Early in Maren Hwang’s debut feature Xiao Mei, a few facts are firmly established concerning its title character – she’s a young drifter with few friends who works at a clothing store and is saddled with a debilitating drug habit that requires her to wear diapers. Through the recollections of 9 people who had inter-actions with Xiao Mei, we receive subjective takes on her circumstances and personality, but since the veracity of these accounts is always questionable, keep coming back to the basic facts. As with the legion of films that have followed Akira Kurosawa’s Roshomon (1950) by exploring the relativism of truth, Xiao Mei purports that there is no one objective truth. Here, though, the banal, if undoubtedly tragic, scenario used to illustrate this oft made point eventually serves to undermine it.
Xiao Mei’s story is told in documentary style as a never seen filmmaker – voiced by The Great Buddha+ (2017) director Huang Hsin-yao – investigates the disappearance of the troubled woman. Seeking as much to establish the reason for her vanishing act as to ascertain her current whereabouts, the filmmaker interviews people who knew Xiao Mei some capacity. There’s her landlord (Chen Yi-Wen) who describes her as, “very shy, very polite” but nonetheless unleashes a seemingly never-ending complaint about the state she left her apartment in; a self-absorbed courier (Liu Kuan-Ting) who largely saw Xiao Mei as a pleasure object; the half-brother (Na Dow) who loaned her money; the hometown boyfriend (Wu Chien-Ho) who fell into drug abuse with Xiao Mei but managed to get his life together; the clothing store proprietor (Yin Shin) who hoped giving Xiao Mei a steady job would help her get clean; the cosmetics company manager (Laurence Chiu) whose interest may not have been entirely professional; the psychic (Chang Shao-Huai) who believes performing nighttime rituals can locate the missing addict; her mother (Samantha Ko) recalls the hardship of being a single parent while on a provincial train journey; and a wedding photographer (Wu Kang-Jen) who may have encountered Xiao Mei at a beach.
Applying the film-within-a-film approach to the kind of marginal citizen whose disappearance would receive little media attention in reality, let alone a documentary (a curious element that Hwang never addresses), Xiao Mei piques curiosity at the outset but interest (and sympathy) wanes as the story hits one dead end after another. As such, a full picture of Xiao Mei (played with winsome fragility in flashbacks by Jao Cincin) is never formed. Since we rarely see her in close-up and never see any events from her perspective, Xiao Mei becomes emblematic of the undereducated or directionless Taiwanese youth who have fallen by the social-economic wayside in a time of uncertainty.
Hwang has an extensive background in commercials, which works both for some of the vignettes assembled here. Certain segments benefit greatly from the way he is able to convey much about people and their environments with limited time and space. The best is the opener with the fastidious landlord discussing Xiao Mei while visiting a massage parlor, then back at the apartment building that had been left to him by his father who had moved to Taipei from Hong Kong. A sly commentary on how interviewers frequently have to humor interviewees in order to get the information they want, it finds the landlord talking as much about the challenges of his profession as he does about Xiao Mei while also showing off the martial arts moves that he learnt from his father. It’s while demonstrating his dexterity on the roof of the building, though, that he recalls an incident that provides an indication of Xiao Mei’s unstable mental state. The recollections of the heavyset half-brother, who is interviewed after he has finished his shift at an alleyway, restaurant provide the film with it’s most sincerely touching segment while also raising the issue of reliability as he doesn’t even remember at what juncture he left the education system.
After half a dozen interviews, the choice of format and level of detail applied to each segment by production designer Liao Kuo-Hui gives rise to the nagging feeling that Xiao Mei may be a red herring. Was Hwang’s real aim to craft a portrait of contemporary Taipei? Does the title character’s habitual rootlessness simply facilitate a link between people who are defined by domestic and professional spaces but mostly share a fundamental compassion? However, the latter segments make stylistic departures that enable Hwang to flaunt his versatility but cause the exercise as a whole to unravel – the film dives into ‘found footage’ thriller territory via a dash cam recording, mines supernatural eeriness, and even hints at a metaphysical dimension.
At its core, Xiao Mei expresses the truth about a certain rural-to-urban experience, but Hwang’s efforts to invigorate an underdeveloped narrative with bursts of showmanship lessen its emphatic qualities.
Xiao Mei is showing on November 11 at the San Diego Asian Film Festival.