Murmur Of The Hearts (Nian nian)
Taiwan/Hong Kong (2015) Dir. Sylvia Chang
As one of Taiwan’s most respected actresses, Sylvia Chang also likes to step behind the camera too. With films like 20 30 40 and Run Papa Run to her credit Chang displays a keen sense of diversity in the themes and stories for the films she directs, her latest, Murmur Of The Hearts being a further testament to that.
The story concerns three people all beholden to the same problems of suppressed childhood memories, two of which are from the same family. Mei (Isabella Leong) is an artist living in Taipei with her boxer boyfriend Hsiang (Joseph Chang), although the relationship is a bit rocky. Mei was brought to Taiwan as a child by her mother Jen (Angelica Lee) from the tiny Green Island off the coast of Taiwan, leaving her younger brother Nan (Lawrence Ko) behind with their abusive father.
Nan is now a tour guide on the island and knows nothing about his estranged family, especially that his mother has passed on. Mei falls pregnant but ends up fighting with Hsiang all the time, causing her to question their future, while pondering about her former life on Green Island as the ideas of motherhood increases its hold on her. Meanwhile Hsiang’s boxing career comes to an abrupt and rude ending which re-opens old wounds concerning his absent father.
What prevents this film from being a dreary and fraught melodrama is the non-linear narrative and fantasy flashbacks, largely concerning the siblings and their late mother, which might not make this an immediate film to get to grips with for some viewers. The main story takes a while to establish itself as a result but once the characters have been suitably introduced the plot begins to take effect.
The connecting thread is the story of the mermaids that Jen used to tell her children which not only enchanted them but gave them a better appreciation for marine life, their environment and an inherent artistic flair. Chang illustrates these moments with some beautifully shot underwater scene of the aforementioned mermaid, often resembling both Jen and Mei. The ideal created here is the freedom of movement the water affords them, something their surface lives and responsibilities prohibit them.
If the heartache of the three leads is the same their personalities are wildly different – Mei is temperamental, admitting she only feels alive when she is angry, yet she is a deeply emotional woman wracked by paranoid visions of a shadow less man following her. Nan is a devout churchgoer and a sensitive chap who is uncertain about locating his estranged family.
Hsiang meanwhile fails to progress as a boxer, a role he assumed to please his father, a sailor who was rarely home, whom he believed felt had sired a future champion. Unfortunately he hasn’t been seen since and a problematic vision issue forces Hsiang’s trainer (Wang Shih-hsien) to cut him free, which sends Hsiang into a downward spiral. It is hardly a surprise then that Mei is hesitant to announce her pregnancy to Hsiang.
Chang and script co-writer Yukihiko Kageyama throw in some nice hope spots in the journey of the siblings crossing paths again, from some possibly unnoticed touches to totally plausible coincidences, tying in with the angels motif established through Jen’s fairy stories. Nan arrives in Taitung for a tour guide seminar while Mei is also there attending a book signing, leading to some cute near misses between them and a helping hand from the same source.
As contrived as this sounds they certainly don’t come across that way and are effective in making the viewer bite their knuckles at the thought of what could have been. The most poignant moment comes when Nan has too much to drink and as his adult self walks into his family’s noodle bar where he and his mother have a heartfelt conversation saying all the things that had remained unspoken over the intervening years. It is pure fantasy but a warm and touching one.
The final act sees convention rear its head, albeit with a touch of ambiguity in the case of Hsiang’s resolution and with an attempt at misdirection which frankly was too obvious to be fooled by, but is well executed now the less. That said Chang doesn’t spoon feed us a fully resolved ending but doesn’t leave us on a sour note either which would have been the final straw for many had the scattershot narrative already put them off, which would be shame if this was the case.
Chang is a great example of an actor-turned-director understanding both aspects of filmmaking, in that she films everything as a director, with an avid eye for shot composition, the best subject for photography pacing and creating the right moods, whilst knowing exactly what she wants from her cast, using her own experience to coax the best performance out of them.
When we first meet Mei, she appears to be a typical bohemian-esque artist with a capricious temperament but Isabella Leong is able to transform her into a fully fleshed emotional human being at odds with herself. She engenders audience sympathy but the caveat of her nervous edge threatens to compromise this. Hsiang arguably grows the most during the film, superbly essayed by Joseph Chang who creates a credible human being behind the touchy pugilist.
Lawrence Ko has the least work to do as nice guy Nan, although his dream sequence with his mother is his shining moment of the film, the denouement notwithstanding. Angelica Lee will be the most recognisable face thanks to cult horror hit The Eye but here she radiates the requisite ethereal qualities of the loving mother Jen in her heart-warming cameo appearances.
After a muddled start Murmur Of The Hearts settles down into a rewarding meditation on facing up to one’s past in order to move on in the future. A few wrinkles aside, this is an evocative and poetic slice of Taiwanese cinema.