Director: Huang Xi 黃熙
Studio: Mandarin Vision 華文創
Language: Mandarin 國語, Taiwanese 台語, Cantonese 粵語, English
Running Time: 104 minutes
Not Recommended. Some good ideas and moments are let down by a weak main character in this directorial debut by Hou Hsiao-hsien disciple Huang Xi.
In Taipei, we follow the lives of a few people who are all connected to one apartment. Xu Ziqi 徐子淇 lives on the top floor with her pet birds. She keeps on getting phone calls from a family asking to speak to Johnny, but she has no idea who that is. Li Li 李立 is the autistic son of the landlady, who spends his time reading old newspapers and wandering from place to place. And, Ah Feng 阿風 is a handyman, hired by the landlady to do various jobs for her.
Their lives intersect at various points. Li sees Xu carrying a box with what he suspects is a bird in it on the subway [ed. specifically banned on public transport in Taiwan!]. Xu denies it, but Li’s seen it before and he’s right. When she gets home Xu has a new bird to add to her pets.
But one day, one of Xu’s birds escapes out the window, and she recruits Ah Feng — working on her landlady’s property — along with Li to help her catch it.
From that day, she gets to know Ah Feng as he does various jobs around the apartment. Her relationship with her boyfriend is strained, as he suspects her of seeing another man whilst he lives in Taizhong, and after one argument she storms out of her apartment, taking refuge in Ah Feng’s car. A surprised Ah Feng brings her along to a gathering at his old teacher’s place. Ah Feng explains to Xu his parents divorced when he was young, and this teacher became a father figure to him. Xu then reveals that she actually has a daughter in Hong Kong, living with her grandparents.
Xu keeps on getting phone calls asking for Johnny. One time, from his mother, another time, from a whole group to wish him happy birthday.
Meanwhile, Li spends his day cycling around an underpass in the rain. When he returns home to his worried mother, we discover this is the spot his brother was killed in an accident. His mother doesn’t want him to go there, but it makes Li feel close to his brother.
It may seem that the plot summary is incomplete, but Missing Johnny is not a movie which lives on its story. The film is Huang Xi’s directorial debut, but she has a wealth of experience in Taiwanese cinema working for one of Taiwan’s foremost directors, Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢 — which would explain why Hou is the executive producer for this film. And she has certainly inherited Hou’s penchant for the subtle, preferring to tell a larger story through the lives of individuals, whilst not feeling any need for a clear resolution.
That is where the stylistic comparison should end, Huang does not share Hou’s love of the long take, and has her own style for framing shots. Her directorial style is pleasant, and we here are big supporters of Taiwanese cinema, so hope to see her continue to grow as a film maker.
Unfortunately, it is very hard for to recommend Missing Johnny. A slow pace, a look into the way every day events and interactions hide a deeper story — these are not things that turn us off. In fact they are films we often love. So, what’s wrong with Missing Johnny?
The number one issue is that we just don’t care about the main character, Xu Ziqi. It’s not the fault of actress Rima Zeidan 瑞瑪席丹, who does an okay job. She just has very little to work with, and what she does have makes Xu unlikable. She’s cold and distant, then we find out her daughter lives abroad. We don’t know why that is, and it’s not even hinted at. At one point she shouts at her boyfriend that he married someone for money; it’s never mentioned again.
This lack of information is a problem for other characters too, but none of them are the main character. They’re also not revealed to be nearly as flawed as Xu. Ah Feng is eminently likeable, and we can sympathise with his story. Li is autistic and his brother died. Xu is separated from her daughter…but why? Her boyfriend, who is seemingly married, pays for her to live the life she wants, yet she treats him terribly. Money certainly doesn’t buy love, but it also doesn’t buy scorn. We are given nothing to help us understand the dynamic.
Just as we could begin to form a connection with Xu as she makes friends with Ah Feng, the film ends. After the film, the director explained that this was because it felt like the best time to end the film, and in terms of length that’s hard to argue with. But it’s frustrating for an audience.
A grand statement in the Taipei Film Festival programme calls this a Millenium Mambo (Hou’s turn-of-the-millenium film about life in the city) for today. And the ideas are related; about the stories behind every person, and the distance between them in the big city. We liked the way Xu switches between English, Mandarin and Cantonese depending on the situation. The way she straddles so many places at once at least goes some way to explaining her mystery (and speaks to our own personal experience living in Taipei). The concept of the phone calls for Johnny (apparently inspired by real life) is also interesting; that there’s a window into another life in these calls.
Unfortunately, without the foundation, ideas can’t shine through. Hou’s films are not for everyone, but they are all built on character’s that you care about.
It is probably unfair to hold Huang’s first film up the lofty standards of Hou, despite his executive producer credit. There’s stuff to like in Missing Johnny, and it is after all a directorial debut, but its flaws are too glaring for us to be able to recommend it.
This review is from the world premiere, we will update if there is a home release.
You can watch the trailer below: