Zoom Hunting (Lie yan)

Taiwan (2010) Dir. Cho Li

Two sisters, crime novelist Ru-yi, (Ning Chang) and fashion photographer Ru-xing (Chu Chih-ying) live above each other in a small town apartment. Ru-yi is suffering from writer’s block with the deadline for her next manuscript closing in. While taking some random shots from her balcony, Ru-xing accidentally snaps a couple making love in an apartment block across the street. After some snooping Ru-xing discovers they are both married and having an affair. Armed with this information and a batch of steamy photographs, Ru-xing passes this on to Ru-yi which helps her get over her writer’s block. However one night Ru-xing sees an argument occurring between the two lovers and she thinks she sees a murder take place. Even worse, when developing the pictures, Ru-xing discovers that Ru-yi appears to be involved.

With its slick camera work and attractive cast, the promise early on is that we are to be treated to a sexy take on Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window, restoring the good old fashioned murder mystery to our screens. Sadly, we get a slightly messy and awkward sexless romp which trips over itself in trying to be too clever while piling on the twists in the final act. It’s not all bad but somehow around the halfway mark the potential this story had is sadly sprayed up the wall in a clumsy fashion.

The sisters couldn’t be any more different with the younger Ru-xing being the fancy free undisciplined while the older by a year Ru-yi is more motherly and organised. In fact, such is the poor character definition, one wouldn’t have them pegged as sister at all and it certainly is made too obvious in the script. She is down in the dumps over her writer’s block although we learn the true and more tragic reason for this later on which Ru-xing seems to have forgotten about despite it being quite a life changing incident in which she played a pivotal in accidental role. When Ru-xing’s photographic snooping begins she sees it as a bit of fun but is pleased when it provides some inspiration for blocked writer Ru-yi until Ru-xing witnesses the fateful argument. Using her guile Ru-xing persuades the doorman of the apartment block (Shih-chieh Chin) to let her into the room, which she learns is a popular room for copulating couples, and discovers Ru-yi’s wireless microphone hidden in the wall, forcing a confession out of her older sister.

It all sounds exciting enough and in many places it is but the narrative takes a bit of a detour with the sequence of events played and replayed in random fashion, sometimes in dreams, sometimes in Ru-yi’s fiction and sometimes in the film’s reality be it flashback or present time. Considering the straight laced nature of Ru-yi’s character her revelations are a little surprising since she actually has a husband and young child of her own and yet she feels stultified within her idyllic lifestyle. Then again all good mysteries need a swerve or two – unfortunately this is the only good one in the film. The actual pay off of the mystery arrives about thirty minutes from the end leaving us with half and hour of contrivances and borderline dues ex machina twists to help fill in the gaps, none of which actually make much sense once they are revealed.

And thus it is the messy ending which tries hard to be dramatic, and does in some places, but lacks any tension. Nothing is built up and Ru-yi does nothing to stop or silence her sister. No deceptions, no begging, no threats, just a big confession, followed by the protracted explanation which doesn’t really explain anything other than what happened on the night so no motives or anything are revealed, and… well, we’re left with a rather flat ending to be honest. It seems that the basic blueprint for a good mystery was not available to writers Kelly Yang and director Cho Li, or they had bigger ideas in their heads and were unable to fully realise them in their script. At just 86 minutes there was definitely room to develop both the characters and the mystery aspect of the plot leading to a tighter and tenser final act, rather than the unbalanced damp squib we got instead. Thankfully Ning Chang is charismatic (and photogenic) enough to bring some energy and personality to her role while Chu Chih-ying is given little else to but look glum and lifeless.

For a debut Zoom Hunting shows a lot of promise for Cho Li and on the technical front there are little faults, but the room for improvement on the story construction side is more than palpable. Watch as curiosity if you must but don’t set your expectations too high.