A Leg (Taiwan, 2020) [NYAFF 2021]

A Leg, a dark comedy by novice Taiwanese director Chang Yao-sheng, follows a rather unlikely plotline: a husband dies an unexpected death, then his severed leg goes missing in the labyrinth of a hospital, causing the man’s stubborn wife to turn the institution upside down in search of the appendage so the deceased and his leg can finally be “reunited” before the funeral. Although this ambitious satire holds great promises, the delivery ultimately falls a bit short due to uneven writing.  

Chang’s directorial debut starts out with a bang, offering quite a few funny moments as it pokes fun at the bureaucracy of large hospitals, giving us the impression that this is a commentary about the red tape of Taiwan’s medical system. But it soon switches gears and we are presented with glimpses of a love story slowly gone bad. Zihan (Yo Yang) and Yuying (Gwei Lun-mei) meet on the ballroom dance floor, and their love blossoms. They soon start a dance studio of their own, though it isn’t always profitable. Zihan, less of a dancer than a dreamer, begins to think of unrealistic ways to raise money, including through gambling and money scams, causing a lot of strain on the marriage. The couple’s relationship hits its lowest point when Yuying discovers Zihan is also having an affair. 

When Zihan falls ill with a necrotic wound in one leg caused by an earlier injury, Yuying agrees to have it amputated after the doctor insists that’s the only way to save Zihan’s life. But the effort proves futile, and Zihan dies shortly thereafter. In an effort to preserve Zihan’s last bit of dignity, Yuying demands that the leg be returned, only to realize that it is lost somewhere in the basement of the large hospital. Thus begins her mission to find it, causing many embarrassing moments along the way.

The leg, to be sure, can be seen as a metaphor that symbolizes the beautiful start of the couple’s romance. However, Chang, a novelist turned director who co-wrote the screenplay for A Sun (2019) director Chung Mong-hong, also wants it to double as a symbol for the inflexibility of Taiwan’s medical system. For the “leg” to fulfill both roles, Chang adopts a dual-perspective narrative: one involving flashbacks from Zihan’s point of view as he recounts how the happy marriage eventually deteriorates; the other moves chronologically from Yuying’s vantage point, detailing her trials and tribulations in her quest for the missing leg, each attempt more desperate than the one before.  

This ambitious framing might have worked if Chang had better integrated the parallel storylines in his writing. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen, as Zihan’s voice-from-the-past is shot with highly stylized flair, complete with classical music and dancing. Towards the end, it evokes a somber and melancholic mood as Zihan goes off the deep end with his troubles. The flash-forward thread of Yuying’s tale, meanwhile, is done in the mode of black humor and slapstick that’s more evocative of Godspeed (2016) and The Great Buddha+ (2017). This creates a huge chasm between the crisscrossing plotlines, making the female lead appear more like a schizophrenic ragdoll flip flopping between elegant ice-queen and angry, demanding brute. The disconnect creates a lot of confusion, and the film would have benefited hugely had Chang focused mainly on Yuying’s storyline.

Another issue is the setup of the story, which doesn’t always hold up very well. For example, Zihan first attracts Yuying’s attention on the dance floor with his good looks and dancing skills. But he soon swaps the dance floor for the gambling table, amassing debts as he goes. It is hard to imagine a sophisticated Yiying falling for such a flawed and naïve character for a husband. She stays with him despite his affairs, even fighting to the bitter end to save his dignity. Perhaps there’s something in Zihan’s past that has clouded his sense, but without the back story, there’s no way for us to tell. In the end, Zihan comes off as a rather unsympathetic character, making the couple’s romance a bit unconvincing.

Be that as it may, A Leg does have some bright spots. Gwei, also a lead in Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014) and The Wild Goose Lake (2019), who plays Yuying, gives a laudable performance, both as a dignified wife and as an argumentative battle ax who will stop at nothing to achieve her goal. She shows great range in this film, a far cry from her earlier performances.  

Similarly, the cinematography and aesthetic used in Zihan’s narrative as well as the black humor in Yuying’s storyline are both well executed. Despite only having small parts early on as policemen, Chen Yiwen and Chang Li-tung bring sparks to the story with their well-timed humor, giving the audience a taste of subtle, Taiwanese-style absurdity that the film could use more of. A Leg also gives us a good insider look at the bureaucracy and ineptitude of Taiwan’s hospitals, and by extension, the larger medical system in the world. And for that, it’s worth the money.

A Leg is showing at the New York Asian Film Festival on August 15.