Leaving Virginia (Taiwan, 2020) [SF IndieFest 2021]

Graduating student Big D (Isaac Yang) is on the eve of his 18th birthday and desperate to lose his virginity. When his best friend Xu Lie (Ng Siu-hin) fools him into thinking his penis will shrink and wither if he does not have sex before his birthday, Big D goes on a mission to find sex, whatever the cost.

Leaving Virginia is a raucous sex comedy directed by Lin Li-shu. Well, at least it is for roughly half an hour of its 100-minute running time. From there, it’s genre and tone shift considerably into a confusing combination of moody drama and pitch-black comedy, punctuated with misplaced bursts of whimsy. From moment to moment there are well-played scenes, as well as strong character insights and dialogue. The problem is that each feels as if it is from a different movie. It is, all things considered, a catastrophic combination.

Poorly considered or misjudged films are made all the time, but in the overwhelming majority of cases it was at least clear what a filmmaker was aiming to create. In the case of Leaving Virginia it simply is not apparent what Lin intended. The characters seem randomly developed in all sorts of directions. Xu Lie and Big D seem obsessed with pursuing sex with women – except in those scenes when they are behaving in the most actively homo-erotic ways imaginable. They are puerile and unlikeable – except when the film requires them to be philosophical and emotionally troubled. Moments of drama are punctuated by strange graffiti-like cartoons animated on the edges of the picture. Moments of light comedy are rammed headlong against the cold reality that both young men are attempting to dispose of the body of a dead sex worker. Sticking with an immature teenage sex comedy would not have delivered a particularly good film, but it would have at least delivered an understandable one.

Assisting the boys in their criminal escapade is Xishi (Berry Kuo), who runs a street market stall out of her garishly pink van. She watches Xu Lie and Big D on their home-made Internet channel, and is clearly infatuated with them, yet it beggars belief to see her openly assist in dumping a dead body with two people whom she has never met. An early plot thread about market dealers being bullied by organized criminals is dumped as abruptly as the sex comedy angle. Attempts to combine elements of comedy and bleak tragedy in Xishi’s story fail miserably. Its treatment of the dead sex worker, an innocent victim of misadventure, is crass in the extreme, and leaves a foul taste in the mouth.

The film’s final hour suffers not just from tone problems but also pacing issues. It slows to a crawl in key scenes and loses whatever chaotic momentum it once had. Getting to the midway point takes patience. From there, getting to the end requires a steely resolve.

All three leads do their best with the material, and admittedly have a strong take on both the comedic and dramatic elements, but they are entirely let down by the ill-advised, mystifying screenplay. It simply defies logic. Lin is clearly a writer/director with strong potential, but in executing this particular film, jaw-dropping mistakes have been made. It is difficult to work out precisely which audience Leaving Virginia is aimed at. I have a growing suspicion that it simply does not have one. This is a colossal-scale movie disaster.

Leaving Virginia is streaming as part of SF IndieFest from February 4-21.