New York Asian Film Festival ‣ 腿
The 20th Anniversary New York Asian Film Festival takes place August 6th through August 22nd both with both virtual and in-person screenings. Go to nyaff.org for more details.
The conflict at the heart of A Leg is a fascinating one, and I’m not talking about the surface war against an indifferent bureaucracy; no, the more interesting conflict is our main characters’ battle to accrue a sense of justice in the service of someone who has manifestly proven themselves to not be worth the trouble.
Cheng Yao-Sheng’s darkly comic romance (or darkly romantic comedy) is both a lacerating satire and a lacerating look at love gone sour, a very human drama that pushes its characters to the brink of absurdity in search of something very humane, and terribly true.
The titular leg belongs to Zi-Han Zheng (Yo Yang), who falls in love with professional ballroom dancer Yu Ying (Lun-Ma Gwai) and quickly becomes her partner on the dancefloor and off.
But seeing as the movie begins with amputation followed by death, it’s clear that a happy ending isn’t exactly in the cards.
Yu Ying becomes obsessed with reuniting the Zheng’s leg with his corpse. Which in theory, should be an easy enough task. But she doesn’t reckon on the perfect storm of bureaucratic incompetence and indifference that in a better world would seem farcical but which instead feel painfully real.
And so the movie is bifurcated; half deals in the present day, as Yu Ying embarks on an arguably quixotic mission to retrieve the leg, interspersed with flashbacks narrated by Zheng, tracing his regrets as their romance gradually wears itself out.
Of the two threads, by far the more interesting one belongs to Yu Ying, which… considering it involves severed limbs, is perhaps to be expected. Yo Yang is perfectly fine in a mostly unsympathetic role, but his transgressions, besides mostly being boiler plate fuck-ups, actually drive us to question just how it is she’s able to keep the scales on her eyes for so long.
But then, arguably that’s part of the point, or the curiosity value: Yu Ying is going to extremes in trying to retrieve the leg, and after some of the revelations that follow you have to question why; pretty much everything that goes wrong in their marriage is a direct result of Zheng’s alternately naive and foolhardy actions; good intentions only go so far…. after that, you just kind of suck.
Besides having the generic chemistry of mutual beauty, there are precious few moments where Yang and Gwai give off the sort of heat that would justify her efforts. They dance divinely and there’s a sweet little scene where they tell each other stupid jokes, but mostly it’s a downward spiral… and Zheng’s poor decision making wears out its welcome far more quickly with audience than with Yu Ying.
But the present day scenes more than make up for any deficiencies: she may not be able to generate all that much chemistry with Yang but on her own she’s a powerhouse.
Gwai’s righteous, stubborn, barnstorming performance electrifies every single moment, and she bounces off of the alternately indifferent and openly hostile hospital staff, starting with the hapless security guard whom the closing credits dub Messy Hair (Tzu Chiang Wang, very funny in a brief appearance) all the way up to the hospital President (Shih-Cheh King) whose solution to the problem is… unusual.
(A special shout-out must go to Li-Yin Yang as Director Yang of pathology, whose silent, horrified reaction to the President’s speech — where it’s unclear whether he actually realizes Zheng is dead or not — is a thing of hilarious beauty)
The romance aspect of A Leg may not work on a fundamental level, but the laughs are plentiful and the satire cuts like a knife.