Something Scandalous: Teenage Anxiety as a Reflection of Culture
In many ways, Taiwanese director Jung-chi Chang’s sophomore feature, Partners in Crime, is very much like the American teen thrillers of the late ‘90s. Its thematic preoccupation moral judgments, perspective and repressed desires reiterates—coincidentally—the sort of social admonitory fluff that might have featured Jennifer Love Hewitt and Freddie Prinze Jr. As such, it’s far more intriguing as a cultural talking point than as an actual film, saying something about art as a reflection of a fluid social climate despite embodying mediocrity.
The premise is simple: three very different teenage boys—Huang, the shy one; Yeh, the tough guy; and Lin, the techie geek—happen upon the body of a classmate in an alleyway. It’s clear that she fell from five stories above but no one is able to discern whether she was murdered or if she committed suicide. Initially, this scenario presents as an informal bonding opportunity for three socially disconnected boys. Together, they speculate about the likely cause of death, which leads them conduct their own investigation and draw their own, ultimately dangerous, conclusions.
In essence, this ersatz mystery presents as a partial critique of the technological age. Many sequences focus on the boys stalking the dead girl via social media, scanning through photos and retreating to passive entertainment even while others are around. Pointed shots of gaming cafes filled with people sitting alone playing a game while together reiterates this theme, as does the central narrative trajectory of three boys trying to understand and interpret the memory of a person that’s no longer with them.
Though the idea of memory as a subjective concept exists by sheer proximity, Chang is far more concerned with the nature of assumption and moral righteousness. Eventually, once the boys draw their own conclusions about who might be responsible for the death, they start on a path of punishment, behaving like a far less organized and less intelligent The White Ribbon contingent. In taking this path, Chang seems to be suggesting that in a world disconnected by technology that’s ironically designed to bring us together, there’s a tendency to overreact to circumstantial evidence.
But this concept is muddled when the superficial elements of the story denote the inevitable twists and turns designed specifically to shock and engage the audience. Unintentionally, this adds too many conflicting ideas that ultimately detract from each other. Since there’s a dialogue about the nature of memory, the mystery of death, the advent of technology, instigators of social connection, the dangers of making assumptions without gleaning all the facts and eventually a misanthropic, albeit cursory, assessment of how hidden desires manifest in manipulation, it all winds up meaning very little.
It doesn’t help that most of the situations and scenarios are a tad forced and blandly executed, sucking the fun out of indulging in such trite moralistic pap. Fortunately, some of Jimmy Yu’s cinematography is quite striking, even though the stylization of these images often comes across as a tad desperate and amateurish. Similarly, the perpetually mopey emo soundtrack makes Partners in Crime feel a tad less polished than it should, working to connect otherwise unrelated sequences together at times but droning on without little intent otherwise.
Still, what’s noteworthy here is what this set up ultimately says about modern Taiwan. In North America, teen films have evolved beyond the post-liberal morality parables that defined a generation grappling with the repercussions of the intense indulgence and superficiality of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Now, they’re romanticized distractions from reality, allowing this generation to retreat into the same narcissistic sense of impractical idealizing that made the ‘80s so problematic.
Based on Partners in Crime, it seems that Taiwan is struggling with the effects of technological advancement and past social irresponsibility, which suggests something intriguing and cyclic about the shifting of international trends and patterns. It’s just a shame that the only thing invigorating about this throwaway thriller is what it indirectly represents about modern society.
Reviewed on September 11th at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival – Contemporary World Cinema Programme. 89 Minutes