Taiwanese director Yang Ya-che's third feature, THE BOLD, THE CORRUPT AND THE BEAUTIFUL is the recipient of BEST FEATURE FILM in the 54th Golden Horse Awards, also winning BEST LEADING ACTRESS for Hong Kong veteran Kara Hui and BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS for a 14-year-old ingénue Vicky Chen.
Opening with a present-day frame story segueing into the live TV show of Smile Folk Song Group - whose operatic narration punctuates the narrative with a distinct tang of rustic locality against its Stygian, chroma-keyed settings - the story spirits viewers away to presumably the late 90s, signposted by the brick-size cellular phone archetype, and chronologically unfolds the intricate intrigue mastered by Madame Tang (Hui), an antiquity-dealer who brokers a lucrative real estate transaction for high-flying personages (Senator, Speaker and County Mayer of that ilk), where backstabbing, double-crossing and blatant murder crop up down the line, all aiming for one ulterior motive.
It is a smorgasbord of women's gamesmanship first and foremost, Madame Tang, flanked by her two daughters Ning (Wu Ke-xi) and Chen (Vicky Chen), the former, flirtatious, amoral and self-destructive, whereas the latter, meek, diffident and misty-eyed (and their gaping age difference hints at a not-too-well-kept family secret), mostly mingles with the wives of those involved, carefully takes stock of each other's profiteering moves and oils the wheels by wheedling, prevaricating and manipulating, without ruffling the superficial harmony.
However, the ramifications of an ordered family massacre insidiously affects the two-fold (yet three-layered) mother-daughter correlations, when Ning finds out that she is given the short end of the stick to cover the goings-on, it puts the kibosh on their triangular co-existence, and it is up to Chen to choose her side, wisely she chooses to stay, but the belatedly consummation of her secret teenage crush, after she collectedly watches her rival exhale her last breath, boomerangs badly on her and costs her a limb but she survives, the rude awakening hardens her, years later, a stony-faced adult Chen (Alice Ko) will deny Madame Tang her final plug-pulling wish in extremis, a red apple recurs to conform audience's shattered trepidation that the bad seed is here to stay.
One might find the film misogynistic, no sympathy can no easily drawn from its female characters (although male counterparts are no less sympathetic, at least they are all shoved into periphery), Yang plumbs deep into the psyche of a ruthless matriarch who reckons everyone else as a cog in the wheel, including her own offspring, and rams home that she is not an anomaly, like a cancer, consanguineous vileness rubs off on those impressionable ones (gilded youth, in this case) with karma awaits the originator like an ouroboros.
Yang's cynical disposition certainly can not be everyone's cuppa, and for subtitle-readers, the plot is too serpentine and evasive by half to suss out the whole shebang on a first-viewing, but the film has its ineffable allure built from its visual sublimity (for its wondrously captured Far East ethos, not least the posthumous marriage charade and all the aural paraphernalia) and emanated from three key performer's concerted brilliance that can put the Yang's film on the map.
Kara Hui (presently has amassed 4 acting trophies in the Hong Kong Film Awards, three for leading and one for supporting, only trails Maggie Cheung's record-setting 5 wins in the leading category), has become an unexpectedly inspiring ageism-defying exemplar in carving out a terrifically kaleidoscopic long career which she begins as a martial arts starlet four decades earlier. In portraying Madame Tang, she graciously alternates between Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese, coaxing every line and expression with either studiously calculated cadence or pitch-perfect moderation, exuding an indecipherable mystique that is egregiously inviting.
A fresh-faced Vicky Chen acquits herself amazingly in conveying Chen's precocious dichotomy that dissembles her vindictive incentive underneath her deceptive sniveling, quivering, bashful facade, subtlety often materializes on her inscrutable visage in close-ups, a sapling aiming for the next big thing? for sure she shows great promise but I don't want to jinx it.
Nonetheless, the one unsung trouper here is Wu Ke-xi (whose lack of awards traction could be attributed to the indecisive category placement, as I see it, supporting is more apposite), Ning is a damaged good who can never live down the stigma stung her years earlier, yet Wu emits a particularly affecting frisson of vulnerability and intensity that we hardly can find elsewhere, her angular lineaments might not be prepossessing in a conventional way, but she competently attests that she is a force 0f raw emotion, with incredible range and conviction.
Eventually, it is difficult to pin down any of the triumvirate with just one of the titular adjectives: bold, corrupted, beautiful, each word can be ascribed to them in different phases, perhaps, they are legitimate for every and each flawed, complex human being, residing in an imperfect world where there is no right or wrong, just win or lose, if this is a noxious canker, Yang Ya-che for sure pulls no punches to gut it open and let its pus speak for itself.
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