Someone in the Clouds (Taiwan, 2019) [NYAFF 2019]

Weng Hsiao-pei (Yao Yi-Ti) is an aspiring reader of tarot cards, following in her grandfather’s footsteps. She uses her gift to give romantic advice to paying men and women. When presented with the possibility of romance herself – with the over-confident and immature Ma Chiung-nan (Austin Lin) – Hsiao-pei is not quite as self-assured.

Directors Mitch Lin and Gary Tseng reunite following their collaboration on the documentary A Journey with Invisible Friends (2018) for this sharp romantic comedy that comes with a familiar obsession with sex, and an unexpected level of complexity in its filmmaking technique. Enjoying the film requires an ability to engage with the broad combination of heightened performances and slapstick humour that tend to dominate North Asian cinema, but within its cultural context it is a smart and breezy piece of work.

Someone in the Clouds succeeds largely on the back of a particularly talented cast. Yao and Austin Lin are exceptional leads, particularly in combination with Mitch Lin’s screenplay. Hsiao-pei and Chiung-nan are deeply flawed individuals. They both succumb to petty jealousies, and both take time to mock, insult, and otherwise mistreat one another. In lesser hands both roles could come across as actively unlikeable, however the actors add a huge amount of charisma and personal chemistry. The result is pair of multi-faceted and, more importantly, deeply enjoyable characters. Key support is provided by Tsai Cheng-nan as Hsiao-pei’s grandfather and Phoebe Huang, who recently delivered a knockout performance in Dad’s Suit (2018), as her wayward relationship-seeking mother. Huang’s performance is a sharp contrast to her work in Dad’s Suit, replacing that work’s naturalism with this film’s exaggerated comic sensibility. Jordan Chan has an entertaining extended cameo as one of Hsiao-pei’s tarot-reading clients.

Hsiao-pei’s readings make for one on the more fascinating aspects of the film, as they are treated as an everyday and perfectly sensible aspect of everyday life. The readings do not reveal direct predictions or directions; instead they offer characters general guidance and advice. One romantic match might be read as a risky proposition, or likely to lead to better fortune than others. Taken on its own merits, such astrological advice seems rather farcical, but the manner in which the characters (and Taiwanese culture generally) receives it gives it an internal legitimacy.

On a technical level the film is presented with a surfeit of colour and some unexpected narrative flair. The story often jumps back and forth in a non-linear fashion, with momentary flashback to key events. Events are divided into chapters, emphasising both the passing of time and repeated motif of New Year celebrations. When the film is at its most overtly comedic, it almost feels like a cartoon: bright colours, vivid lighting, and a rapid sense of pace. Locations in Taipei and nearby Keelung are captured wonderfully. At times the film veers close to mild arthouse pretensions, but in the main keeps an even track along a mainstream comedy route.

International viewers may struggle a little with the bold sense of comedy. It is a typical feature of many Asian films in the genre, but for viewers in the English-speaking world at least it often comes across as a little too broad and silly to handle. Someone in the Clouds occasionally falls into this broad style – particularly during an extended physical sequence in which Chiung-nan injures his groin, gets set on fire, and is beaten by Hsiao-pei – but this potentially silliness is well compensated by the richness of the characters and the enjoyable plotting. The film makes for a creditable addition to a popular genre; audiences seeking such fare will find much to enjoy.

Someone in the Clouds is showing at the New York Asian Film Festival 2019 on July 13.