The Last Verse (Taiwan, 2017) [Reel Asian 2017]
Opening in the rose-tinted recent past and ending in a hopeless present, Tseng Ying-Ting’s drama The Last Verse episodically chronicles the gradual erosion of a romantic relationship against the backdrop of Taiwan’s fluctuating economy from 2000 to 2016.
During the kind of hazy summer that is now familiar from copious Taiwanese youth movies, easygoing teenager Ren-jie (Fu Meng-Po) meets the lovely Xiao-ping (Wen Chen-Ling) and they begin dating. Ren-jie likes to write poems, a pastime which Xiao-ping finds charming, although he harbours no serious artistic aspirations. She waits for him while he undertakes mandatory military service and plans for them to start a life in Taipei which will involve saving for their own home and taking trips abroad. Unfortunately, a succession of hurdles will scupper her dreams of marital bliss.
A few weeks before Ren-jie completes his conscription, his estranged father commits suicide, unable to live with the shame of having gone broke from the failure of his towel factory and the desertion of his wife as a result of his violent temperament. Although he gets a job in the financial sector, Ren-jie inherits his father’s heavy debt to a local gangster whose henchmen use increasingly vicious methods to ‘encourage’ him to pay it off. Further money-related matters continue to drive a wedge between him and Xiao-ping. By the time Ren-jie has switched jobs to work for an apartment rental agency, professional dissatisfaction has led him to use vacant properties to fool around with a mistress and mull the idea of pursuing a business venture on the mainland. Meanwhile, Xiao-ping has a more upscale career with a lifestyle magazine yet still yearns for the simple rewards of marriage and a family.
This is a consciously muted affair in which a sense of disenchantment with the cards that have been dealt by life pervades every frame from the midway point onwards. In the background, television news footage notes political changes, from the election of Chen Shui‑bian in 2000, followed by Ma Ying-jeou in 2008 and his efforts to liberalize trade through an open economy, to the inauguration of Tsai Ing-wen in 2016. Initially, it seems that Tseng is commenting on how regular lives are shaped by wider forces beyond their control, but the pitfalls that befall the central couple – family debt, jealousy, secrets, the avoidance of intimacy – are not caused by shifts in governance.
Rather, these difficulties are universal and whether or not they escalate to the point of emotional disintegration is comes down to facing a situation responsibly as a united partnership rather than playing the blame game. The debt that Ren-jie is strong-armed into repaying is at first seen as a curse which is cruelly passed from one generation to another and can spread to the lives of others, such as Xiao-ping or her aunt (Huang Jou-Min) who is called on to help alleviate the financial burden. However, while Xiao-ping sees the debt as a problem to be dealt with and moved on from, an indignant Ren-jie provokes the loan sharks in borderline self-masochistic fashion, behavior that possibly stems from guilt over essentially disowning his father just before his suicide. Matters get to the point that Xiao-ping does not feel safe in their home and the loan sharks resort to torture after endeavoring to work out an interest-free repayment plan.
As the beleaguered couple, Fu and Wen are decent, if somewhat hindered by an episodic structure that requires sudden jumps in performance. The opening section certainly presents their Ren-jie’s courtship of Xiao-ping as a period of bliss before a sustained torrent of strife, but it is glimpsed so fleetingly that it becomes hard to see why she remains loyal to him thereafter. Pained by averageness, Ren-jie strives for poetry in his life by forcing it to fit a tragic arc. Likewise, Tseng tries to give his film a sense of gravitas, which, as is often sadly the case with young filmmakers, culminates with the male protagonist obtaining a gun to forcibly project his failings on to someone else. In its strongest stanzas, though, this is a potent distillation of life unfulfilled that leaves the audience to decide whether such misfortune is irrevocably fated or self-inflicted.
The Last Verse is showing on November 12 at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival.
About The Author
John Berra is lecturer at Tsinghua University. He is the editor of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan (Intellect, 2010/12/15) and co-editor of World Film Locations: Beijing (Intellect, 2012) and World Film Locations: Shanghai (Intellect, 2014). He has contributed to Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema (BFI, 2014), Ozu International: Essays on the Global Influences of a Japanese Auteur (Bloomsbury, 2014) and Killers, Clients and Kindred Spirits: The Taboo Cinema of Shohei Imamura (EUP, 2019).