The opening of White Ant immediately draws us into a sad and lonely existence. A young man called Bai Yide, played by Chris Wu – a former model whom many will recognise from his work in the Taiwanese Television shows such as Autumn Concerto (2009) and King Flower (2013) and Autumn Concerto) – is seen stealing underwear from a neighbour. The film then cuts to him wearing the underwear masturbating furiously in front of a mirror. At the point of climax breaks down into tears and this linkage of shame, anger, desire and despair becomes the tone for the rest of the film. A day later he receives a grainy DVD showing him stealing the bra and pants. We find out that two university students had seen him steal the underwear and one of them, Junhong (Aviss Jong), is outraged at what she sees as his sexual depravity. She finds out where Bai works and lives and begins to anonymously harass him until a tragedy ensues.
White Ant is the narrative feature debut of Chu Hsien-che, who worked as a documentarian for more than 20 years with his most notable films: West Island (2000), Pick of the Litter-Stray Dogs in Taiwan (2001) and An Exposure of Affected Hospital (2007) all having received festival screenings. Chu’s documentary heritage can be seen in the hand-held and raw camera and editing style that makes White Ant an often difficult film to watch. The camera moves with the characters and in a similar fashion that the chase sequences in David Fincher’s Seven (1995) all those years ago made audience members feel rather queasy, some more actives sequences were discombobulating as the camera moves quickly with characters. The actors and the scenery that surround them fade in and out of focus through the film. This works well to stress the isolation that the characters feel but is not always a pleasant viewing experience.
Dispute this issue aside, the film is strong of showing us the complex but very deep emotions that the charterers are undergoing. The camera is never intrusive but manages to capture the complexities of the situation. Taiwanese cinema has always been strong on bringing intimate portraits of family life, love and lose to the screen (think of the work of Edward Yang whose retrospective is also taking place at HKIFF 2017) and White Ant is a solid contribution to this tradition. Jungtong, in her own way, is as equally lost as Bai. Throughout the film she is learning to scuba dive, not to see the deep blue sea but to find a place where she can be completely alone with her thoughts. Jungtong’s former lover has moved away without explanation and her best friend and roommate is beginning to want to be with her boyfriend more than Jungtong and Juntong is left alone with her parrot. It is perhaps this sense of isolation that drive her to torment Bai as an outsider she can displace all her emotional anger onto. Despite all her proclamations that he is pervert and deserves to suffer, White Ant easily show how she becomes a cruel and unsympathetic bully to a man who has in no way harmed her or anyone else.
This sense of injustice is throughout the film. Bai’s mother is desperate to help her son but her own sense of guilt means she is unable to ever really step back and evaluate the situation clearly. She blames herself for her husband’s death, Bai’s mental health and, once he is gone, her own desire to keep living despite the tragedy that has taken place. In one of the most distressing scenes she sits fully clothed in her workshop sobbing and then masturbating as a method to try and gain some comfort. Ironically it is the guilt-wracked Jungtong who will eventually manage to help her and the two women try to find a way to come to terms with the situation.
The film is about sexual fetishism, and the film does attempt to show sensitivity and a sense of understanding for for Bai’s desires (which after all, don’t really hurt anyone else), but cannot move beyond a belief that any abnormal sexual desire is clearly a sign of deeper mental health issues. We learn that Bai believes there is a voice in his hair and had been under the care of a psychiatrist most of his childhood. This fact leads to the the main issue I have with the film. The decision to make the cause of Bai’s proclivities the old Freudian chestnut of seeing you mother in the act of coitus. The need to blame the mother for the son’s sexual desires ensure that the blame for Bai and the entire tragedy is placed onto female characters, his mother for her actions when he was a child and Jungtong for her failure to show sympathy for him.
White Ant certainly visualizes desire as a destructive and often painful urge but one that humans cannot help but to act upon. The film is very well acted and it is a sign of a good director that you feel tremendous sympathy for the difficult and awkward characters and the situation in which they find themselves. Chu’s first feature film has a lot to recommend it and I look forward to his next foray into fiction.
White Ant was shown on April 14 and 18 the Hong Kong International Film Festival.