The New York Asian Film Festival takes place August 28 to September 12. For more information, click here
In retrospect, I’m not sure what I expected from a movie called Dear Loneliness.
A slight peek behind the curtain of how I plan my festival watching: I make a big list of all the movies that seem interesting and then try my best to purge my memory of any details other than the title of the films, so that when I go in, I can’t remember what drew me to my picks and can be pleasantly surprised by the results. So with that in mind I cannot say what drew me to Dear Loneliness, which for two thirds of its runtime, lived down to the miserablism that the title implies. But the third and final story in this triptych played out with a touching sense of grace that went a long way towards redeeming the film and leaving me more generous in my final assessment. Dear Loneliness didn’t work for me in the way I would have wanted, but that doesn’t mean it’s wholly without its merits.
Listed in the credits as being inspired by a documentary called Poetries From a Bookstore, the film is bookended (pun fully intended, thankyouverymuch) by a cameo from famed Taiwanese writer Lo Yi-Chin, writing letters of comfort to various customers. He expounds on the nature of loneliness and unhappiness in a way that probably reads better than it sounds, and before long we are off on the first of three stories, each exploring a pivotal moment in the life of a lonely young woman.
The first story, Xiaoyu, written and directed by Chien Hung Lien, concerns Xiaoyu, an alienated young student who has become fixated on a handsome young teacher named David (Cheng Chun Chung, inexplicably introduced talking to a colleague about the musical Cats). The target of silent hostility from a clique of mean girl peers and uncomfortable in the face of the equally quiet but obvious attentions of a shy young boy from her class, Xiaoyu loses herself in erotic fantasies inspired by her reading of an erotic romance novel she continually returns to at the local library. Her foolhardy quest to seduce Teacher David comes to a head, as it must, and it goes just as poorly as you’d expect.
Despite a good performance by Cih En Lin as the painfully inward and at times frustrating Xiaoyu, this was an unpleasant watch. Perhaps it’s just that I’ve seen too many films with this exact subject matter by now. But the fact remains that no matter how artfully composed, well-acted, and realistically and compassionately drawn the protagonist is, watching this girl get tormented and wade so naively into self-destruction is a difficult sit. And the abrupt resolution feels true to life in the sense that it wasn’t remotely satisfying.
So I had to admit to a sense of relief when that story ended and I realized that this was going to be an anthology. And the second story (Kai Han, by Che I. Liao) starts out on a much more inviting note; we follow the titular young woman, a freshman student clad in a King of the Hill T-Shirt and radiating cautiously optimistic nervous energy, as drags her luggage across campus. The camera makes the campus feel warm and inviting and Xue Lee cuts an immediately ingratiating figure in the role. And the mix-up in which she finds out her dorm room is already occupied indicates that we might be heading towards a ruefully satirical Kafka-esque perspective on isolation and loneliness. As the double booked resident in question, Xin Wei Hsieh is a subtly amusing presence.
But from the moment Kai Han calls her father to report the bad news and gets maliciously berated, I had a sinking feeling about where all this was going. And sure enough, Kai Han deteriorates at a rapid clip, almost the same rate that my appreciation for this section of the film did. While there is an interesting angle in the anti-Chinese bias that Kai Han is exposed to as she struggles to find a place to stay, there is a certain inevitability to everything that unfolds and not much to redeem the predictability of it all.
And this is a serious problem. Because as well acted as the performances are, the very situations that characters find themselves in for the first two feel very rote and undercooked. The occasional astute detail struggles to overcome the rote manner of Kai Han’s rapid mental collapse. And following the frustratingly predictable outcome of all this with the single most obvious darkly ironic “punchline” imaginable is downright infuriating.
Which is where I was at when the final and best segment began, Sunny Yu’s 2923. This is the piece that seems to me to best capture the short story feel the rest of the movie seems to be aiming for.
Xiaxun, a 20-year old who moved to Taipei in search of work, finds herself a job visiting inmates, who pay decent money to talk to them and stare at their cleavage. Better than the hostess job she had that ended with her getting sick from drinking too much, but still probably not the Complicating matters further is the fact that she lives with her employer, who happens to be her ex-boyfriend, who is currently dating her best friend, who also lives with them. One of her clients at the prison, the enigmatic 2923, resists her every studied flirtacious overture, drawing her in and setting off a personal journey for Xiaoxun as she finds herself questioning her own sense of self and whether or not she’s truly as happy as she always claims to be.
Of course, all of this probably sounds like a bad soap opera. But the fact is, it works. And it works because it does what the other stories should have done: it finds a unique perspective on the concept of loneliness instead of falling back on the most obvious tropes. The slowly forming bond between Xiaoxun and 2923 feels unique, and specific and real, despite the slightly heightened circumstances of their meeting. And the side characters of Brother Zhi and An-An are fleshed out and have an inner life that none of the other characters in the first two stories are granted.
But in the end, there’s a reason that this story is titled 2923 and not Xiaoxun, and that is because it’s most compelling character is not the lonely woman but the inmate. Guan Tinh Lin gives a frankly remarkable performance as a man who has turned so inward he barely seems to want to exist at all. Watching him get slowly drawn out of his shell by the genuine curiosity of Xiaoxun and re-engage with the world is an utterly riveting journey. Lin has an aura of dignified quietude and an almost unbearably soulful gaze somewhere between utter despair and pure emptiness. And a smile that is imperceptible to the point where you can’t be sure if it was ever even there. It’s a performance so touching that it’s hard not to want to recommend the movie just for his scenes.
For the first two thirds of Dear Loneliness, I found myself frustrated that the talent both behind and in front of the camera was being wasted on stories beneath their obvious talent. But the third story and Lo Yi-Chin’s tender and heartfelt closing remarks went a long way towards offsetting the bad taste the rest of the movie left in my mouth. It ends far better than it begins, and that’s not nothing.