High Flash (Taiwan, 2018) [Reel Asian 2018]

Traditional drums thunder as local fishermen in a small Taiwanese fishing village protest against the encroachment of a petrochemical plant on their livelihood and community. Suddenly, a boat—engulfed in flames—races towards the chaotic scene. A fisherman is found dead of an apparent self-immolation, and his compatriots declare him a martyr for their cause. But once it becomes clear that he did not intend to set himself on fire, questions begin to swirl about what really happened.

“Wounds don’t bleed after death,” declares medical examiner Chou (Kang Jen Wu). But when he is assigned to this case along with dedicated prosecutor Jin (Yao Yi Ti), old wounds become fresh again. Jin previously broke off her engagement with Chou, and, amidst the stress of this high-profile case and their differing viewpoints on it, the two wrestle with shared history

Ching Shen Chuang’s feature High Flash combines social commentary, romance, a compelling crime narrative, and political intrigue. The result is a taut thriller that will not only have viewers guessing, but will also leave them with thought-provoking moral and ethical questions.

The movie feels like a heightened, Taiwanese version of the popular American TV crime procedural Bones, which ran from 2005 to 2017 and followed the exploits of a forensic anthropologist who solves crimes with the FBI. But it stands out by raising important questions—questions that would be relevant to anyone who cares about the welfare of local communities. You don’t have to be a Taiwanese fisherman to question how corporations can grow wealthier and wealthier on the backs of the most vulnerable, or how greed leads people to put money ahead of environmental stewardship.

The two main actors give memorable performances; the complicated relationship between the medical examiner and the prosecutor, who just happens to be his ex-fiancée, feels real and never gives way to saccharine or melodramatic moments. Both have the utmost respect for their positions. Chou protects those who were taken from life too early, even speaking to the deceased while performing autopsies. Jin upholds the law, pursuing justice even if it means paying a high price. Both learn how easily power can be wrested away and how intimidation can be used as a weapon to silence those who dare to speak out, with devastating effects.

There is so much to unpack here that there are a few threads that feel underdeveloped. A plotline involving the victim’s son, who is ill, leaves viewers with lingering questions. Another plotline, involving a young journalist determined to prove herself, is meant to be essential but ends up feeling tangential, which is a shame given the crucial role the media plays as high-profile cases are often tried in the court of public opinion. The ending feels unexpected, and yet it fits in with the theme of the movie.

High Flash is at once a stunning indictment of corporate greed and a nuanced portrait of life in a small fishing village. Riveting and multilayered, it is a thought-provoking film that will linger with the viewer long after the credits roll.

High Flash was shown on November 12 at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival.