Review: Chen Kuo-fu’s “The Personals”

In this lightly comic and ultimately poignant 1998 film from Taiwanese director Chen Kuo-fu, the city of Taipei is as much a character as the humans in the story. The film gives us a vivid sense of the loneliness that exists within the ultra-modern cityscapes of Taipei (an experience, of course, which is quite common to any large metropolis). The particular lonely woman who is this film’s focus is Du Jia-zhen (Rene Liu, a beautiful performance), an ophthalmologist who decides to put an ad in the personals to seek a husband. The film’s first image is of an eye, in extreme close-up during an examination. Chen reinforces these themes of sight and blindness throughout, both literally (a blind man responds to the ad, who turns out to be one of her patients), and figuratively, in the more general sense of human blindness to each other’s and one’s own motivations. Du, until late in the film, seems blind herself to her own reasons for placing the ad. It soon becomes clear that she isn’t seriously expecting a prospective husband to turn up during her interviews. She uses an alias (Ms. Wu) and leaves nightly messages to a former lover, recounting the details of her search.

Each of Du’s prospects is introduced with an on-screen title, detailing their name, age, and profession. The interviews mostly take place in restaurants and cafes, and they often seem to be the only people in the place, reinforcing the theme of isolation. The men are a colorful lot, to say the least. Du meets up with such curiosities as: a foot fetishist; a pimp; a personal defense salesman who eagerly demonstrates pepper spray and stun guns; a pinball enthusiast; a man who recounts in great detail his passion for excessive drinking and sadomasochistic pornography; a man who turns out to be procuring a wife for his father; and on and on. The camera mostly remains on Du’s face as the men speak, registering her often incredulous reactions to her dates’ antics, such as the pimp’s offer of employment, and his conviction that every woman is a potential whore. One of the few sympathetic males in this film is Du’s old college professor, whom she uses as a sounding board for her frustrations.

What elevates The Personals from being a simple conventional comedy about dating is the palpable sense of melancholy and grief at its core. Du is a deeply lonely person, and one suspects that part of her motivation in placing the ad is simply to have some company, since other than her suitors, we do not see her interact with anyone other than the professor, and a lady friend who turns up briefly to offer advice. Du’s emptiness is so profound it is not even filled when she finally finds someone she likes, and decides to sleep with him. After their lovemaking, the man slowly puts on his clothes while Du sobs in the bathroom.

Despite the film’s intense focus on Du’s character, the reasons for her actions and emotions remain mysterious until late in the film, when certain revelations occur which deepen our understanding of Du’s sadness. These revelations, while reminding us of her isolation, also provide an impetus for Du to break this cycle. The viewer is allowed to share in this as well. For most of the film, we are locked into her viewpoint, watching her encounters with her suitors as a fly on the wall, her intermittent voiceover letting us into her thoughts. However, the last words we hear come from another character, the man Du slept with, leaving an answering machine message expressing his wish to see her again. The man’s voice plays over the image of Du in a cab, with her own descriptive on-screen title, detailing her name, age, and profession. This puts her on common ground with the men she has encountered over the course of the film. It also suggests that she is in fact, not so isolated or different from them, since she, like them, is on a quest to connect with others, to stave off loneliness at least temporarily.