What you need to know
Perhaps "The Gangs, the Oscars, and the Walking Dead" shouldn't have been produced in the first place.
The key to a good joke is the timing. More generally, a joke is funny because of its delivery rather than the content. Canadian stand-up Norm Macdonald is famous for his hilarious execution, which gets people to laugh at things that they really shouldn’t laugh at. As a cishet man, I have the privilege of turning my brain off and enjoying the impeccable comic setups of the many queerphobic jokes in The Gangs, the Oscars, and the Walking Dead (“江湖無難事”). The undeniable humor of these jokes is a problem for the audience (including me), and an even bigger one for the film.
Gangs is about BS (Roy Chiu) and Wenxi (Huang Di-yang; the character’s name roughly translates to “bound to fail”), two childhood friends who decide to make a zombie movie. The production gets derailed, they run out of money, and they end up working for a mob boss (Lung Shao-hua). Their wedding video work for the Boss convinces him to finance their movie, with a proviso: The female protagonist, a pure and innocent high schooler who’s dating her teacher, must be played by his, um, lustful squeeze, Shanny (Eleven Yao). Soon after, she has a fatal disagreement with some poolside concrete. But the show must go on.
Director Kao Pin-Chuan displays a stylized mastery of filmmaking technique that’s a wonder to behold. He and his editor, Shieh Meng-Ju, have an almost preternatural sense of comic timing that amplifies every slightly awkward moment into a laugh-out-loud gag. The camerawork guides the events of the film: it alternates between energetic handheld shots that propel the narrative forward and static close-ups that allow momentous events to sink in. Better yet, cinematographer Garvin Chan lights even the darkest image just enough to make it comprehensible, something a surprising number of contemporary films fail to consistently do.
This exemplary technique, however, is used to paper over the film’s questionable sexual politics, slapdash plot, and presumptuous world-building. Unexpected events often happen to our two leads (and their accomplices), keeping them on their toes. But they often get away with their shenanigans only because the script (by Tsai Yi-Ho and Birdy Fong) declines to give us their comeuppance scenes. Or when it seems like they’re doomed for sure, the Boss suddenly does an about-face. It’s a series of comic set-pieces strung together with excuses.
The rickety plot transitions are often saved by Lung’s performance as the Boss. That the Boss is such a convincing character even when his actions make no sense is a testament to Lung’s versatile performance. He’s the one person who’s always in control of any situation, and Lung has a lot of fun with this power. The Boss makes most decisions on a whim, and his subordinates have no choice but to follow. He’s on top, and he’s enjoying the view. The film would have fallen apart if Lung had given a more rigid performance.
In the second half of the film, a drag queen (Chen Chia-kuei) plays a crucial role, but is also the source of the film’s queerphobia. With proper world-building, the homophobic and transphobic gags, which make up more than half the film, would more clearly be satirizing the fragile hypermasculinity of mob life. Instead, the world and characters rely on viewer foreknowledge, making the queerphobic gags a reflection of viewer anxieties, thereby creating audience camaraderie based on a shared sense of queerphobia.
Shanny’s characterization, as well, is misogynistic through and through, brief as it is. As if that weren’t enough, the screenwriters also have a seemingly throwaway crack at autism, which only later proves to be a weak explanation for a minor plot twist. The film also has trouble reaching for the obligatory heartfelt moments. A vague sense of through-thick-and-thin brotherhood is all we know about BS and Wenxi, and we only know that because up to a certain point they’re never in a scene without each other. When they are separated and yearning to be rejoined, we don’t feel the bond that gives depth to their separation. These scenes just feel like a drag.
Finally, since Gangs is ostensibly about two people making a film, you might wonder how it depicts the filmmaking process. Well, it doesn’t. The director looks into a monitor and there’s a crew running around, but all the nitty gritty is skipped over. The director’s monitor is treated as a WYSIWYG: What You See Is What You Get, no editing or camera placement required.
Kao has said that this film started life as a one-page joke treatment. It should've died there, too.
TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)
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