trying betel nut at a friend’s wedding, the three of them have sex in a scene that effectively uses double and triple exposure. The problem is, Bai Ling eventually decides she just wants to be with Ren Yu, but he doesn’t want to be steady with anyone, and Li Qi likes her and Ren Yu equally.
This is only director Hu Jia’s second feature film (his first was 2014’s Dance With Me, which doesn’t even appear on IMDB), but based solely on it, I expect him to have a long and successful career. I only have a couple caveats. The biggest one is that Bai Ling is treated more as a plot device than as a person. Outside of being someone for the two main characters to love and for setting up a conflict later in the film, she doesn’t do much besides look at them with longing. She talks about going back to school after the summer, but that is all we know about her, besides being a pretty face. The other criticism is a recurring scene in which Li Qi walks in the water in slow motion (the camera follows his legs). I understand the mood Hu is going for, but I’m not sure why this motif. Perhaps a second viewing would clarify it for me.
On the plus side, Yue’s chemistry with Zhao and Shen is excellent, as is Zhao’s and Shen’s with each other. And the feel of the film reminds me of Hou Hsiao Hsien, but with room for comedy (perhaps Edward Yang is a more accurate comparison).
But what about the man Li Qi kills? We know he will appear again in the scenes that take place in the past, and though we sense the impending tragedy the first time he appears, it doesn’t lessen the blow on his second appearance. The tragedy, when it comes, is not something that the characters deserve due to personality flaws, but something that comes as a result of the flaws and meanness of others. And yet the last shot is of someone smiling. A happy ending, or the memory of a happy summer, before that happiness was destroyed?