REVIEW: ‘Looking for Kafka’ Marks a Shaky Film Debut for Novelist Jade Y. Chen

The film’s confident style is kneecapped by an underdeveloped and unfocused story.

The News Lens
Date: 2019/01/09
By: CJ Sheu

Credit: Youtube Screenshot

On IMDB, ‘Looking for Kafka’ (Aishang Kafuka / 愛上卡夫卡) is listed as ‘Kafka’s Lovers.’ Despite the evident technical competence on display, this ambivalence is manifested in the film’s self-identity as well. From first-time writer-director Jade Y. Chen (陳玉慧), a novelist from Taiwan, ‘Kafka’ oscillates between two different films, never deciding on one, thereby truncating necessary story details.

The first film is in the vein of recent Taiwanese films of whimsy, starting with ‘Cape No. 7’ (2008) and including ‘Au Revoir Taipei’ (2010) and ’52Hz, I Love You’ (2017). Pineapple (Jian Man-shu, 簡嫚書) designs props for a theater troupe putting on an abstract modern dance performance of Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ starring her ex-boyfriend, Lin Jiasheng (J. C. Lin, 林哲熹). The morning after Jiasheng’s current girlfriend, Julie (Julia Roy), arrives from Paris, he’s kidnapped by some gangsters to get his rich dad to pony up some dough. Pineapple takes Julie to search around for Jiasheng, while he in turn, er, waits for something to happen.

You can tell that the film isn’t going for naturalism because the kidnappers neglect to make a ransom call. Jian’s bubbly and upbeat performance (and creative hair) sets the tone, as Pineapple and Julie rather unhurriedly visit Jiasheng’s old haunts and past girlfriends (one of whom is played by Taiwanese transgender icon Kiwebaby, 張朵). It just so happens that each place they visit is representative of contemporary Taiwanese culture: coffee shop, nightclub, temple, and gazebo on a mountain trail – the unlikely location of Jiasheng’s guqin lessons. In one of the few highlights of the film, a visit to Jiasheng’s mother reveals her to be played by none other than Peking opera legend Wei Haimin (魏海敏), as a brain-addled version of herself forever convinced that she’s putting on a show. The film tries to avoid coming across as a tourism commercial by omitting things like travel routes and establishing shots, but the effect is to make each segment feel abstract and underdeveloped. A similar premise was much better developed in the Taiwanese film ‘The Most Distant Course’ (2007).

Jiasheng’s patience finally pays off as one of the gangsters (Yuki Daki, 大慶) steals him away from the others, and a car chase ensues. The chase is genuinely exciting thanks to Lee Chatametikool’s editing, with gunshots and drifting on mountain roads, but the tension is broken when an old cliché rears its head: The car runs into a roadside fruit stall. The gangster, an indigenous tribe member, takes Jiasheng to his tribal home (Yuki is of the Atayal tribe, and his tribe members play themselves) where, in another cliché, it’s revealed that he himself needs the money for his hemophiliac son (the film performs some plotting gymnastics to get around Taiwan’s universal healthcare). Pineapple and Julie get the money and exchange it for Jiasheng, who returns in time for his Kafka performance.    [FULL  STORY]

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