Saturday, December 08, 2012

When Wolf Falls in Love with Sheep (南方小羊牧场 / Nan Fang Xiao Yang Mu Chang)

Counting to 100

Taiwanese cinema is on a charm offensive, with a slew of heartwarming, touching, and fairly unconventional treatments for romances and dramas of late from Au Revoir Taipei, You are the Apple of My Eye, Taipei Exchanges, and GF*BF charging their way through with refreshing tales and unique styles that engage, entertain and move. When Wolf Falls in Love with Sheep now becomes one of my favourites of the year, where hidden underneath all its saccharine sweetness is an aching tale of love and loss, and the road to recovery where we all need second chances to move on.

Writer-director Hou Chi-Jan assembles an impressive ensemble cast to pull off a story where just about every character is, or has gone through, a painful moment in life resulting from unrequited love that just dissipated, leaving one in emotional limbo. Fresh off his Apple success, Kai Ko plays Tung, a young man whose ex-girlfriend (Nikki Hsieh) left him unexpectedly, leaving behind a note that says she's off to cram school. Finally snapping out of his rut, he leaves for Tapiei's infamous Nanyang Street, which is Cram School Central, in which this movie is set against, filled with lonely streets at night where students have already gone home, and with night time inhabitants who carry emotional scars from their respective romance gone awry.

Finding refuge and occupation at a photo-copy shop, Tung begins a new lease of life of sorts, where he spends his waking hours trying to look for his ex, in a job that would be best described as dead end. Through his observations of the people around him, we get to know about Sure-Win Cram School, and its quirky staff from its Chief Instructor, right down to a slick salesgirl (Kuo Shu-Yao) who harbours ambition of material wealth. But the spotlight falls on one of the school's invigilators, Yang (Jian Man-Shu), the titular sheep, because her sheep drawings complete with motivational words of encouragement, and sometimes reflecting personal feelings, pepper the school's exam sheets, which sadly nobody pays any attention to.

Until Tung started, in cheeky fashion, to doodle (and in some ways become) the titular Wolf, and soon enough, their interaction through doodles in exam sheets translate from paper to real life, where each share their own personal relationship demons, which Hou Chi-Jan expended no less effort in painting the different kinds of love and relationships through his many character creations. Soon their creations gain traction and become larger than life, and also served as an outlet to express innermost feelings, or for the film, to move the narrative forward as well. What I liked about the film is how the director effortlessly roped in other characters into its central plot, becoming story arcs to reinforce a point, never having felt that they were unnecessary. And this would encompass those like the noodle shop priest, or the fried rice boy.

The doodles and sayings are a highlight of the film, since the cartoons and animation are kitschy, and messages ringing quite true for anyone who had been stung in a relationship before. The narrative, although short at less than 90 minutes, contains plenty of relationship metaphors, and what I thought to be wise sayings, effectively crammed without the feeling that they were inserted for the sake of. Everything fell into place wonderfully, and surprisingly, paced perfectly despite having those myriad of characters involved everywhere.

Just like how Tung got involved with taking on a part time job of looking for things lost by others, When Wolf Falls in Love with Sheep probably is one massive encouragement by itself, that we're all looking for someone, whom we are hopeful to find one day. It's about two lost souls waiting and looking for their soul mates, in a tightly written script with quirky characters that made it all come alive. A definite must watch film this year, with a coda at the end that continues in its cheeky method of imparting some long held truths.

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