REVIEW: 'Looking for Kafka' Marks a Shaky Film Debut for Novelist Jade Y. Chen

REVIEW: 'Looking for Kafka' Marks a Shaky Film Debut for Novelist Jade Y. Chen
Credit: Youtube Screenshot

What you need to know

The film's confident style is kneecapped by an underdeveloped and unfocused story.

On IMDB, ‘Looking for Kafka’ (Aishang Kafuka / 愛上卡夫卡) is listed as ‘Kafka’s Lovers.’ Despite the evident technical competence on display, this ambivalence is manifested in the film’s self-identity as well. From first-time writer-director Jade Y. Chen (陳玉慧), a novelist from Taiwan, ‘Kafka’ oscillates between two different films, never deciding on one, thereby truncating necessary story details.

The first film is in the vein of recent Taiwanese films of whimsy, starting with ‘Cape No. 7’ (2008) and including ‘Au Revoir Taipei’ (2010) and '52Hz, I Love You' (2017). Pineapple (Jian Man-shu, 簡嫚書) designs props for a theater troupe putting on an abstract modern dance performance of Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ starring her ex-boyfriend, Lin Jiasheng (J. C. Lin, 林哲熹). The morning after Jiasheng’s current girlfriend, Julie (Julia Roy), arrives from Paris, he’s kidnapped by some gangsters to get his rich dad to pony up some dough. Pineapple takes Julie to search around for Jiasheng, while he in turn, er, waits for something to happen.

You can tell that the film isn’t going for naturalism because the kidnappers neglect to make a ransom call. Jian’s bubbly and upbeat performance (and creative hair) sets the tone, as Pineapple and Julie rather unhurriedly visit Jiasheng’s old haunts and past girlfriends (one of whom is played by Taiwanese transgender icon Kiwebaby, 張朵). It just so happens that each place they visit is representative of contemporary Taiwanese culture: coffee shop, nightclub, temple, and gazebo on a mountain trail – the unlikely location of Jiasheng’s guqin lessons. In one of the few highlights of the film, a visit to Jiasheng’s mother reveals her to be played by none other than Peking opera legend Wei Haimin (魏海敏), as a brain-addled version of herself forever convinced that she’s putting on a show. The film tries to avoid coming across as a tourism commercial by omitting things like travel routes and establishing shots, but the effect is to make each segment feel abstract and underdeveloped. A similar premise was much better developed in the Taiwanese film ‘The Most Distant Course’ (2007).

Jiasheng’s patience finally pays off as one of the gangsters (Yuki Daki, 大慶) steals him away from the others, and a car chase ensues. The chase is genuinely exciting thanks to Lee Chatametikool’s editing, with gunshots and drifting on mountain roads, but the tension is broken when an old cliché rears its head: The car runs into a roadside fruit stall. The gangster, an indigenous tribe member, takes Jiasheng to his tribal home (Yuki is of the Atayal tribe, and his tribe members play themselves) where, in another cliché, it’s revealed that he himself needs the money for his hemophiliac son (the film performs some plotting gymnastics to get around Taiwan’s universal healthcare). Pineapple and Julie get the money and exchange it for Jiasheng, who returns in time for his Kafka performance.

The second film explores the romantic triangle. Or at least it wants to. Nostalgic and melancholy sentiments are distilled in Pineapple’s voiceovers, originating sometime in the future. Chen’s novelist roots start showing here, as many of the voiceovers could’ve been more effective as flashbacks, or simply omitted altogether, especially near the end when Pineapple’s comments veer from trite to petulant: When Jiasheng is finally able to call Julie, Pineapple thinks, “He made a call, but not to me.” Yes, you’re his ex – what did you expect? And even when there are flashbacks, they tell us nothing of the relationship between Jiasheng and either of the women, instead presenting decontextualized sex scenes. Sure, Jiasheng and Pineapple clothed and wrestling in bed has a surprising intimacy, but it does little to convey the stakes of her search, or the jealousy-cum-curiosity of spending the day with Jiasheng’s current girlfriend. Julie, for her part, has no idea that Pineapple is Jiasheng’s ex, so Roy doesn’t have much to do aside from looking worried and, when listening in on Chinese dialogue, confused.

Credit: Youtube Screenshot
Jian Man-shu (R) and Julia Roy are caught in a love triangle in 'Looking for Kafka.'

The language barrier isn’t as problematic as one might think. Pineapple speaks passable English, and Jian’s English line deliveries are basically how she’d talk when speaking to a foreigner in real life. There’s an interesting scene where the women visit Jiasheng’s father; he wants to go to the cops, Julie doesn’t want to endanger Jiasheng, and Pineapple is caught in the middle, translating. But she’s a canny translator, expressing only the key points and leaving behind antagonistic language. It makes one think whether it’s not so bad to lose some things in translation.

The bug of Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ seems to be a central metaphor of the film, but a metaphor of what is uncertain. Much like that tale, adapted by the theater troupe into impenetrable formalist choreography, ‘Looking for Kafka’ has all the stylistic elements but little substance to animate them.

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Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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