Madame Tang (Kara Hui) is the head of a shady syndicate colluding with the government and private interests to speculate on real estate. She is also the matron of a family of three women, which also includes her daughter Tang Ning (Wu Ke Xi), damaged from being instrumentalized in her mother’s dealings and attempting faint rebellion against her while drowning her sorrow in sex and drugs; and Tang Chen (Vicky Chen), still a teenager, observing quietly the corruption around her, pining for Marco (Wu Shu Wei), the lover of her friend Pian-Pian (Wen Chen Ling), while being groomed by Madame Tang as her new accessory of charm. But when the family of one of Madame Tang’s government associates is massacred (with the daughter, Pian-Pian, the only survivor, though in a coma), the matriarch comes under scrutiny of a police investigation and must claw, threaten and back-stab her way out of trouble, while Marco becomes a scapegoat, Tang Ning starts a fling with the policeman in charge of the investigation, and Tang Chen gets thrust even more deeply into her mother’s immoral world.

Yang Ya Che’s The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful operates on many levels of meaning, and across three genres, to the point where it might be considered over-stuffed. It certainly tends to be a bit too aware of itself, with weird interludes – where legendary singer Yang Xiu Qing comments on the story in the traditional Hokkien art of Gezi Opera – that only serve to add layer upon layer of meta irony upon an already heavy film. Each of the three lead characters embody one of the film’s genres. The most obvious one is melodrama – the film’s English title slyly poisons the name of a long-running American TV soap. And this is indeed poisonous melodrama, full of rank family secrets, forbidden desire, self-destructive behavior and rampant manipulation. Wu Ke Xi’s Tang Ning embodies this more overt dimension of the film by giving the more unhinged performance out of the three actresses. It is highly-effective, a kind of slinky despair, numb and resigned yet obviously aching every second. Tang Ning is young yet spent, and the ever-ugly realization that she has been spent by, of all people, her mother, gives one the measure of how cruel the melodramatic dimension of Yang Ya Che’s film is.

Kara Hui’s Madame Tang, on the other hand, embodies the gangster film element. A gangster film not of blazing guns and long overcoats a la A Better Tomorrow, but of latent violence and criminal dealings carried out with strict codes and superficial joviality, a la Johnnie To’s Election. Scores are set either with unspeakable brutality but off-screen (a whole family is massacred, but it is never shown), or with reptilian smiles as neat bows on acts of blackmail and extorsion, with one scene particularly memorable and delicious: Madame Tang playfully singing the Shanghai Bund theme song (another wink at a much more straightforward melodrama) in a karaoke room where a corrupt official is trying to intimidate her, before dropping the mic as incriminating evidence against her opponent appears on the karaoke screen. Don Corleone might soil his pants if he ever met Madame Tang. Suffice it to say, Kara Hui amply deserves the accolades and awards she has been getting – it’s a towering performance, as chilling as it is sexy, as subtle as it is smirky.

Then comes Vicky Chen’s Tang Chen, as the coming-of-age dimension of the film, perhaps its core, as Chen is the character through whose eyes the audience watches the story unfold. At this key moment of discovering what untold pleasures (she watches in fascination her sister and her friend with their respective lovers) and inconceivable violence (her best friend’s entire family is killed, and she herself suffers a brutal agression) the adult world is, she seems to both cling at her soon-to-be-lost innocence (reveling in being her mother’s favorite), and be ready to embrace immorality (reveling in being her mother’s instrument). Vicky Chen handles this thorny role with both the freshness of her age, and the subtlety of an old soul.

This mixing of three genres is both interesting, keeping the mind engaged much like the  strands of the musical fugue, and occasionally grating on a first watch, as it tends to convolute the story beyond the possibility of enjoyable entertainment. But a re-watch and more importantly a crash course in the layered, tumultuous history of Taiwan can help shed light on its deeper meaning. For example, Marco, the Aboriginal lover of Tang Chen’s best friend, is a berated by the wealthy Taiwanese and Japanese families, before serving as a scapegoat after the massacre of his girlfriend’s family, echoing the plight of the Aboriginal people of Taiwan (whose fate is not dissimilar to that of Native Americans); near the end of the film, his rape of a key character of the high society seems an act of primal retaliation for his people’s suffering.

Conversely, the Tang family (part of the more recent arrivals in Taiwan, the Mainland Chinese following Chiang Kai Shek) bears a symbolic name: it is tempting to read Tang (棠) as part of the Chinese word for the Begonia flower (秋海棠, Qiuhai Tang), itself a symbol of Mainland China – as it is supposed to resemble the geographical shape of China. And Madame Tang is the widow of a Kuomintang general but colluding with the Japanese, with the fluidity of language (Kara Hui speaks not only Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese, but also Japanese and Cantonese over the course of the film) and of lifestyle (the interior decoration of Tang residence has a distinct Japanese feel) that go with such fluidity of culture and allegiance. But most of the politicians she butts heads with are of the Hoklo people, descendants of Han Chinese who arrived on the island prior to the start of Japanese colonisation near the end of the 19th century. Taiwan, in Yang Ya Che’s vision, is a place of constant, restless ethnic, cultural and political brutality. The film’s original title translates as “Blood Guanyin” (Guanyin being the Goddess of Mercy), and may apply both to the film’s omnipresent displays of hypocrisy (with back-stabbing occurring under the guise of exquisite cordiality), as personified by Madame Tang, or simply to Taiwan itself, a land whose mercy – welcoming repeated waves of dislocated people – is the source of insidious turmoil.

Visually it’s a gorgeous film, with Chen Ko Chin’s classy, unctuous cinematography another instance of a gorgeous wrapping for a poisonous content, while Penny Tsai’s art direction and Wang Chia Hui’s costumes are the devil in the details, providing both eye-candy and precise clues: at one point, Madame Tang has matching dresses made for her daughters and herself – watch them closely, and a later twist about the true nature of Tang Ning and Tang Chen’s connection is hinted at. Truly, a film to be watched more than once, or not at all.

Long Story Short: A gangster saga, a poisonous melodrama and a dark coming-of-age story, all wrapped around a striking political metaphor, and spiced with enough cultural references to warrant multiple re-watches, and motivate the purchase of several shelves’ worth of books about Taiwan. The self-awareness and affected storytelling can be grating, but a superb trio of actresses led by Kara Hui carry this heavy piece of work with class. ***1/2

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