It was a short day for me at the New York Asian Film Festival. After a rather emotional morning, I headed over to Manhattan for another of this year’s Taiwanese movies, HONEY PUPU, for one of those escapes from reality that a trip to the movies often brings. I had no idea of of just how much of a trip I was in far.
HONEY PUPU is a densely swirling mass of ideas, frustratingly hard to follow at times, but way too beautifully constructed, way too dedicated to a particular vision to be considered a mess. One of my earliest thoughts while watching was that this film was that this movie is not aimed at me, but rather a newer generation, one that is young, angsty, and informed by constant connection to social media. At least that partially describes the cast of characters that move restlessly about the film.
A quote from a text by Conrad Aiken, “In the beginning nothing, in the end nothing,” sets the stage for the movie, much of which follows members of a generation that are preoccupied with the impermanence of the world around them. In person and virtual chat rooms, they question whether there is any place, object or concept -- love included -- that does not disappear. Captions appear in scenes to let us know structures that used to be there, but no longer stands (it’s rather affecting when a vanished Tower Records is referred to, as myself and surely some others can recall a branch of the record store existing a few blocks away from Lincoln Center, while others will never know of its having been there). Black and white recordings of demolitions sometimes flash on the screen, while at other times one of the characters, Vicky, broadcasts from a DJ booth about everything changing. While questioning the future -- one seemingly important narrative arc finds them pursuing bees whose extinction would eventually spell out disaster for humankind, they also suffer a nostalgia for what is lost that seems to wear away at their souls.
Within all this movement is a soap opera of sorts, albeit one that charges forward and bounces around at warp speed. Characters pine after one another, form awkward love triangles, and find themselves off into different subplots: One character seeks out a maternal figure from her past, another, constructing herself as a femme fatale, plays dangerous games of seduction with strangers, bringing along a heartbroken boy as both fill an emptiness within themselves. Then there is Vicky who tries desperately to find and then reunite with a former lover, though both seem unable to communicate or connect emotionally.
These intricately crisscrossing paths become even more difficult to follow because of the rhythms the characters move and speak in, that are either alien or of a future generation, or one that has already emerged -- perhaps in urban Taiwan or maybe it’s in the writer and director's mind. Whether in person or a virtual meeting spot, characters refer to each other by internet handles, sometimes as arbitrary as ‘Dog’ and ‘Cat, and sometimes changing them before we have matched the original handle to the corresponding face. A character’s younger cousin speaks with others in seemingly random strings of letters and numbers, and characters play strange, more complex offshoots of ‘paper, scissor, rock,’ all with a naturalness that suggests it is common practice. And everyone wears large circular headphones.
If all this seems as though it would be frustrating to keep up with, it might be preferable to let the images move by while soaking in a marvelous score attributed to Chang Wu-wu, extremely modern in its use of buzzing yet sentimental electronics, plus ambient techno and spazzy pop leaning tracks by groups, Telephone and Barbie. This transporting soundtrack, accompanied by amazing images of a light filled urban sprawl are enough of a joy to behold, without even worrying about the story’s many strands.
In fact the further HONEY PUPU pulls away from any tangible logic, the more I found myself enjoying it. This occurs towards the final third of the movie, where scenes jump even more sporadically from one character to the next in the middle of more abstract images, and before you know it, some of them move through a crisply rendered anime-inspired cityscape, with more references to nostalgia.
While it may seem like an arbitrary barrage, there are big ideas with serious thoughts of meaning behind them. Watching the end credits reveals a careful selection of classical music pieces to include in the background. The remainder of Conrad Aiken’s poem, whose beginning and end alone were referenced in the early parts of the movie, suggests the ways individuals make meaning and purpose of their existence. There is plenty of information to seek out after the theater lights go on.
All this crammed into 102 minutes -- it’s a lot to absorb. Outside of this year’s designated to destroy your mind midnight movies, HONEY PUPU might be the festival’s best bet for a WTF mindblowing freak out, which makes its relatively late 10:30 PM screening on Sunday, July 8 seem appropriate.
More information available at the Subway Cinema website.
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