(Sex) Appeal (Han chan xiao ying)

Taiwan (2014) Dir. Wang Wei-Ming

This debut from former actor and TV movie director Wang Wei-Ming comes with the dreaded “Based on a true story” preface but from the way this drama plays out, it was more an inspiration than a direct adaptation. Thus we can at least breathe a sigh of relief that we are not seeing something which is likely to distort the facts in the name of dramatic license.

What begins as a fairly straightforward rape case becomes a heavily tangled web of emotions and damaged reputations with more than just the principal players being harmed by the fall out. At the centre of this situation is Bai Hui-hua (Amber Kuo), a 22 year-old clarinettist studying for her master’s degree under the charismatic music professor Li Jen-fang (Leon Dai). Bai applies for a job as Li’s assistant and they conduct the interview over lunch, after which they return to Li’s office where he rapes Bai.

Two months later Bai attempts suicide so the school counsellor Wang Wen-hui (Jade Chou) steps in, guesses the reason and assigns lawyer Lin An-ni (Alyssa Chia) to represent Bai until Lin realises her husband Li is involved. So Wang calls up an old lawyer friend from Taipei Fang An-yu (Vivian Hsu) to take over the case. When the case becomes local news with Bai’s suicide attempt being reported as due to her apparent affair with Li. Being very popular teacher everyone takes Li’s side so instead of filing a rape charge, Fang suggests they sue for compensation.

What makes this more than your run of the mill rap story is how widespread the effect of it is on many parties, on both a personal and professional level. It is part law drama, part human interest drama and part moral exploration presented in a glossy but powerful manner that provokes on many levels. In a world of saccharin dramas and light comedies this is a bold step for Taiwanese cinema to be so confrontational and hopefully it will mark a new wave of similarly tense dramas.

Moving rather quickly the offending crime occurs less than twenty minutes into the film which may not seem long enough for an attraction to fully form but one look at Li and we can see he is an experienced player who will take what he wants. The act itself isn’t shown in detail, leaving us to focus on Bai’s stunned, pained face as Li takes her from behind. This is followed up but a potently creepy later scene in which Li silently cradles Bai’s teary face against his chest as if he is forgiving her for what he did.

This is where the widespread after effects of the rape begin to manifest themselves in the moral quandary Lin is forced to endure. She evidently feels duty bound to stand by her husband and defend him in court yet the signs are she is actually aware of his infidelity – whether he instigated it or not – are subtly present. When Lin visits Bai in hospital and recognises her husband’s flowers in a vase she didn’t seem so surprised to learn of his involvement.

Another innocent affected by this is fellow student Wang Mu-hung (Sean Huang), who Bai meets on the train to the Academy in Taitung. Wang takes a shine to Bei and while they hang out a lot nothing occurs between them, presumably because of Wang’s lower class status. When the scandal breaks Wang attacks Li but his motive may not be as noble as it first seems.

The script is well crafted but with so many facets that require deeper exploration it could have done with an extension on the 109 minute runtime to flesh some of these points out. The most underplayed of these is a student demonstration against the building of a hotel complex which appears mid way through the film but is neither explained nor concluded. More important subplots not given enough attention include Fang’s own custody battle over her son, and the relationship between Bai and her mother, another subplot which serves more as convenient distraction.

Wang Wei-Ming’s direction is competent and robust with little in the way of innovation, outside of the tense courtroom scenes in which Bai is secluded behind a glass partition from the main chamber. The use of her reflection shown over the background image of the battling lawyers is a simple but stunning visual trick to tell the tale with a single shot without having to rely on back and forth cuts.

The courtroom battles themselves are fiercely contested affairs which see both women not just display their prowess as barristers but it gradually reveals their emotional sides and the strain it is taking on them. Alyssa Chia and Vivian Hsu are both reliable veterans, the latter having gone through the model, pop singer and eye candy route, and deliver strong and commanding performances both in and away from the courtroom. Hsu, eschews her previous glamour image to play Fang and comes out with some credibility, while Chai makes Lin quite sympathetic.

Amber Kuo is another actress/singer who has to dial down her cute appeal to play the conflicted and traumatised Bai, and acquits herself admirably with a touching essaying of her toughest role to date. Leon Dai is another established name at Wang’s disposal whose presence adds much to the proceedings despite having the least amount of screen time of the main cast.

(Sex) Appeal is a film about truth and consequences, responsibility and loyalty, singular and group suffering. This is not a film with a happy or feel good ending even though the conclusion is resolute and it’s many messages and confrontational take on the themes raised hit hard thanks to the committed performances of the cast. It may follow fairly conventional patterns but for Wang, this is a strong debut.