The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
The 22nd annual New York Asian Film Festival takes place between July 14 and July 30. For more information, click here.
Taiwan is largely considered one of the more progressive parts of Asia, and yet it’s only in the past four years that gay marriage has been officially sanctioned. So in a sense, it’s easy to take for granted the progress we’ve seen in the states, especially at a time when certain sectors seem dead set on rolling those hard-won freedoms back.
But in another sense, it’s a bit besides the point to focus on the real world/political aspects of the film, which seems far less invested in making a political statement than using gay themes as a backdrop for a wild eyed, helter skelter genre collison.
And you know what, fair enough; in the world of cinema, that certainly counts as a form of progress.
But for me personally, therein lies the curious conundrum that Marry My Dead Body represents: a movie that would have been progressive in America had it come out in, say 1990 but in 2023 it feels almost… quaint.
It would be incorrect to say that the film is a mess, but there are a fair amount of tonal shifts and narrative curlicues that give what in some senses is a fairly formulaic film a unique and interesting texture, while also serving to hamper the overall experience.
Heartthrob Hsu Kuang Han is our hero Lin Tzu-Ching, a standard issue cop who doesn’t play by the rules. The film begins with a gym-based cruise that is quickly revealed as part of a sting operation, and one almost wishes there was more of this vibe; the scene that briefly bristles with a seductive homoerotic tension that felt unique and strangely dangerous.
Tzu-Ching gets his man (so to speak), but his rough handling and less-than-tolerant taunting of the suspect result in a demotion and a transfer to a smaller precinct, far away from the action and the accolades he so desperately craves.
As an American, it’s strange to think how unremarkable a character like Wu Ming Wan would have been had this been a movie from my youth. And more to the point, the character arc he undergoes would never have come to pass, because it never would have occurred to anyone that he needed to change in the first place.
It’s probably not worth the effort to detail the convoluted chain of events that leads to Lin marrying an openly gay ghost (Austin Lin’s Mao-Mao), or how that ties in to Lin’s attempts to take down big time gangster Lin Hsaio-Yuan (Tsai Chen Nan), but suffice it to say the wunza formula, as codified by Roger Ebert, is alive and well:
Wunza cop, wunza gay ghost; together, they’re trouble for the bad guys!
Even if it doesn’t cohere as well as one might like, it’s undeniable that this pell-mell approach to genre trappings generally proves to be an advantage: anybody who has seen more than ten movies in their life should have a pretty good idea of all the beats this movie is going to hit. But the restless jumping between supernatural farce, buddy cop flick, family drama and YouTube video about a cute doggy means that those beats don’t necessarily come when or where you’re expecting, and don’t necessarily play out in quite the way audiences have been conditioned to expect.
Providing a necessary anchor is the genuine chemistry between Lin and Kuang Han. Once the initial tension dissolves and they reluctantly come to appreciate and rely on one another, the duo play off of each other with a sort of goofball glee. More to the point, Kuang Han is at his best in the moments where he’s allowed to go all in on the goofiness. His take on the ‘cop who doesn’t play by the rules’ is… fine. It’s perfectly acceptable, but by necessity Lin Tzu-Chang isn’t particularly likable to start with, and Kuang Han does little to differentiate him from the scores of cops with attitude that came before.
Though admittedly, it feels highly unlikely that any of them had quite as much skill at pole dancing as Kuang Han displays at one point. But perhaps I digress…
Another curious and somewhat puzzling aspect to all this is that we never really get an idea of what made Wu Ming quite so virulently homophobic. When almost everyone else in the film chastises him for his retrograde attitudes (implying that society as a whole has largely moved past such discrimination; “Don’t be a prude like us old people”, one of them even chastises), it becomes even more difficult to understand just why he’s carrying such a virulent stance. And the presumably unintentional end result of the singular focus is that it seems less like Wu Ming has learned a lesson about tolerance than him learning to be much nicer to one particular gay person.
To that point… there’s no question Austin Lin has the showier role, and he plays it to the hilt. Never falling back on stereotypes (unless his character is weaponizing them to wreak havoc on his huffy hubby), Lin laces his considerable comic chops with pangs of loneliness and anger that become more prominent as more of his past is revealed.
While Lin and Juang Han are most of the show here, they are supported by a cast that, while not given all that much to do, make the most out of the moments to shine that they’re given.
Gingle Wong makes a fairly good impression as a fellow cop who Ming-Han is infatuated with, and both her performance and the film itself are canny in the way they play with genre expectations. The same goes for Ma Nien Hsien as the police captain, who is afforded some goofy notes that captain types are rarely allowed to hit.
If there’s a weak link, it’s Flower Chen as Tzu-Ching’s pre-demotion partner Chubby, whose two character traits are fat and gay, and mostly disappears from the narrative before he has the chance to develop anything like a second dimension. Though the film is commendable in its intentions and there is really no point where “gay” is the punchline and Tzu-Ching and hos regressive attitudes remain the constant and consistent butt of the joke, Chen’s scenes come within spitting distance of the sort of thing this film is supposed to be a riposte to.
And there must be special mention made of Chang Zhang Xing as A-Goa, a henchman who figures into the highlight of the film, a high octane, wildly kinetic vehicular pursuit that ranks among the best car chases in recent memory.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the action portion of the genre mishmash, that’s pretty much as good as it gets; with the aid of a highly conspicuous drone camera, director Cheng Wei-Hua orchestrates that initial chase with style and verve, but the rest of the film never matches that energy; in fact, aside from a brief shootout at the end, there’s really very little action at all; a weird choice. Considering just how hard they go in on the cop drama of it all.
And yet, there’s one last baffling swerve in store, as even after the cop plot has come to a somewhat unexpected, potentially unsatisfying conclusion, there’s still another fifteen minutes of film left, as Mao-Mao must have attain closure from his seemingly homophobic father (Tou Chung Hun, very good in an awkwardly written part).
This is the exact point at which the film has officially overstayed its welcome, and while the film never soft-sells the melodrama, trying to full-on jerk tears at the last moment feels like a stunning misread of the audiences connection to that aspect of the story.
And in that, it occurs to me that there are some distinct similarities between this movie and classic Hong Kong films such as Mr. Vampire or Magic Cop. Heedlessly jumping between genres and tones with, frankly, none of the control that Wei-Hua shows with this material. But for all the ways that this improves on that sort of thing from a technical/coherence standpoint, never in a million years would Wong Jing try to convince you there was anything like emotional depth. Say what you will about his output, but at least he had a read on how to send audiences out the door.
Still, I’m reluctant to come down too hard on Marry My Dead Body. For all its flaws, it was still a generally entertaining ride. And the positive moments are going to linger with me far longer than the ones that didn’t work.
Also: not for nothing, but as a man who can appreciate a fine butt regardless of gender, Hsu Kuang Hans’ is nothing to sneeze at.
To be clear, it’s not a reason to see the movie per se; it has enough qualities to justify that all its own. Think of it more like a shapely little bonus.