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Taiwanese drama morphs from deceptively simple teen melodrama into something far more complex - from the Toronto International Film Festival

The first 20 minutes or so of Terrorizers feel ripped from the pages of a teen melodrama: boy comes home from abroad, runs into a girl he knew from childhood, they hit it off, and… well, that’s about when things take an unexpected turn.

While on a date, boy (Xiao Zhang, played by JC Lin) goes to get some coffee for girl (Yu Fang, played by Moon Lee) at the train station. As Yu Fang sways to the tune of Chopin’s Nocturne in E Flat Major, we notice someone dressed in full ninja garb running towards her with a sword. Luckily, Xiao Zhang intervenes just in time to save his girl, in the process taking a nasty gash to the arm. At this point, the film abruptly rewinds, taking us back in time to do some explaining.

What follows is the deconstruction of a love story, rife with confusion and projection, a cautionary tale about fantasy and misunderstanding. Our primary characters are five late adolescents—the aforementioned boy and girl, as well as a rich kid, Ming Liang (Lin Bo-Hong), a struggling actress and former cam-girl, Monica (Annie Chen), and an aspiring cosplayer, Kiki (Yao Ai Ning). As we might expect, Xiao Zhang’s abrupt intrusion into Yu Fang’s life found her wrapped up in her own complicated love story, but not the one we might have expected.

Fantasy is an inevitable element of attraction, sometimes wistfully referred to as “the mystery” that tends to fade in relationships over time. However, this wonderful and elusive quality can also be hazardous to those who would disregard the underlying reality such fantasies tend to obscure. And it is this point that centrally occupies Wi Ding Ho. The director allows his scenarios to entangle both fantasy and reality until it becomes hard to distinguish one from the other. The theme echoes Edward Yang’s film of the same name from 1986—a welcome homage to what Frederic Jameson once called the postmodern film.”

But if Yang’s film was postmodern, collapsing reality and fantasy into one, Ho’s film might be more aptly called (ahem) post-postmodern. Despite our characters’ inability to distinguish their projections from the reality on which they are projected, we as viewers can clearly see the difference, and this difference underscores the crucial ethical stance embedded in the film.

Another incident in the film (not the slashing) causes a big scandal, and is used to illustrate the tempting rush to judgment many of us feel when confronting bite-sized chunks of information (tweets, news headlines, etc). But the film actively encourages us to resist such judgements by showing us, over the prior 100 minutes, the various complex and intimate details comprising the lives of those involved. Far from all perspectives being on a par, the film sides with its decidedly old-school character Xiao Zhang, who recognizes that forging a genuine relationship with another human being requires patience and trust.

But what, then, of the scary title? The terrorizers are us, in our worst moments, when we are prone to project our own inadequacies onto others rather than attempt to understand them on their own terms with a curious and open mindset. If cinema is an empathy machine, then Terrorizers may just be one man’s attempt to underscore that venerable point.

Terrorizers premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

By Justin Khoo - 28-09-2021

Justin is an associate professor of philosophy at MIT. Before coming to MIT, he did his graduate work in philosophy at Yale, and was an undergraduate at UC-Davis. He works in philosophy of language an...

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