The second annual 20th anniversary New York Asian Film Festival takes place from July 15 to July 31. For more information on lineup and screenings, click here
Life For Sale is, for all its positive qualities, something of a bait and switch: the in media res opening chase and the neon cartoony opening credits point towards a comedy, albeit one of a decidedly darker nature. And for a while, that’s exactly what we get. But at a certain point, the movie loses its sense of humor, and what started out as a movie that laughs ruefully in the face of the abyss becomes an existential treatise on the learning the difference between having something to live for and having something worth dying for.
Even if it doesn’t always cohere, the decidedly volatile journey feels like one well worth taking, if you’re not opposed to a healthy serving of misanthropy.
Liang (Fu-Meng Po) is an insurance salesman whose head is full of fun facts about ways to commit suicide. We’re not really told why, and I suppose it doesn’t really matter; the point is, he holds no value for life whatsoever, least of all his own. And to be fair, he does live in a world where the cashier at the grocery store is savvy enough to pick up on what he’s doing, but indifferent enough to wish him “Happy suicide” as he exits.
It’s not a land of compassion, it’s safe to say.
His latest attempt is interrupted by his neighbor, Yu Zhen (Chiao Chiao Tzeng), a single mom who only visits under two circumstances; she’s in a bad mood and wants to drink to forget, or she’s in a good mood and wants to drink to celebrate. If they are friends, which is not necessarily the case, their bond is one based in a certain grim solipsism; not for nothing does Yu Zhen spend most of her time complaining about her ex, and men in general, up to and including her son, and not for nothing does Liang constantly seem like he can’t decide between fantasizing about sleeping with her and wanting her to just go away so he can end his life in peace.
The inertia continues until an outburst at work gets him fired. This, combined with the discovery of a Yukio Mishima novel (that shares the films title, an appropriately meta touch) lead him to an interesting alternative to ending the life he finds so worthless: sell his life to the highest bidder. And shockingly enough, he winds up with two potential customers in short order: Mr. Wong (Tsai Ming Hsiu), an old man with a lot of money and the intimidating type of courteousness, who wants to use him for a special mission, and Ms. Shen (Janel Tsai), a pharmaceutical executive with… rather different designs.
A virtue of Life For Sale is that uncertainty as to where all this is going. From that setup, you’d think the story would mostly involve the two potential buyers fighting it out for the life of Liang, but instead the plots barely even intersect, only coming together at certain key points; it’s almost as if he’s juggling being in two different movies… and not even at the same time; more like, on consecutive days.
Of the two films, the Mr. Wong is the more conventionally appealing one: a quirky, violent crime thriller that’s full of quirky, violent criminal types. To the extent that Mr. Wong is a villain (the film arguably seems…. confused on this point), he’s a highly effective one. Even in his relatively limited screen time, he radiates Mephistophelian menace and serpentine charm, all while never getting his hands dirty. And as a dog kidnapper gangster punk who has earned the wrath of Mr. Wong, Melvin Sia (billed as a “special performance”) it only takes about 30 seconds of screen time to assay a villain you’ll be dying to see get the shit kicked out of.
Plus, for bonus points, this section of the film has the first barroom brawl I’ve seen in an eternity, a delightfully gruesome set piece involving scene stealer Frederick Lee as a vicious goon who just happens to be Liang’s former favorite baseball player.
The closest thing he shows to respect for someone, and of course it’s this guy.
The Ms. Shen story is less easy to classify; in some ways, it’s slightly impressionistic nature works both for and against it; while in a broad sense we fully understand her goals, the nature of what she’s up to and the icy corporate ruthlessness of the characters in that part of the story make it simultaneously less formulaic and harder to invest in.
But perhaps none of that matters in the first place, as pretty much everything on display is intended to serve the purpose of charting Liang’s journey from jaded self-annihilation enthusiast to someone who didn’t realize until it was almost too late that he actually did have something to lose. And while having such a disconnected, nihilistic “hero” makes the job of building a connection much harder than usual, Po’s performance is wry, nimble, and physically punishing enough that we’re with him despite his frequently unsympathetic behaviors.
Director Tom Teng’s debut feature layers on the visual style, not afraid to throw in the occasional outre touch; a throwaway moment sees a stray ink blot on a spreadsheet coming to life, a miraculous act that is immediately squelched by an indifferent Liang’s thumb, the blot letting out an adorable, high pitched death rattle. And the movie has a fixation on cockroaches as cosmic arbiters of fate that is… a choice. But it
Life For Sale isn’t perfect; a twist involving Yu Zhan’s son is a bit melodramatic, though the resolution is decidedly unexpected and works well enough to reinforce the philosophical themes of the film. But more a more serious issue is the way the movie just… stops. If you squint, you can say the story has resolved itself. But if you stop to think about it for more than five seconds, you realize that a VERY key motivating incident goes utterly without closure, and in retrospect it makes the final scene with the character responsible is the ultimate villain or a deranged kind of mentor.
There might have been a way to thread that needle, and a cyncial read would certainly be in keeping with the bleak world the movie portrays. But as executed, it seems less like artistic ambiguity and more like they forgot to film like three or four important scenes.
And in the end, it’s impossible to say whether that’s a feature or a bug (that bug being a cockroach)