SIFF 2018 Edition: Best of Week Three — The Taste of Betel Nut

Ren Yu, Bai Ling, and Li Qi. Photo courtesy of SIFF.

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?

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SIFF 2018 Edition: Capsule Reviews, Week Three

Here are all the capsule reviews for week three in alphabetical order, including the entire final weekend of SIFF. Release dates are included where applicable. Again, my rating system:

1=Awful. Major flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. No reason to see this film unless you have to, and then I still wouldn’t.

2=Okay to average. Some major/minor flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. Not good enough to recommend.

3=Above average to good. A few major/minor flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. Films in this category either garner a slight recommendation from me or almost do.

4=Very good to great. Might have a few minor flaws in it. All films in this category are recommended viewing.

5=Excellent to outstanding. Very few flaws, if any. The best of the best.

  1. Found Footage Festival: Cherished Gems: A collection of unintentionally hilarious, bizarre, or downright gross clips from the heyday of VHS. With explanations between curated clips and some live commentary. I laughed so hard my sides hurt afterwards. 4 (Presented by Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher)
  2. My Name Is Myeisha: Sandwiched between two movie bookends is an adaptation of the play Dreamscape, which uses hip-hop and spoken word to juxtapose the events leading to Myeisha’s (Rhaechyl Walker) death at the hands of the police (and the subsequent coroner’s report) and brief glances at her life and world. It humanizes her, to be sure, but what works in the theater doesn’t always work onscreen (the transition from movie to adaptation is pretty goofy), and while this one gets better as it goes, the event itself creates more of an impact and a sense of how tragic and unnecessary her death was than the means used to flesh out her story. Still, films reach more people than plays do, and that’s enough of a reason to be glad it was made. Plus, the home movie footage and ending are powerful stuff. (d: Gus Krieger)
  3. Naila and the Uprising: An important, informative, and necessary documentary about the first (and purest) intifada and the women who were a huge part of it, but were pushed out of their positions of power once the PLO returned to power.(d: Julia Bacha)
  4. The Silk and the Flame: A gorgeous-looking black and white documentary about a young gay man (Yao) from a small town in China trying to hold up against pressured from the community to follow familial tradition and marry. (d: Jordan Schiele) US Premiere Release date TBA.
  5. The Taste of Betel Nut: This movie begins at the end, then loops back in time to when polyamorous couple Li Qi and Ren Yu (Shen Shi Yu and Bingrui Zhao, respectively) allow a young woman, Bai Ling (Yue Yue) into their lives for a summer. A few questionable decisions (which might be answered by a second viewing) can’t mar the fact that this is one of the stronger films I saw at SIFF, though I would’ve given it higher marks if Bai Lung were fleshed out more as a person, and less as a plot device. 4 (d: Hu Jia) North American Premiere
  6. VR Zone: With 28 short subjects to cover in 90 minutes on the last (and busiest) day of the SIFF VR Zone, I didn’t have time to view all the recommended titles by friends and coworkers, let alone all 28. I ended up experiencing four of them: one documentary, one experimental, and two interactive. All used Samsung Gear VR headsets (with adjustable focus) and headphones (either attached to the headset or separate), a couple used controllers.
    1. Rone: A documentary about the street artist of the same name, who draws large portraits of women’s faces in abandoned buildings and other forgotten areas. He explains that he chose women’s faces because most of the street art he saw was masculine, and he wanted to counteract it. By far the best use of VR; everywhere you looked, there was something to see. The swivel chair helped. (Lester Francois)
    2. The Cabiri: Anubis: While waiting to see a recommended exhibit, I decided to try this one, which follows an ancient Egyptian man’s journey to the underworld, where he is judged by a dance troop (I mean, they’re playing roles, but it’s a dance troop). Oh, and acrobats. This film could’ve been effectively done on a front and rear projection screen, or on stage. Most of the time, it didn’t incorporate the immersive experience that the other exhibits did, as you sit on a bench and merely look in front or behind you. Also, with no dialog and occasional sentences grafted on the screen that seemed culled from abandoned movie trailer slogans, it failed to keep my interest. (Bogdan Darev & Fred Beahm)
    3. Where Thoughts Go: Boasting the longest run-time of all the exhibits, I only got partway through, due to demand. Like the other interactive exhibits, instead of a chair or a bench, you sat in a room which was decked out as part of the exhibit, this one with cushions, and manipulated two controllers to listen to previous people’s answers to deeply personal questions. To continue to the next question, you had to record your own answer, and then set the recording free. To give you an example, the first question was: Why did you fall in love for the first time? As this is an ongoing project, I hope to visit it next year (on a less busy day) and listen to (and record) more responses. Simple, yet rewarding. (Lucas Rizzotto)
    4. Queerskins: A Love Story: Another recommended exhibit, which also had its space built up, complete with a table, photos on the walls, and a bench to sit on as a stand-in for a car seat. In this exhibit, you sit in the back of a car as a devout Christian couple discusses their gay son on the way to visit his grave. As they talk, objects appear in a box next to you, which you can pick up and look at. While the views from the car were nice, the objects didn’t add anything to the emotional impact of the short, which would’ve been just as powerful as a feature film, rather than an interactive VR Exhibit. Still, it is powerful. (Illya Szilac & Cyril Tsiboulski)