It is Mother’s Day in Taiwan and the nominal hero of Parking – upwardly mobile professional Chen-Mo (Chang Chen) – is having a particularly eventful evening. Chen-Mo wakes up in his car after pulling an all-nighter at work, then calls his estranged wife (Lunmei Kwai) in order to make a dinner date that will hopefully be the first step in repairing their ruptured relationship; she asks Chen-Mo to pick up a cake for dessert and requests that he buy one from a bakery that is located in what could be described as the wrong part of Taipei. After purchasing a chocolate cake, Chen-Mo finds that he is unable to drive home because his exit has been blocked by another vehicle that has parked illegally. Chen-Mo proceeds to try to find the driver of the double-parked car, a seemingly mundane task that proves unexpectedly problematic as he encounters the inhabitants of the nearby building, some of whom turn out to be the kind of people whose helpfulness restores one’s faith in human nature, while others are decidedly dangerous. His misadventures take in a one-armed barber (Jack Kao) with a fish head in his bathroom sink, an elderly couple living taking care of their granddaughter, a tailor from Hong Kong (Chapman To) who is hiding from his creditors, and a vicious pimp (Leon Dai) with no qualms about over-working a prostitute from mainland China (Peggy Tseng). Chen-Mo becomes increasingly infuriated with his predicament, especially when he fails to take advantage of opportunities to drive away and repeatedly finds his vehicle trapped, his anger culminating in a confrontation with the pimp and his henchman. Even when Chen-Mo seems to have escaped the area, he finds himself being prompted to return, with flashbacks to the recent arguments with his wife explaining why he feels he has unfinished business that needs attending to.
On paper, the set-up of Parking recalls the ‘yuppie nightmare’ cycle of 1980s American cinema, movies such as Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), John Landis’ Into the Night (1985) and Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (1986) in which straight-laced guys take unplanned walks on the wild side, thereby loosening-up their buttoned-down behaviour. However, while the events of Mong-Hong Chung’s debut feature Parking escalate in a similar manner, they are realised in an altogether less manic way, with Chong achieving a dreamlike atmosphere which makes much of the inter-connectedness that occurs completely acceptable in cinematic terms. In this respect, Parking also invites comparisons with the literary fiction of Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami, such as the latter’s 2004 novella After Dark, which takes place in a downtown district of Tokyo where a student waits for the morning train that will take her back to the suburbs. Yet it is unfair to entirely filter an analysis of Parking through filmic or literary reference points, as Chung’s superbly crafted black comedy offers a microcosm of contemporary Taipei within the confines of its self-contained urban universe; locals leading lives that are either responsible (Chen-Mo) or irresponsible (the pimp), immigrants seeking work (the prostitute) or safety (the tailor) all collide in a part of the city that is probably due for redevelopment, while the impending rejuvenation of the area will effectively erase the past that the barber and the elderly couple are still living in. This is a neighbourhood where a barber will cut the hair of a regular customer even though he has closed for the day and help out a stranger who cannot get out of his parking space, but also where a pimp will peddle his ‘merchandise’ for quick income and inflict bodily harm on anyone who dares to question his attitude, thereby reflecting both positive and negative aspects of Taiwanese society.
As much of Parking has the feeling of a lucid dream – with Chen-Mo eventually arranging the elements in order accordance with his familial and societal value system – it runs the risk of succumbing to hermetically-sealed contrivance, no matter how well Chung’s cinematography captures the after-hours ambiance. Fortunately, the film revolves around a terrific performance from Chen, the quietly charismatic actor who made his screen debut in Edward Yang’s street gang epic A Brighter Summer Day (1991). Chen imbues Chen-Mo with an everyman quality, showing how his character’s struggle with marital tension is infringing on his fundamentally decent nature in a terse early exchange with the baker, but reveals his sympathetic side when spending time with the elderly couple and their granddaughter, then gives into understandable fits of frustration due to the inconvenience caused by inconsiderate double-parking. The scene with the elderly couple is note-perfect as Chen-Mo is politely coerced into pretending to ‘Little Ma’, the father of the little girl who has actually been executed due to his involvement in an ill-fated kidnapping scheme; Chen-Mo adopts the role of ‘Little Ma’ and invents an alternative present in which their ‘son’ has been sent to the United States by his company, with Chen’s low-key performance making this seem like an entirely justifiable deception. It’s a scene which recalls Auster’s short fiction Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story – first published in The New York Times on Christmas Day 1990 and subsequently filmed by Wayne Wang as the closing section of his multi-stranded Auster collaboration Smoke (1995) – and is similarly affecting as the audience is unsure as to whether the blind mother really believes that her son has come to visit, or if she is just playing along with the fantasy. An excellent example of the accessible art-house cinema that is being produced in Taiwan, Parking is smart, stylish and very satisfying.