The Bold, The Corrupt, And The Beautiful (Xue guan yin)
Taiwan (2017) Dir. Yang Ya-che
Keep it in the family. That’s quite often a wise maxim to adhere to, especially for those with a criminal bent – after all, if you can’t trust your family, whom can you trust? Then again, I suppose it depends on how well your family has been trained in the business of being a bit shady, they might actually be your worst enemy…
A criminal syndicate dealing with dodgy real estate in Taiwan is headed by Madame Tang (Kara Hui), an antiques collector living a comfortable lie, with her two daughters Ning-Ning (Wu Ke Xi), the capricious vixen, and quiet teen Chen-Chen (Vicky Chen). Their small group of high flyers has government connections to help get the right wealthy people involved in their schemes.
When Tang’s government associate Mr. Lin and his family are killed, his teen daughter Pian-Pian (Wen Chen Ling) is the sole survivor but in a coma. Her secret boyfriend Marco (Wu Shu Wei) is the prime suspect, yet evidence suggests he is innocent. With Chen-Chen having a crush on Marco and Ning-Ning wooing investigating police officer Liao (Aaron Fu), Madame Tang has to use all her wits to keep her family out of trouble.
The biggest draw of The Bold, The Corrupt, And The Beautiful is likely to be the novelty of a female led Asian crime drama where women are usually the femme fatale or trophy wife to the Machiavellian male. Whether Yang Ya-che is making the statement that women can be as morally bad as men or making films featuring women in traditional male roles is open for debate.
In many ways, it is very likely to be the latter as the men in the cast are all pretty much pawns in the game the women are playing, from Marco to Mr. Lin to Liao – each one is dependent on the women in one way or another rather than vice versa. It has to be said this is incredibly refreshing and doesn’t feel like a gimmick at all, even if it implies that females of the species are indeed deadlier than the male.
Yet for all the clichés and familiar plot beats regarding the shady dealings the true heart of the story is the three females of the Tang family, their complex relationship and their actions because of it. After a while, the issue of the misused money and the real estate that has become national news fades into the background, just like the TV bulletins that provide us with updates on the development while the family drama is unfolding.
Really, this aspect of the story is merely functional in framing the behaviour of Madame Tang and her daughters. At first she seems like the strong, dignified, loving matriarch with a good social standing but the veil exponentially slips to reveal a woman hardened by her own life experiences for better or for worse.
That Ning-Ning is a mess of pills, booze, and tawdry one-night stands posits her mother as a saint trying to support her wayward daughter. However, Ning-Ning is such a mess because she was a key asset in her mother’s dealings, and now is damaged goods and of little use, leaving Chen-Chen to be groomed as the next prodigy in crime.
A shameful state of affairs that begs the question what kind of mother would treat her own daughter like that, but the answer is in the film’s title. All three Tang females are ambiguous characters but Ning-Ning’s is possibly the most tragic. We never know if she willingly worked for her mother or if she was forced into it, or if her descent into self-destruction is a result of or a coping mechanism for her former lurid lifestyle.
Later in the film a revelation is dropped which should have been a shocker except it was brought up nonchalantly and, in the context of this family, didn’t seem that much of a surprise. This sounds horrible to say but that is the scenario, with redemption and reconciliation looking to be off the menu for Ning-Ning and her mother.
Chen-Chen’s arc is equally fascinating to follow, the angelic observer with the slowly melting butter in her mouth. The love triangle between her, Marco and Pian-Pian feels distorted because of the ages of the principals, Chen-Chen being the youngest by a stretch, unable to give Marco what he wants and needs – not that he is looking at Chen-Chen anyway.
Marco provides a class status issue too, being the stable boy for the Lins means he is automatically not good enough for Pian-Pian and an easy scapegoat for the murder. Chen-Chen is the only one who can save Marco, hiding him out in the back of her house, but when Pian-Pian awakens from her coma, the callous genes in Chen-Chen’s DNA start to stir.
Realistically the film could have started with the Lin’s murder having already occurred instead of a messy 30-minute build-up, complete with bizarre musical exposition dumps via a traditional Chinese musician which frankly adds nothing, jarring against the gut-wrenching poignancy of the drama in the second half. Left as a human drama centred on a flawed family this would have been a superior film.
The real reward however is the lead performances of three different characters sharing the same characteristics. Kara Hui may be all gravitas yet has a vitality to make her current career resurgence justified, which is complimented by Wu Ke Xi haunting essaying of the protean, tragic hot mess Ning-Ning, and the extraordinary Vicky Chen, exuding youthful innocence and professional maturity in this trying role as Chen-Chen.
It feels like Yang Ya-che was trying to make two films in one with The Bold, The Corrupt, And The Beautiful when just one would have sufficed. The corruption plot is undercooked and almost redundant but the complex family drama more than compensates. Focus on this instead and you’ll find a compelling, dark tale of dangerous DNA to enjoy!