Cinema, as much as literature has long been a source of fervent mythologising, be it of serial killers, politicians, musicians, sports heroes – anyone who has ever been cast under any given spotlight – as well as a multitude of professions, races, genders, and so forth; this list is inexhaustible. In recent memory, the mythologising of a faceless entity or that of a select group has become an increasingly recurring theme within urban psychogeography; that is, the examination of a person or persons within their environment. Advances in digital and social media have long been romanticised in a negative light, but shed very little inaccurate light on the social issues plaguing a younger generation. One of these issues is how we are seen in the minds of others; the idea that our personalities and beings exist only as they are perceived by others gives rise to existential anxieties about who we really are. In this regard, Maren Hwang’s feature-length debut ‘Xiao Mei’ strikes a nerve: bringing its titular character to life without her input, creates a haunting portrait of a woman who could be just about anyone in the minds of those living day-to-day in any number of cities.
Xiao Mei has, in all senses of the word, disappeared. Through a series of nine interview vignettes, a faceless and nameless subject tries to piece together the moments leading up to her disappearance as well as gaining insight into her character. Meetings with her landlord, boyfriends, employers, family members and even those tenuously linked to her, weaves a tragic tale of a young woman overcoming drug addictions and, questionably, mental health issues in order to live a normal life. Each interviewee provides a window into her disturbed yet fragile existence and how they interacted with her within it. As each segment merges into the next, we realise something potentially more sinister is afoot; fearing a staggering array of unbearable scenarios, we remain as secondary bystanders, helpless in the direction down the rabbit hole our hidden ‘investigator’ takes us on.
Initially just a writhing body on a roof, Xiao Mei, whose real name is often substituted for this moniker, gradually comes to reappear through intelligently crafted flashbacks which blur the past together with the present. Though she is increasingly fleshed out with each successive segment, it’s intriguing as her representation is purely manifested to us based on the memories of those who shared separate journeys with her. We know full well she exists, but she certainly seems irreal, in that we cannot figure out whether if her existence is to be taken at face value. Hwang’s weaving narrative boldy constructs a certain image but given our faceless interviewer’s agenda, we have to wonder if everything we are told can be trusted. Becoming entangled in its own enigma, towards the final half hour, it becomes clear things are not as they appear to be, leaving us with more riddles of the life of this rather unremarkable life.
Painting this rather dark portrait are nine relative strangers, none of whom really know each other, each with their own agendas, pasts and polarising personalities. Contrasting her brazen landlord, who has been itching to show off his father’s martial arts, for example, is her ex-boyfriend who has successfully turned over a new leaf away from drugs; neither of whom, it seems, have been allowed access deep into the pool of which Xiao Mei has lived her life, as if she is hidden behind impenetrable walls. What works here is Hwang’s decision to have these stories told by following his cast on their daily lives as opposed to a bog-standard series of interrogations. We get to know these people on the same two-dimensional level everyone else seems to know each other, both in the film’s universe and our own. Do we really know the people who come in and out of our lives? Do their experiences exist if we did not know them?
As a director of commercials for the fashion industry, Hwang knows his way around keeping things brief yet elegant, short but stylish; in ‘Xiao Mei’, he ramps this up to the next level. Each segment is unique in its setup, fitting for the tales told by the interviewee, and wildly sensational for the eyes to soak in. Juxtaposed with Luming Lu’s haunting electronic soundtrack – one which adds dimension upon dimension to each segment whether its evoking a longing or delving us into tribal mysticism – Chung Mong-hong’s simple yet transcendental cinematography elevates this moody story into a realm of high-art; as if it was meant for a modern art exhibition as a series of installations. The colour palette is deep like a Kim Ji-woon picture and does wonders in sucking its cast deeper into their roles.
A solipsistic story built by an array of personal stories, Hwang’s debut is an artistic triumph. Ingeniously developed with a visual richness to lust for, ‘Xiao Mei’ is as brilliantly executed as it is conceived. Interspersing its narrative with breathtaking shots in and around Taipei it pins us down into the surroundings closing in around our dreamlike lead, channelling the depths of the cities network of high-rise buildings and backstreets; almost paralysing those reconstructing Xiao Mei’s fraught and brief life. It treats its subjects with respect whilst highlighting a good number of issues prevalent in modern Taiwan, notably how easy drug dependence can become. Asking many questions underneath its pristine yet evocative exterior we are moved not just by this enigmatic human being, but also to understand greater the plight of others, to seek their truths, and to make deeper connections with those we share this short time on earth with, even if it is just for the blink of an eye.