NYAFF 2020: I WEIRDO is a Surpisingly Stark Take on Mental Illness in Taiwan

After watching two Taiwanese films back to back at the NYAFF and thoroughly enjoying both of them, I thought why not check out another? This had me front and center for Ming-Yi Liao’s latest I WeirDO. From the stills, this “romantic drama” seemed to lean a bit hard into the film’s more comedic aspects, that thanks to the blurb promised a story of “two young oddballs cursed with germophobia and OCD, as they walk through life clad in personal protective equipment.” With that in mind, I was instead treated to a rather stark take on mental illness in Taiwan, masquerading as a “quirky” romantic drama that went rather dark, rather quick.

As the film begins we are introduced to Chen Po-ching (Po-Hung Lin) a young man who suffers from extreme OCD and mysophobia, who spends most of his time quarantined at home. One of Chen’s rituals when he’s not meticulously cleaning his home, is his once a monthly excursion in a raincoat, rubber gloves and a face mask, to the local Wellcome Superstore to get groceries and pay his monthly bills. When his local branch is closed, he ventures to another location, where he spots a similarly clad woman, whom he witnesses shoplifting. We soon discover this “Fellow Traveler” Chen Ching (Nikki Hsieh) suffers from similar disorders and the two strike an immediate bond that slowly evolves into the pair becoming an inseparable couple.

OCD is a chronic affliction and something that doesn’t simply go away. But according to I WeirDO it does, since mental illness here is used as nothing more than a plot device. Right after the two make a vow to never change, of course, Po-ching wakes up the next day, looks out the window and is cured of all mental afflictions. The film then much like the pair’s relationship spirals downward as the two grow apart . Po-ching starts leaving the house more and more, eventually getting a regular job and separating from Ching. This choice eventually sends Ching, brokenhearted, to commit suicide after seeing Po-ching and his new girlfriend shopping at what was once “their” convenience store. It’s more than a bit extreme, the way the film demonizes mental illness, since Ching sees death as her only solution to a life of medicated compulsion. I mean I could see if she was a pedophile, or a necrophiliac, but she cleans her house compulsively and steals candy.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the first two acts as the pair of outcasts first discover, and then find comfort in one another’s company, it’s when the film goes off the rails that it basically loses me. While Po-Hung Lin does a great job at, a before and after when his character loses his OCD, it’s Nikki Hsieh here that really shines as she invites Po-ching into her existence that is packed with a much more complex nuance than I expected. It’s the not knowing of what’s behind the mask, because of how we first encounter her stealing that we think there could be something more nefarious just beneath the surface, and how she evolves into the emotional anchor of the narrative. The film also does something interesting with its aspect ratio since the first 2 acts are rendered in 4:3 with the final act when Po-ching is cured the film spans to the full 16:9 frame. I guess because he’s seeing the whole world for once?

While there’s a lot culturally to unpack here with how the film paints and uses mental illness as a plot engine, the relationship bit of the film works flawlessly thanks to the leads. It’s just when the relationship runs its course, there’s not much left to keep the audience invested as the film pulls a strange cheat in the last 10 minutes that not everyone is going to buy, myself included. I WeirDO attempts to have its cake and eat it too and fails rather miserably. I personally think this tacked on ending was a financier note, to make the film more marketable, so it wouldn’t end on such a downer. While I wouldn’t have loved that original conclusion, I probably would have respected it more than its choice to patch on something that simply retcons any of the hard choices made by the characters or writer.

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